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Sep 16 2011

God damn it, smile!

Ah, perfect. Woman is out in the world on a bright sunny day, at the wheel of her car, and a guy in a van shouts out his window at her -

“Smile!”

With that one word my amiable Sunday-morning state of mind was
lost in a mushroom cloud of stranger-hate. What crime did I commit to warrant
attention from such a dolt (story of my life)? I was squinting in the sun.

See? See? See? This is what I’m saying. It’s exactly what I’m saying. I was just walking up the street, mind elsewhere, as one does, and as one is allowed to do, and some total stranger shouted at me for not smiling.

I am so pleased to find that I’m not alone in not liking strangers telling me how to arrange my face.

I know I’m not the only woman who has experienced the “Smile!”
phenomenon. Mention such an incident to any woman on the planet and prepare for a stream of obscenity-laden anecdotes and suggestive hand gestures.

In the top ten of female peeves it’s right at the top. I’d rather hear a frat boy scream, “show me your tits” than have one more middle-aged nincompoop command I say cheese in precisely the same spirit of “fun” that a movie cowboy pulls out a gun and tells the town drunk to dance.

(To be fair, I already knew I wasn’t alone in not liking strangers telling me how to arrange my face, not least via comments on that post. But it’s pleasing to see it treated as common knowledge.)

Weirdly, I’ve noticed these hyper-concerned male citizens aren’t exactly smiling when they offer up their unsolicited advice. In fact, they look pretty serious about their desire to see the world’s female population walk around with a goofy grin pasted on their faces.

Precisely. Angry neighbor guy was savage with his  unsolicited advice.

I can’t help but wonder if it’s that desire to see every woman behave as if she were ready, willing and able that’s behind the old “Smile” edict. I also think that the kind of man who yells it out is labouring under the impression that it’s a woman’s job to try and look pretty at all times and when she doesn’t he sees it as his civic duty to apply the corrective.

H/t Benjamin Nelson.

44 comments

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  1. 1
    Claire Ramsey

    You are absolutely correct of course, as you know. However it never hurts to raise this important point. The first time I remember being commanded to smile by a stranger was in jr high school when a man teacher came up to me, got in my face and said “You have such a pretty face. You’d be so pretty if you smiled.” And I thought, “You asshole, I am just about to faint from cramps, I’d like to rip your stupid intrusive face off.” Or something like that, translated to 8th grade vocabulary and level of courage. I cannot stand this behavior from men and I have never ever been commanded to smile by a stranger woman.

    God it pisses me off. If someone pulled that when I was driving I might be tempted to use my car as a weapon.

  2. 2
    daveau

    I still wish I could have seen that guy’s face when you laid into him.

  3. 3
    Arlene

    This has happened to be before, a man actually stood in front of me doing the footpath chicken dance and demanded I ‘smile’ as I walked into town from my home. In response I removed my ipod earphones (!) and said ‘My father died at 8:30 this morning. What the fuck would I have to be smiling about?’
    And then Mr Demanding flushed a really curious colour, mumbled something like an apology and climbed into his van. The jackass.
    Me, I put my earphones back into my ear, crossed Harold’s Cross bridge, and THEN I smiled.

  4. 4
    HumanisticJones

    My partner gets this all the damn time, I didn’t realize it was that widespread.

    So many places we go, she gets told to smile (standing in line waiting for drinks, random guy walks up to her “You’d be a lot prettier if you’d smile more”) or asked why she’s so upset. She has a face that just happens to downturn a bit in neutral mode. I personally see nothing wrong with the way her face normally is, She smiles when she has a reason to and I know what her actual Angry Face is. So I find myself getting indignant as well when people come to me about it.

    “Why’s she so upset?”
    “Huh? *see partner sipping a drink on the couch* She’s not upset.”
    “But this is a party and she’s just sitting there, not speaking to anyone, looking pissed off.”
    “One, she’s shy and doesn’t know half the people here. Two, maybe she isn’t talking to you because you haven’t started a conversation as you assume that any woman not grinning like a Stepford is pissed off.”

  5. 5
    James Kriewall

    I’m a usually rather poker-faced man & I get hit with the “smile!” command once in a while myself. It irritates the heck out of me too. I’m a bit surprised to see it described as something that men do to women – am I the only man that has had to put up with this?

  6. 6
    DK

    There’s nothing like a little street harassment to set me off…

    I lived in St. Louis for two years. I couldn’t go out in public without some idiot demanding that I smile (so I’d be more pleasant to look at, I assume), demanding that I let him give me a ride, demanding to know where I live, demanding to know why I’m pissed, demanding to know why I’m alone in public (I wish I were joking), demanding that I be more careful (“Somethin really wrong could happen to ya out heeeer”), and so on. It got to the point that I’d sneer at any man who looked like he was even remotely interested in talking to me when I was out in public, unescorted. I’d cross the street if I saw a man coming the other way. None of them said any of these things in a pleasant, welcoming, or otherwise innocuous tone. They made it clear that they wanted me to know that I was in their territory.

    I was most definitely not alone. Every single female friend and acquaintance experienced the same thing, day and night, while out in public and alone.

  7. 7
    ginmar

    I get told I’m too angry, and it’s often accompanied by tactics like this. The aim isn’t too make you feel better: it’s to make you look happy, so that anybody who looks at you doesn’t feel guilty or nervous. I had a guy pull this at work once and when I pulled the same gambit as above—-”My mother got murdered three days ago,” —-my boss tried to lay into me for it and I asked him to show me, as proof that it was gender neutral, one single beer commercial where it was used. Or something like that. He did back down, which probably saved his life. (I have to point out that this is sarcasm, because if there’s MRAs around they will accuse you of condoning violence against men.)

    It’s related to something I’ve had friends say—-which is why they’re no longer my friends. “We don’t want to get in the middle” is what they said when a mutual acquaintance did horribly unscrupulous things with my money when I was on active duty. We don’t want to feel guilty. We don’t want to think and disturb our comfy existence. If you’re going around with a look on your face that makes somebody think, they might actually feel bad, and because you’re a woman, you better be pleasant around any guy who happens to be around.

    People are especially quick to be unsympathetic to women who are reacting, or emotional, or whatever, due in part to the social stereotypes of women as being untruthful, emotional, exaggeration, hysteria, and so on. I think you get it all wrapped up in this one word, which is basically telling women to get over whatever it is, look pretty and happy for whatever moron that’s around.

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    James, I asked about that in the June post. No you’re not the only man, but it’s a lot less common.

  9. 9
    anthrosciguy

    I have been hearing about this problem from women for 40 years, and when I first heard cannot have been the first time it ever happened.

    Sometimes I say that these guys are great because it makes it so easy to look like a decent guy, but really I wish the bar was set a wee bit higher.

  10. 10
    sailor1031

    As a kid I used to get this a lot from my father – a guy with the worst temper I ever saw. It used to piss me off so bad, knowing that any response on my part would set him off. When I was ten or so I decided he wasn’t really my father at all, that there’d been some mixup at the hospital. After that whenever he said something I thought “you’re not my real father” and smiled. And he STFU.

    I’ve had it said to me a few times as an adult, sometimes by men, sometimes by women. Fuck all of them. I’ll smile when I’m good and ready and actually have something to smile about.

  11. 11
    Frogisis

    @ #5 James Kriewall
    No, I’m a dude and that happens to me too.
    It doesn’t bother me, though, because they’re only making themselves look like complete dorks, but also because it seems to come out of a “pay it forward” kind of mentality – Certain people are more often bombarded by and are more permeable to “inspirational” mass emails and similar detritus, and probably think “I’m gonna brighten somebody’s day, by golly!” and then remembering that meme about how just smiling can eventually make you feel good on its own, and no doubt thinking “Why, it’s a shame strangers can’t just talk to each other! When did we get so suspicious?” they awkwardly offer you something they think will be nice. That’s how it reads to me when I’m the target, anyway. At least it’s better than “Have a blessed day!”
    I imagine it’s different for women, though, for whom there’s a very sinister precedent behind any injunction to look or act a certain way, or to have your autonomy and full spectrum of emotions questioned or denied. As a dude, if I don’t feel like smiling I can just think “Well fuck you, buddy” without feeling like it’s another attempt by someone to exercise ownership of me, but saying that to some strange woman is completely oafish even with the best of intentions.

  12. 12
    raymoscow

    I think I smile habitually when I walk. Endorphins, I guess.

    It would piss me off if someone told me to smile, though. Smile your own damn self, asshole. I’m busy.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes but if you want to brighten somebody’s day and pay it forward and make the world a better place and so on – the way to do that is to interact with the people you encounter, in a responsive paying-attention calibrated way. That means leaving the people who are daydreaming or looking at the view or thinking alone and smiling at the people who are interaction-ready. It’s not that difficult!

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    And yes, what Frogisis said. It’s very…atavistic-feeling, being out in the world minding your own business and having some man suddenly tell you what to do. Very whiff-of-Taliban. Faint whiff, but still whiff. It’s as if, being a woman, you’re public property.

    That’s why I had to resist that guy. A lot of people told me off for resisting him, but that’s bullshit – he needed resisting.

    Shannon Rupp made a great comment about this at Facebook:

    “Smiling is a status marker among primates: the lower status animal does the smiling. Telling women to smile is actually telling us to be more deferential, to know our place.”

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    The comments on that Chatelaine article are revolting. One (apparently by a woman) said

    If you don’t want attention then don’t be noticeable. and If you are that miserable that a stranger notices it from there vehicle well just stay home.

    !!!!!!!!!!!! If I can’t look like Julia Andrews on speed I have to stay home!

    SIWOTI.

  16. 16
    skepticlawyer

    Brits of both sexes get the ‘smile!’ instruction a great deal in the US; I remember my first conference in Washington D.C. and wearing it continually on the metro. It was often coupled with strangers seeking to strike up conversation (something coded for ‘mental illness’ on the tube) with various of us.

    I must admit I often gave thanks that the Washington Post is such a large newspaper. It is excellent for hiding behind.

  17. 17
    Dhorvath, OM

    Why the hell does being present in public translate into “I have a right to interact with you and an expectation of specific response when I do.”? If someone is standing between you and an item at a store, sure, by all means say something to them, but when they are just walking along, leave them be. It’s not hard, there is no pressing need on their part for you to be involved in their life and there may be a host of different reasons that they don’t want their train of thought interupted. If you need to see smiles so frequently, carry a hand mirror.

  18. 18
    Smokey Dusty

    @James. I’m a poker faced male myself. My daughter’s friends call me The Terminator (behind my back of course). Seems to me a male with a poker face is treated quite differently. Strangers assume I’m some kind of bad ass and leave me alone. I reckon the different treatment counts as male privilege.

  19. 19
    feralboy12

    On the other hand, smiling does suppress the gag reflex.

  20. 20
    Dorothy

    This sort of thing is done by the ill-mannered, who think that they are ‘improving’ the world. It’s also insulting. My usual answer is “Why?”.
    If you really wish to spread a little happiness – try gentle complements – That dress is pretty. That colour looks good on you. Thank you for opening the door for me.
    And, especially to my hostess on this blog, my (now deceased) husband used to rave about the ideas on a blog called something about wheels or butterflies. I now have read enough to agree with him. Thank you for writing.

  21. 21
    Hamilton Jacobi

    A good way to respond to this is to imitate Sheldon Cooper’s psychotic leer from Big Bang Theory. Possibly while fingering the blade of a hunting knife.

  22. 22
    Ophelia Benson

    Dorothy – my goodness, thank you very much. (If your husband was Elliott – I still miss hearing from him.)

  23. 23
    Aliasalpha

    I’ve had a few people tell me to smile since I normally walk around with a determined scowl but not half as many as have shouted out of a moving car that I need to lose weight.

    Is it still illegal to kill people who tell you to ‘turn that frown upside down’?

  24. 24
    bad Jim

    I’m a guy, and I’ve heard that too, many times. Now that I shaved my beard for my 60th birthday it’s become clear why: my bare face, in repose, expresses disapproval or disgust. I’m ugly unless I smile.

    My beard’s growing back. What’s a woman to do? Plastic surgery to fix the mouth in a permanent grin?

  25. 25
    latsot

    There are a few other situations that elicit this sort of behaviour from strangers. I have two in mind.

    The first is from a few years ago, before everyone spent so much time fiddling with their phones. I travelled a lot with work. I used a laptop or other device almost all the time. Several times a week I was harangued by someone who thought I’d be better off not using a laptop. I didn’t encourage interaction (I was working) but lots of men and sometimes women took it upon themselves to tell me I was doing life wrong. If you use a laptop, they said, you cut yourself off from interaction with the world and from appreciating its beauty. Before lifting their newspapers around their faces for the next hour. What business my working habits were to these people, I’m still unable to say. Why they felt so satisfied with the good they imagined they’d done by educating the poor misguided fool is also a mystery.

    The second is more infuriating. I’m male and if I’m struggling to park in a tight space, nobody bats an eyelid. If my wife is in the same situation, a whole GANG of men will congregate and offer advice. They’ll indicate with hand signals how she should steer and even stand in the spot to guide her in. If she suggests that they could help rather more if they simply fucked off and left her to it, they act as though she’s done something terribly offensive, even though she never wanted or needed any help in the first place. I’ve watched this happen. I got the impression that they *really* wanted to get into the car and park it for her because they’d already decided she wouldn’t be able to do it.

    She’s a perfectly competent driver and certainly better at getting into difficult parking spots than I am, yet nobody has ever offered me advice.

  26. 26
    Sergio Mojica

    The problem with this article is that it assumes women are equal to men, when clearly they are not

  27. 27
    Sergio

    ^ The above comment (#26) was not posted by me, but someone deciding to use my real name to stupidly troll this thread. I apologize.

  28. 28
    latsot

    @Sergio

    What an odd thing for someone to do. It makes me wonder whether anyone would be able to tell my actual comments from those of someone posing as me. I’d probably better say fuck in case anyone thinks it’s not really me.

  29. 29
    AndrewD

    Another meaningless comment here in the UK is,”Cheer up, it may never happen”. My reply is normally “I did and it did”(Think about it)

  30. 30
    Aquaria

    I have one response that I use on these numb nuts who say “Smile” or tell me I’m not doing my life according to their expectations:

    “I’m a total sociopath who is right now thinking of just how I can stab you to death, chop you into little bitty bits, and then feed you to my cats. Oh–wait, I’m not, but, someday, you will say something so fucking rude and stupid to the wrong person, and I won’t feel too badly for what will come after it. Fuck off.”

    And then people RUN from me.

  31. 31
    Ophelia Benson

    I don’t think either of those Sergio commenters was actually a Sergio Anything; both seem to be playing games. The “women are not equal” one was posted by someone with an edu address though, which is slightly weird.

  32. 32
    Ophelia Benson

    What’s a woman to do? Plastic surgery to fix the mouth in a permanent grin?

    Don’t think I haven’t thought about it!

  33. 33
    Dorothy

    Ophelia –
    If someone accosts you with a demand that you “smile!” the only appropriate answer is “Fuck off!”.
    It isn’t an attempt to make the world better, (I gave those examples earlier), it’s bullying. And it needs to be dealt with.
    If you are a lovely woman, which I must assume you are,simply from your ideas, or just the appocrophal(sp.) grammy I am – short, squat, stumpy and built like a fire hydrant, albeit with the potential of cookies – my answer is the most effective. It shocks and repels most and the occasional semi-intelligent idiot who takes umbrage can be explained to, briefly.
    From my point of view, the command to “Smile!” is an inappropriate comment. I shall frown if I wish to. They don’t have to look if they don’t like the scenery.

  34. 34
    Dorothy

    by the way, why does your system state that I posted at 4:30 when it’s 7:30 here. Are you in Pacific Standard Time? None of my business, I just thought it was strange.

  35. 35
    Ophelia Benson

    Dorothy – well exactly – although I would say there are perhaps only two appropriate responses, the other being the one I resorted to a few months ago: asking “why would you say that?”

    The result was a heated exchange, but that’s what I wanted – I’ve walked away from things like that and regretted it afterwards, so this time I decided for once not to regret afterwards, and make clear exactly what I thought. I did that. It was very satisfying.

  36. 36
    hermionesotter

    It’s interesting to know how widespread this practice is.

    “Cheer up love, it’s not that bad” hasn’t happened to me for a while now, but it used to on a regular basis.

    The horde of men giving parking directions as mentioned in #25 has also occurred with me now I’m driving. Also, once just after passing my test I scraped the left side of my car trying to reverse out of my drive, and a man unknown to me who just happened to be passing came over specifically to say “Do you realise you’ve just scraped your car?” in an irritable tone.

    Another delightfully regular occurrence due to my size is “fat bitch” being shouted at me by young men passing in cars while I’m walking; thankfully I’m less likely to be walking round places where this might happen now.

    I suspect that a reply such as “and just what the f**k does it have to do with you?” or some variant would suffice for all of the above.

  37. 37
    Claire Ramsey

    In Mexico, Americans are known and derided for slapping foolish inappropriate grins on our faces. Smiling all the time suggests we are not genuine, we are disrespectful, we are ignorant and don’t understand the world, and that we are oppressive intrusive and falsely friendly. Yet another reason to avoid going about smiling all the time for no good reason.

  38. 38
    Ophelia Benson

    Plus it’s especially odd to smile while driving. I mean you don’t normally interact face-to-face with other drivers – you don’t normally even see what expressions they have on their faces, nor do they see yours. What kind of lunatic wears a social smile WHILE DRIVING?

    It’s madness, I tell you.

  39. 39
    James Sweet

    @James #5: Yeah, as Ophelia mentioned, when this came up before it was definitely discovered that forcible grinnification is not an exclusively male-on-female act. Unlike Ophelia, I’m not yet 100% fully convinced it’s even primarily a male-on-female thing, though it does seem at least plausible that it is (from the comments it seemed virtually all women had experienced it multiple times, while it was more mixed with the men). OTOH it may just be that it comes across as more galling, or that it has nastier overtones in that case. (“Look pretty for me, woman!”)

    In any case, whether this is a gender-related issue or not, it’s annoying. You can’t do something so personal as to command someone to smile if you don’t know them, yeesh.

  40. 40
    latsot

    @latsot #28: Not really, it would require moderator intervention (i.e. Ophelia checking that the e-mail addy and/or IP matches). In this case, you can kinda tell it is being faked because I will not have your little octopus icon, but it would have been trivial to fake that as well — I just don’t feel like creating a throwaway GMail account just so I can create a one-off fake account on FTB for the purposes of this dumb demonstration.

    But yeah, nobody can really tell without the moderator checking.

  41. 41
    latsot

    @40: Sure, I’m aware of that, but my point was really to joke about the idea that someone would want to pretend to be me, say something stupid and whether anyone would notice that I was saying something more stupid than usual.

    I’ve seen people masquerade as regular commenters in forums before and it just strikes me as a very odd thing to do.

  42. 42
    Ophelia Benson

    The Sergio thing was especially random because I’m not aware of any Sergio, so why anyone would bother to pretend to be…oh never mind. The second Sergio was probably just making a silly joke.

  43. 43
    Sara

    My husband is currently dealing with a work situation that started with this issue. He hired a competent, highly-recommended woman for a available position in his department.

    One of the men in the building decided during her first week on the job that this new employee was “A bitch.” And went around telling everyone this. Before he’d exchanged more than “good morning” with her.

    Why? When asked, his only justification for trying to blacken her name to everyone in the building was “Well, she doesn’t smile at me in the hallway.”

  44. 44
    Ophelia Benson

    Yikes.

  1. 45
    Men make lousy feminists |

    [...] and porn on their terms. It’d be the end of sexist language. The end of telling women to smile. The end of sexual harassment. I’m starting to get excited, y’all. It’d be the [...]

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