Public property

I was on a bus a couple of hours ago; a woman got up to be ready to get off at the next stop, and a guy sitting in one of the face-sideways seats started hassling her for not smiling. “Everyone else is smiling but you!” he informed her.

Nuh uh. I wasn’t, for one. I think there were others who weren’t.

He went on grumbling at her – sort of “joking” but in a pain in the ass way. She was certainly not amused.

It just reminded me, yet again, how odd it is the way women are considered a kind of public property, subject to being told what facial expression to have by total strangers and then hassled if they don’t comply. It would be so odd to do that to a man, but to a woman? Meh – it’s maybe a little rude, but it’s normal.



  1. says

    I’d love to see her imitate the actor from the new Evil Dead movie. She looks at him and lights up –suddenly happy– and softly says to him, “i’m going to eat your soul.”

  2. CJO says

    There was graffiti in Oakland recently with the slogan and the second face from the left in that image. Weird to see it in this context too. It was right by a freeway on ramp where tens of thousands of people would have seen it daily.

  3. Andrew B. says

    Reminds me of something Frank Zappa said in an interview when another guest made a similar comment. He said “Why would I smile when I’m sitting here with you?”

  4. yazikus says

    Either I’ve gotten older or I’ve perfected my ‘bitchy resting face’ (as the kids call it these days) because this hasn’t happened to me in years. I almost wish someone would say something like that to me these days, so I could retort with something like “Fuck you, I’m not your fucking monkey”.

    The entitlement of thinking that you can dictate someone’s facial expression is staggering. I think it gets worse for women when they are pregnant, too, suddenly people feel free to touch them, enquire into their reproductive habits and offer unsolicited advice.

  5. says

    I have been getting that for years when out in public and 98% of the time it is from men. Including male siblings who want nothing to do with me.  Why?  Because even after finding out I was not suffering from “just depression” -apparently they failed to notice I’d been sick since we were kids – and even after finding out a couple years ago the root cause of my many health issues, including severe chronic pain 24/7 for the last 25 years – was actually MS the doctors had missed for decades, they still don’t care enough to educate themselves – or even listen to me explain it.  One even went so far as to tell me to suck it up, smile and stop crying so much!  (Never mind that crying alot with little or no reason is and actual condition common with people who have MS.  But he wouldn’t know that, because first he’d have to shut up and listen.)

    It’s sad and does still hurt, but I’m just as happy to cut them out as well, because I can’t take any more of their verbal or emotional abuse.

    I’m the one who helped our Dad look after our disbled mother for 35 years, no matter how sick I got, right up until she died in ’09, and then they fully exposed just how big of misogynistic pigs they really are, I’m better off without them.  The weird part is, the most obnoxious one – who told me to suck it up and smile more – is gay, loves to dress in drag and kept referring to himself as my sister.  Guess what, Sis, the woman who raised us and the ones I call my friends, judge people based on their actions & how they treat others, not how they look, what they have, their sexual orientation, what they wear, what they do for work, and certainly not something as trivial as the expression – or lack thereof – on their face!  And that includes my LGBT friends and bi-sexual daughter!

    Look, I don’t go around being miserable and refusing to smile.  But if pain, or the crushing fatigue, or any number of other symptoms from my MS and/or bucket load of other medical issues are getting to much too cope with and I can’t hide them on my face anymore, it does look like I’m either in a bad mood or my face lacks any expression whatsoever.  But how much time I get to spend outside my house is already extremely limited, so who are others to tell me what my expression should be?  Or, as has happened several times over the years…total strangers walking up to me and actually screaming – sometimes right in my face, spit and all – to tell me I need an attitude adjustment, and should be gratefully for the “obviously healthy body” I have!

    Is there some law I don’t know about, that says anyone with a disease or other medical condition which has “invisible symptoms,” that says we have to wear a sign or something to avoid harrassment?  I dread the dead I’ll need a scooter…and it’s not far off…I saw the cruelty inflicted on my mother for years, first with her crutches and later with a scooter too.

    Of course thiis only happens when I am completely alone.  If I’m with a friend or my husband, no-one says a damn word.  And when it my husband with a blank, sad or angry face, no-one says a damn word to him!

    Sigh.  I’m sick to death of people arrogant enough to think they can assess a diagnose total strangers based solely on their expression.  If you do give them a few words in an attempt to diffuse the situation and get away, they launch into one of two modes:

    One:  They get even more agressive and proceed to tell you about people they know ot have heard of, that have it *so much WORSE than I “obviously” do,* and yet “they stay positive and smile through the pain!  Many say it’s now “my job” to be an inspiration for others!

    Two:  They calm down but proceed to recite all the magical cures they’ve heard of.  And start listing of celebs who are living with “devestating” illness and just look at what *THEY* accomplish!

  6. jenBPhillips says

    For the most part, I have finally aged out of being the target of that sort of behavior, which I’m finding extremely liberating and empowering, largely because as I’m no longer guarding so carefully against having it happen to me, I am at liberty to observe it happening to others, and sometimes in a position to do something about it. Sometimes ‘something’ just means making sympathetic eye contact with the woman who has been harassed, but occasionally it means engaging with the harassers a little bit.

    I was walking alone on a busy sidewalk in Orlando recently. Pedicab drivers (you know, those bicycle rickshaw thingumys) were positioned on every block trying to drum up business. Two women (not that it matters at all, but I saw by their lanyards that they were cowgirls, too professionals attending the same conference that I was) were walking together just in front of me, deep in conversation. I had a perfect vantage point to observe the pedicab driver give his shiniest “Hey, hey, ladies, can I give you a ride?” as they passed. They didn’t glance his way and continued their conversation, at which point he snarled at them “Yeah, reeeeaaaal nice talking to you, too, sweethearts”, only ‘sweethearts’ came out sounding a lot like ‘bitches’.

    One of the women cast her eyes back at him, startled and apologetic, at which point I stood directly in front of him and said “Hey! They do NOT owe you their attention”. He blinked at me and probably realized that I was pissed enough to call his company if he didn’t drop it, so he just waved and pedaled off. Never saw the girls again, but hoping they’ll pay it forward when they reach that certain age.

  7. Omar Puhleez says

    : “Everyone else is smiling but you!” he informed her.

    A number of possible responses in this game.

    1. You’re right.
    2. You’re damned right! I’m not smiling.
    3. You’re damned right! I’m not fucking smiling!
    4. You’re damned fucking right! I’m not fucking smiling!
    5. 1, 2, 3, and 4 (above) in rapid succession.
    6. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 (above) in slow and deliberate succession.
    7. Repeat 5 and 6, then go to 1 and repeat 1-7.

  8. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    “Everyone else is smiling but you!” he informed her.
    “They haven’t heard the news then, have they?”

    A model for public attitudes:

    ‘On a fine sunny morning in the mid-1960s Samuel Beckett was walking to Lord’s Cricket Ground across Regent’s Park. He had travelled to London from Paris specially for the test match between England and Australia, staying with the publisher John Calder at his house behind Wigmore Street. John Gibson, an Irish director in the BBC radio department, remembered how enthusiastic the playwright was about the green trees, the birds singing, the company of good friends, the beautiful blue sky. At this someone remarked, “Yes, on a day like this it’s good to be alive.” To which Beckett replied: “Well, I wouldn’t go as far as that!”‘

  9. says

    I hate when people tell me to smile when I’m not in the mood. It makes me feel like I have to hold an artificial expression that I’m by no means In the mood for. Why do some people think that telling me to smile will make me happy? It makes no sense.

  10. lpetrich says

    I’m male, and I don’t like to smile. I don’t even smile for pictures. I’ve gotten away with that for most of my life, however.

  11. Omar Puhleez says

    ‘I was on a bus a couple of hours ago; a woman got up to be ready to get off at the next stop, and a guy sitting in one of the face-sideways seats started hassling her for not smiling. “Everyone else is smiling but you!” he informed her.’
    He had some desire to remake the world in his own image, whatever that was. In other words, as a fully qualified control freak, he was on a power trip. The last thing one should do is accommodate such a person’s wishes and give them the sort of response they might be seeking. It just slows down their recovery from their affliction.
    So what sort of response would he least want? Maybe ask him directly what that might be. Loudly.

  12. hoary puccoon says

    I’ve never gotten “you should smile,” probably because I actually do smile quite a bit. But I’ve had more than one complete stranger tell me I should stop having cerebral palsy! (Yeah, because I decided in utero CP would be so much fun.)

  13. sonofrojblake says

    Anecdote =/= data but:

    I get this at least once a week, usually from work colleagues. And at least once a month from strangers on the street.

    I am a forty five year old man. Can I be in the logo and can we change the title to “Stop telling PEOPLE to smile”?

    Even better can we have “Stop just randomly talking to people whose facial expression should make it obvious really, really don’t want you to”? Forced bonhomie from strangers feels like bullying. No, I won’t “cheer up”, and while “it might never happen” to you, it already happened to me when you open your purulent fucking mouth.

  14. says

    son of – well, no, we can’t, because that would be a different subject. And I just don’t buy that it’s equally routine and “normal” for women and men.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    that would be a different subject

    It would be precisely the same experience happening to me, frequently, as the incident related in the post. But it would be a different subject because… testicles? OK. /shrug/ I guess I do just have to “suck it up” and get used to it.

    I just don’t buy that it’s equally routine and “normal” for women and men

    Nice strawman. I explicitly and in the very first line acknowledged that my lived experience of this bullshit does not equate to any kind of trend. I did not say and absolutely did not imply that it was “normal” for men. I said it was “normal” for ME. I know ANECDOTALLY that I am not the only man who has to put up with this annoying shit. On the basis of what actual data (i.e. not anecdotes) do you base your “not buying it” position?

  16. shari says

    I asked my husband for his point of view, and he said he doubted there was much difference. He’s had a huge number of people feeling totally ok telling him to Stop smiling so much.

    They usually added that he smiled like the joker.

    But his situation has more to do with how acquaintances (mostly male, come to think of it) talk to you, than how strangers do. Regrettably, it bothered him enough that he doesn’t smile as much as he used to, and I miss it. But he’s the only anomaly i can think of – I may have to quiz my less-startling looking male neighbors!

  17. shari says

    On the other hand, I’ve also seemed to have aged out of this (or perhaps just spend the bulk of my time in the suburbs), but now have more snappy comebacks at my disposal if I ever witness or experience again.Thx, comment section!!!

  18. quixote says

    FSM, yes! This whole post and most of the comments. I’m feeling in good company because apparently I channel Zappa when that crap happens. “What? Smile? When I have to look at you?”

    But what I really got here to say is off topic. I like the new look!

  19. says

    sonof – well it depends on whether you were joking or serious with “Can I be in the logo and can we change the title to “Stop telling PEOPLE to smile”?”

  20. sacharissa says

    Most frustrating thing is that men usually do this to me when I’m thinking so I don’t think of a suitable response at the time. I should add that women sometimes do this as well. Like some of the above commenters, I’ve had problems with my health that aren’t visible so usually it happens when I’m mentally exhausted.

    I was once in a hospital waiting room and the man opposite me sad “Smile”, in a tone of voice that suggested that I was really upsetting him by not doing so. For all he knew I could have just been diagnosed with cancer. In fact I had been to the gynecologist. Later it occurred to me that it would have been really funny to give an description of what the examination actually involved, although that might have turned him on more than it grossed him out.

  21. karmacat says

    This happened to me when I was on jury duty. Some older guy told me I would look beautiful if I smiled. I was angry and a few minutes later, I went up to him and told him it was a rude thing to say. He didn’t really say anything and I then just walked away. So maybe he will think twice before saying it to someone else.

  22. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    People used to comment that I don’t smile, that I always looked grumpy, so I started smiling. I consciously tried to smile more often, whether I felt like it or not.
    [some years later]
    Now I wear this silly smile almost always when in company, it’s almost a reflex to paste a smile on whenever I’m talking to someone other than family and closest friends.

    I can’t even get rid of the stupid thing. Sometimes it makes me look friendly, but when I’m actually in a bad mood or tired, I just look deranged.

  23. johnthedrunkard says

    So smiling is compulsory while laughing is forbidden.

    I’m pretty damn’ old (58) and male. I’ve still had a few ‘smile command’ moments recently. In my case the line was an opener for panhandlers. Something about policing the emotions of strangers, AND, using obligatory ‘happiness’ as the thin edge of the wedge toward extorting an advantage….

    Ehrenreich’s book ‘Bright Sided’ needs to be read by more folks. I would pair it with Martin Gardner’s ‘Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy’ as a short course in the curse of Positive Thinking.

  24. Richard Smith says

    “Everyone else is smiling but you!” he informed her.

    “Everyone else is minding their own business but you!”

  25. moarscienceplz says

    And I just don’t buy that it’s equally routine and “normal” for women and men.

    I’m sure it’s not equally routine, but it does happen where the sexes are reversed:
    At the local Ren Faire, I was walking around, killing time until the next show, when a woman placed herself in my path. I tried to swerve around her, but she shifted in order to stop me. She then went on to inform me that I must be lonesome. I was tempted to tell her off, but I just told her that she was wrong, I wasn’t lonesome, and in fact I was enjoying myself. She then asked for a hug, because she “had a bet with her friend that I wouldn’t give her one”. I gave in, figuring that maybe she was the one who was suffering from loneliness.

    However it is true that it is mostly guys who do this to me, as well:
    I was at a bookstore, reading and drinking coffee. Two guys sat at the next table, and one of them asked what I was reading. I gave a polite but uninviting reply, whereupon he asked me about my religious beliefs, and started telling me how wonderful Pentecostalism is. I then turned my face away from him, which only made him more determined to talk to me. I was just about to summon the security guy when his friend convinced him to leave.
    Also there have been a number of occasions when I am sitting by myself at a bar where somebody tries to strike up a conversation. Sometimes I am up for that, but often they turn out to be religion nuts or conspiracy nuts or some other kind of meat-head. I usually refuse to continue the conversation, and I often get some kind of comment that I am being rude for doing so.

    So, I don’t doubt guys do this to women as an attempt at a pick-up, or because they think women are lesser beings, but I think some of it is due to people who think chit-chat should always get privilege over silence.

  26. alqpr says

    @sonof: I think what Ophelia is saying in response to your #16 could be paraphrased as ‘bothering men that way is bad but doing it to women is WORSE so shut up and go away’, so apparently she is learning a lot from her new friend (Richard).

    As for myself I wouldn’t suggest any change to the title or the emphasis on women victims in Ophelia’s piece – just the elimination of the dismissive (and false) claims that it doesn’t happen to men and that it is always motivated by sexism.

    As we know, it has happened to you, me, Frank Zappa, and johnthedrunkard, so though I can certainly imagine that it really is worse for women, I think it is wrong to deny that it exists or is more than “zero bad” for men.

    I also think it can be a mistake to claim to understand the motives of others, or that all events of a similar type have a similar cause. Sometimes the suggestion to smile can be made from a misguided effort to offer sympathy (in the belief that changing one’s affect can actually change one’s feelings), and unreasonable offense is then sometimes taken at the rejection of that “offer”. This alternative explanation is not intended to make the behaviour seem “better” than the sexist one, just different in motivation (though not, perhaps, in consequences).

  27. says

    @sonof: I think what Ophelia is saying in response to your #16 could be paraphrased as ‘bothering men that way is bad but doing it to women is WORSE so shut up and go away’, so apparently she is learning a lot from her new friend (Richard).

    Oh do fuck off. Seriously.

    You have the wide wide internet to make your point that “People in general should not have their emotions audited by others”, and instead you choose to come here and criticize one blogger for choosing to focus on a behavior that by far happens to women much more than men.

    Lets have an anecdote off: I have never been told to smile. I have watched people tell my wife to smile constantly. Hell, I worked retail for a year and while I have what, on a woman, would be called a “bitchy resting face” I never got told that I needed to smile more, by customers or by management. In fact I often got complimented for my helpfulness and friendliness. Without smiling much.

    Here’s another anecdote. My grandfather died three years ago, and my grandmother passed on about six months ago. My father has for the most part dealt with this loss, but the family home just sold and he commented gamely that he felt a bit uprooted. Now, I’ve never been in one place more than three or four years (largely due to choices made by my father), so I quipped “I wouldn’t know”. And immediately felt guilty. Cuz it was an asshole thing to do. I saw my father dealing with his personal loss, and I made the conversation about me.

    You guys are that asshole right now. Stop it. Ophelia is not saying that your experiences are less than women’s. What she is saying is that this is not that conversation. If you want to have that conversation, go have it. I doubt anyone here would come over to say “but what about the women?” You’re pulling the same bullshit as people who say “I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist”.



  28. hhhhhhhhh says

    complaining about men not being part of this conversation is like white people complaining about police misconduct:
    “It would be precisely the same experience happening to me, frequently, as the incident related in the post. But it would be a different subject because… I lack melanin in my skin? OK. /shrug/ I guess I do just have to “suck it up” and get used to it.”

  29. doubtthat says

    I would be willing to bet a substantial sum of money that if we put a camera on these dudes who claim that they’re being told to smile all the time, we would find the exact opposite. I’m sure it has happened. I’m sure there are some circumstances – like Zappa on Crossfire – where men are treated with the condescending attitude that women face on a regular basis. A lot of black men in the South, for example, were (are) dealt with by domineering, commanding assholes.

    But in addition to the experience of men being more or less irrelevant to this point (as Nathaniel Frein explained), I just don’t believe the male posters above. I think every instance of them being told to smile will be a special circumstance that proves the point. Notice, for example, the context of the Zappa quote – Zappa refers to a titillating video as “amusing,” and the asshole on tv tries to challenge him, asking why it’s amusing, he says, “why is that amusing?”
    Zappa, “Well it is amusing,”
    Asshole, “I don’t see you smiling.”
    Zappa, “Why would I smile when I’m sitting here with you?”

    Trying to use that instance of a man being told to smile as somehow leveling the playing field and making street harassment an issue that impacts men and women equally – as alqpr attempted – reveals how totally bankrupt that position is.


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