Thursday, January 29, 2009

Smile, dammit.

This is a follow-up to my earlier post entitled "Eye contact," in which I lamented the tendency of certain strangers (always male) to tell me to "smile" when passing me on the street. Apparently (and not surprisingly) I am not the only young female who is ordered to smile by people I don't know. I was reading my favorite advice column, Dear Prudence on, when I came across this letter:

Dear Prudence,
I have recently become a recipient of commands from strangers to "smile!" The most recent occurrence was in my town's only mall, when a man in a group I was passing actually stepped out of the group, stood in front of me, and all but shouted, "Smile!" My usual response is to look through the person as though they were not there at all and continue as I was, inwardly saying something inappropriate. I come from one of the largest cities in the United States, and I moved to this town for a job. I did occasionally get accosted this way in the city, but it happened only about once a year. Now I feel as though I'm getting similar reactions at least once a week. I don't think anyone has a right to command me to emote. Is there a better way to react? I know better than to say aloud the things I think about the person, but I wonder if there is a way to convey how little I appreciate their words.

—Not on Candid Camera

Dear Not On,
I used to frequently get the same exhortation from male strangers. Let me assure you, even if you never change your default facial expression, this problem will eventually take care of itself because men say this only to unsmiling young women. Strangers don't care enough to see happiness suffuse the face of a crabby-looking middle-aged woman. Of course you're right, your facial expression is nobody's business, and there is a large element of sexism in this—I promise you these men are not encouraging young, brooding males to lighten up. You are free to keep walking and ignore them. I, too, used to just deepen my scowl when I got similar advice. Then, in response to, "Hey, it can't be that bad" from a stranger, I smiled, and he smiled back—and it was nice. I realized maybe these strangers had a point. So consider that your expression, while adaptively off-putting for the big city, may be unnecessarily severe for the smaller, friendlier town where you now live.

I am not sure if I totally buy Prudie's advice here, although I get the distinction she is making between people who say "smile" in a hostile, aggressive manner and those who say it in a more gentle, authentic way. Like, if a kindly old man with a cane said, "Hey, it can't be that bad," I'd probably smile at him. But he'd have to be old. AND kindly. AND have a cane. In general, I view almost all exhortations by strange men to get me to smile as lame pick-up attempts and scoff at them appropriately, and will continue to do so. I'll smile when I want to, dang it.

Alright, that's all for now. Have a wonderful day. Smile!

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