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Dec 28 2011

My Facial Expression is None of Your Business

I am not a cheerful person. I don’t wear my happiness on my face, and I do not consider it my moral duty to brighten the day for perfect strangers.

I am an introvert despite the fact that I’m usually pretty friendly and sociable when spoken to. Most of the time, I inhabit a world that nobody really knows. When you see me sitting still with a facial expression that is technically neutral but that many would characterize as “glum”, I’m actually anything but. Usually I’m making up music, writing my next blog post, planning out my love life or my career, or analyzing people I know, all silently in my mind.

But most people don’t bother to ask what I’m doing that’s taking up so much of my attention that I haven’t bothered to plaster a smile onto my face for others’ benefit. Instead, they assume.

And so it begins. “What are you looking so miserable about?” “What’s wrong with you?” Or, simply, “Smile!”

Some of these responses are passive-aggressive attempts to chastise me for not doing my womanly duty to keep everyone around me happy at all times. Others are genuine attempts to understand me, or genuine concern that I might be in a bad mood.

What they all have in common, though, is the shared assumption that underlies them–that there is something “wrong” with my facial expression and that this fact is anybody’s business but mine.

It’s not only people that I choose to associate with who claim the right to dictate what should be on my face. What woman hasn’t walked down a city street, perhaps on the way to work or to run errands, and encountered a random man yelling at her to “Smile!” or “Put a smile on that beautiful face!”?

Such remarks, which feminists call “street harassment” and most non-feminists call “a compliment,” represent the most glaring and offensive of non-physical intrusions into a person’s private self. My facial expression is even less the business of a total stranger on the street than it is of a person who does know me.

(Speaking of feminism, my inner feminist compels me to ask: how often are men publicly berated for the arrangement of their facial features? Quite the contrary, moody, brooding men are often considered very sexually appealing in that mysterious way. A moody, brooding woman, on the other hand, is usually called “difficult” euphemistically, or just “a bitch” if we’re really being honest.)

This issue is intimately related to something I wrote about just recently, on the concept of Debbie Downers and how sad or negative people are constantly accused of “bringing people down.” In contrast, this situation is even more absurd because the facial expressions in question usually aren’t even negative; they’re just neutral. They’re just missing that socially mandated smile. But if you read my argument for why people shouldn’t allow themselves to be “brought down” by “Debbie Downers,” you’ll see that it applies just as well for those of us who, for whatever personal reason, choose not to go about grinning like maniacs.

Furthermore, lest anyone attempt to feed me platitudes about how people who concern themselves with my facial expression are just worried about my mental wellbeing, let me ask you this: when you’re concerned about someone, do you ask them privately if everything’s okay, or do you draw attention to them in a group setting and demand to know why their face looks the way it does?

(For the sake of your friends, I hope you choose the former.)

What strikes me as most ironic about all of this is that, for all the constant blather I hear about how the unappealing configuration of my face means I’m “selfish” and “don’t care” that I’m “upsetting” people and whatnot, I’ve chosen a life that’s infinitely more helpful to those around me than many other possibilities. I’m going to be a therapist, which means that, yes, it’ll be my actual job to help people feel happy. If that’s not more important than my transient facial expression, I honestly don’t know what is.

Moral of the story (or tl;dr, for my fellow internet nerds): If you don’t like what my face looks like, don’t fucking look at it.

An example of my neutral facial expression. No, it is not a personal insult to you.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    carney

    It’s more difficult for women, especially young women. As if melancholia is subversive, or unsightly, like a hairy wart. But men hear about it, too. I’ve had relentlessly cheerful people become offended because their attempts to ellicit a smile have failed. A time or two I’ve snapped at people: “So I have diminished affect. Bite me.” This is counterproductive, however.

    Your neutral, mask-free look is quiet, still, introspective; don’t change a thing.

  2. 2
    Mados

    I see the ‘smile!’ comment as an insecure’s person’s attempt to take charge over another person who they don’t understand. The comment expresses frustration about not knowing what goes on in the ‘sfinx-like’ person’s mind, and a perception of having the right to know, of having the right to be invasive.

    I immediately categorise people as annoying if they comment on my facial expression/appearance or anything else in an invasive manner, and stop talking them seriously.

    1. 2.1
      Ben S

      I’ve also assumed, since my teens, that people who bother me about my expression are motivated by insecurity. mostly.
      I wouldn’t be surprised if more females than males get this crap, but my pre-10 years were a long list of people (teachers, strangers, other children, my parent’s friends, etc, etc) telling me to smile! or asking me what was wrong with me. Sigh.
      As a result, I worked like a dog through my teens and twenties to appear like a smiling madman, completely impaired in this respect by my (then undiagnosed) autism. Now, twenty years later, I’m deconstructing all this fakery from my habits, and trying not to feel too bad for ever trying to resemble a regular person.
      “My face just LOOKS LIKE THAT when I’m thinking! You should try it sometime!”
      This response was not helpful either.

      1. 2.1.1
        Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

        Yeah, sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if the people making these comments have ever tried just sitting still and thinking about something. I’m not sure that they have.

        1. 2.1.1.1
          Ben S

          Now that I’m old, tall and wide, I find that I don’t get these comments any more from strangers. My friends and family know better.

          1. Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

            I think part of the reason for that (aside from that people know you better and are probably more respectful, too) is that there’s this idea that young people ought to/can be gleefully happy at all times, and if they’re not, something is wrong with them.

            I obviously disagree with that, and know plenty of young people who are often quiet and thoughtful even though they don’t have depression like I do.

          2. Mados

            You might be right about that. Actually I haven’t got any comment on my facial expressions for many years. But now I get ‘Do you like it?’ (place/food/whatever) a lot, which can also be stressing when asked very frequently (let me experience it first, then reflect about it, and then I can tell whether I like it…later).

          3. Ben S

            There were times when I was happily engrossed in my whatever I had just discovered, or something I was contemplating, but my face had no expression. As a result, I went overboard on the ensuing years, trying to make eye contact (like a frickin laser beam though), making my face move, because i was tired of being picked at, and tired of standing out for something that I could control. It has its own problems, altering myself like that, but while I was pretty feisty, I got worn down, may not have had your chutzpah.

          4. Mados

            Hello Ben, what you write ‘rings a bell’ … I had a similar smile strategy when I was young, and it didn’t work either. Since I was insecure about when and how much was appropriate to smile, and since I had probably taken the ‘smile’ comments a bit too serious earlier on; I constantly smiled when I talked to people and looked straight into their eyes at all time. It was mesmerising… conversations were sort of agitating and paralysing, I wasn’t able to relax and always ended up feeling confused, stressed and agitated, and then people left…. I probably stressed them even more than I stressed myself with my starring, tense behaviour and relentless stiff smile:-)

            But it was simply because I wasn’t sure when the right time to take the ‘breaks’ in eye contact and smiling, plus, I had learned from home the virtues of looking happy (to avoid to worry others and get intrusive comments) and keeping constant eye contact to show interest and connection. Conclusion: even if some people prefer that kind of body language, it isn’t worth the stress and exhaustion that comes with it…

            Miriam, I guess I didn’t have your coolness to simply say ‘stuff it’ and do what felt right rather than what I thought others wanted…

          5. Ben S

            Mados,
            your description made me laugh a little. so accurate. I did eventually get better at it, and felt more relaxed when I had to perform, but like I mentioned earlier, I feel there was a cost, a tab I’m picking up now.
            The sorts of reactions we both have to this are fairly common among people with asperger’s syndrome (me) and/or introverted (also me). Introversion has a colloquial meaning that is a little different from it’s technical definition, and is just a personality type, and as valuable as the extrovert, if currently unfashionable. Also, introversion doesn’t mean ‘not social’ or ‘doesn’t want friends’, just that energy is gotten from being alone, rather than from outside one’s self.

          6. Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

            Oh, I hope I haven’t given off the impression that I’ve ALWAYS been able to just flip everyone the bird like this. It took me a long time to learn how to do that, and in fact, I’m still learning every day.

          7. Mados

            Thanks for your reply Ben; I am glad the situation has ended up a slightly amusing memory. Because back then, I thought I’d never learn it.

            I also like your description of the introvert personality type as

            doesn’t mean ‘not social’ or ‘doesn’t want friends’, just that energy is gotten from being alone, rather than from outside one’s self.

            I agree. I am introvert too, and it doesn’t mean that I am not social – or that I am afraid of saying my opinion or take co-responsibility in a group. I just, as you say, ‘get my energy’ from solo activities and reflections, and need a lot of time by myself, concentrating. Social events drain my energy and don’t offer me much of interest.

          8. Mados

            Miriam,

            You do come across as a person who is quite capable at ‘flipping everyone the bird’. (very amusing expression! not quite sure precisely what it means, but I figure it is about being uncanny and self confident!)

            And well done for being able to do so now!

            I didn’t expect that you were born with all the capabilities you have now… You appear to be a person who likes to develop and who has probably moved a lot since you were young.

            Actually, it sucks to be young… Youth is shamelessly overrated. Luckily most people have come a long way once they reach a mature age and have learned strategies to overcome the misery they were stuck in when they were young and had to pretend to be relentlessly happy and dynamic.

  3. 3
    Rachel A. Hanson

    It also frustrates me quite a bit when people comment on my facial expression. But what honestly frustrates me more (although they are pretty close) is when people will take me aside to ask what’s wrong or if anything is bothering me and then don’t believe me when I say “Nothing is bothering me.” As someone who suffers from SAD (and it gets worse as I get older, boo!) I will often feel sad or “in a funk” but there’s not actually a quantafiable reason why I’m sad. It just exists and I’m trying to cohabitate as peacefully as possible with my feelings untill they leave.

  4. 4
    Mados

    Actually I like this bit a lot:

    When you see me sitting still with a facial expression that is technically neutral but that many would characterize as “glum”, I’m actually anything but. Usually I’m making up music, writing my next blog post, planning out my love life or my career, or analyzing people I know, all silently in my mind.

    because it points to what is bad about the ‘cheerful’ comments: they break the concentration, and the ‘right’ to concentrate introspectively.

    1. 4.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Yes, exactly. I guess people automatically feel offended that they’re not getting my full attention or something, but honestly, most people aren’t interesting enough to get my full attention. I know that sounds presumptuous, but it’s simply true.

      1. 4.1.1
        Mados

        Heh:-) Actually the majority of people who come with that kind of comments aren’t interesting at all. And that might be why they persuade themselves that it is OK to interrupt others’ concentrated look to get attention. They might think that ‘this person is available’ (=doesn’t talk to anyone else right now) ‘and ought to give me attention. Why not? because I am boring? No way!’

  5. 5
    Laura

    Agreed. I think every dance/concert/other social event I attended in middle school or high school with a group of girlfriends was punctuated with comments such as, “look like you’re having fun!” I know it was well-meant, but my default facial expression is not a grin. Even when I’m enjoying myself.

  6. 6
    broadsideblog

    Hell, yeah. It’s rude to tell anyone how to arrange their face and it is common.

    I never assume anyone looks serious for any reason but their own…maybe their mother/dog just died, or maybe they got some really shitty news. It’s no one’s business what’s going in our heads.

    It *is* a problem for me when I go on job interviews because I don’t do a lot of smiling to reassure people…I look almost angry when I am really concentrating on someone’s words and that puts them off. Oh well!

  7. 7
    pissedoffwoman

    Oh yeah, I got that BS all. the. time. while living in NYC. Having a mental health “record” exacerbated the annoyance in my case, as it became another instance of strangers “diagnosing” me with “problems”. (Interestingly enough, I got told to smile way more when I was calm and slightly sleepy than when I was actually depressed.)

    Sometimes I would just ignore them or say “fuck you” while quickly walking by, but if I had a few minutes to spare I would use this technique: go up to the guy (it’s nearly always a guy), stare right into his eyes, like a death stare, and tell him, “Stick out your tongue.” Keep on staring until he does…he will. Then give the asshole a big smile and tell him, “Since you think you can tell me what to do with my face, I guess that means I can tell you what to do with your face.” They’ll get the message.

    PS Miriam, I actually do think your facial expression looks “very sexually appealing in that mysterious way”…but then again I’ve always been a sucker for moody brooders…

    1. 7.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Wow, that would be quite a deterrent. I’ll try it sometime.

      I’m glad you like my facial expression! I’m sure we would be great friends in real life as you would not be offended by the mere sight of my face.

  8. 8
    Autumn

    The first time a stranger told me to smile, I was charmed. Same with the second time, and the third. And then I started to realize it wasn’t a nice gesture to me, to Autumn, who might have looked sad one day and who looked like she could use a little cheering-up; it was a directive to me, specifically as a young woman, to do as I was fucking told to do. It’s notable that no female stranger has ever told me to smile, and that I’ve talked with men about this and they’ve never had a stranger tell them what to do with their face, but that every single woman I know has had this happen. It’s gotten less as I’ve gotten older, but still.

  9. 9
    Devon Cones

    im not going to lie, wow you are really beautiful, and to get back on the topic i get that alot to, people are always saying underneath there breath why does he look so serious or angry, and the only thing that bugs me is the fact of why do they care, everyone in this world looks differently,so y why be so judgemental, it takes a smart, caring individual to have a heart. but really girl your ammmazing just the way yooouuu arrrrree!!!!!

  1. 10
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