“Hey, you should be smiling!”
“C’mon, gimme a smile why don’t you?”
“Why aren’t you smiling!?”
As a male-identifying cis guy I don’t have to hear any of these missives on a daily basis, but I know literally ALL of my female-identifying or presenting friends deal with hearing this daily, if not hourly. And as a guy, the feeling that everyone should be “smiling god-dammit” is in my head all the time as I walk down the street. For example, as my partner and I were taking our regular morning walk, I noticed everyone walking their dogs, and I also noticed they all looked miserable. I even commented out loud “Jeez, why isn’t everybody smiling?” I was even doing my part and offering up a big smile to everyone I passed with a short but cheery “Hey!” or “Morning!”, but still no smiles in return. And I could feel myself getting resentful. Why isn’t everyone responding to me? I demand you all smile!!!
And then it hit me. Omg I’m that guy. I am owed a smile from everyone I pass because… why? Why am I owed anything from these strangers who are thinking their own thoughts and planning their own days. Why am I demanding anything from strangers who are completely autonomous adults who I’m sure would tell me that smiling at a stranger is quite low on their to-do list for today, or forever for that matter. Why is a smile from a random person so important to me or my feelings? Who was I to judge or demand?
For women and those who identify or present as women, it’s not just a simple question. In her opinion piece for the New York Times “An American Woman Quits Smiling”, author Lisa Ko writes “Smiling when you don’t feel like it has been proven to make you feel good by producing actual feelings of happiness. I’ve tried it, and it does work, but I don’t want to be ordered to smile. If a smile is the appearance of happiness, then to be commanded to smile takes away our right to our own feelings. We must appear happy, even if we’re not. A man told my friend to smile, for instance, on the day that she found out her father had died.” And writer and activist Bené Viera told The Huffington Post“The sexualization behind telling women to smile is alarming. It makes women feel that we are only meant to be happy and pretty and it’s a passive way to engage into an unwanted conversation. Asking a woman to smile is a selfish act and it’s rarely in a caring tone; it’s condescending and it turns a simple gesture into something sexual.”
The hard truth is men don’t see this side of the conversation. We feel like we are helping by telling a woman to smile, and who doesn’t like to smile? We feel better when everyone is smiling, right? But as these two authors point out, it’s not asking. It’s a demand that carries with it a truckload of connotation and baggage that the majority of men either can’t understand or understand all too well. Tie it back to the idea of toxic masculinity of you must, but really it’s just guys being total assholes and making another autonomous human being feel bad.
So guys, just say hi. Give a head nod. And move on. Stop ordering people to smile. It’s gross.