Smile! (Your Face Is Making People Unhappy)

When I was in fourth grade, we had a class game. Each one of us had to bring in a photo from when we were very young and the photos were laid out in a grid on the wall. Each photo had a number, and students had to guess which photo went with which classmate by numbering a class list. As I recall, the photos were up for a few weeks, giving students ample time to review them and note their guesses.

One photo was 100% correctly identified by the class. One.

s.e. as a toddler, grasping a couch and staring grimly at the camera.

That photo was mine. What made it so easy to connect my chubby little baby face with my wiry little fourth grade self? It was all in the mouth; my baby mouth was turned down, exactly like my fourth grade mouth, exactly like my mouth right now. That’s because that’s the neutral position for my mouth.

People have hassled me about this for pretty much my entire life and it got worse after I incurred some facial nerve damage. Now, when I try to smile, sometimes it pulls my mouth into a grotesque leer. Sometimes one side of my mouth tilts up while the other twists down. Very rarely, I can ‘naturally’ smile. Both ends of my mouth turn up and I look ‘happy.’ Because, of course, the mouth is the only social cue for reading happiness, and people never, not ever, smile when they are not happy, right?

And I’m constantly told to smile. By complete strangers in the street. By ‘friends.’ When I worked in retail, by customers.

‘What have you got to frown about?’ ‘Smile, it would make you look so much nicer!’ ‘Why are you always frowning?’

The ‘smile, baby’ problem, as I call it, is something which a lot of people who are read as women experience. I will hazard a guess that at least some of our readers have experienced it; whatever the neutral position of your mouth is, whether or not you have nerve damage, whatever your mood at the time, someone, somewhere, has probably ordered you to smile.

It’s enough of a meme that it’s even cited as a feminist issue now and then; the smile police have some interesting intersections with how society thinks about women and their bodies. As my friend Hilary put it in frustration the other day, ‘I hate that I am expected to be nice all the time because I’m a woman.’ Not only are women expected to be nice (‘watch your tone!‘) they are also expected to be physically presentable, which means that they need to ‘smile, baby!’

Miss Manners addressed the smile police in a recent column, noting:

It is indeed both common and rude to command others to smile, as if this conferred a favor by improving their outlook on life.

People order each other to smile because they feel uncomfortable around people who are not smiling, especially when those people are women (or are read as such). Women are expected to be nice and sweet, to make other people feel comfortable. A woman who says ‘hey, I think there’s a problem here’ is being ‘negative.’ A woman who doesn’t smile while she’s being harassed is ‘humourless.’ A woman who prefers to stay focused on tasks is a ‘cold bitch.’ Significant gendering is involved here; women have an obligation to look and act a certain way and when they don’t, they need to be hassled until they do.

And it’s perfectly acceptable, apparently, to talk up to a complete stranger and demand a smile. Just passing a woman who isn’t smiling in the street is such a horrible offense that it must be corrected immediately by telling her to ‘turn that frown upside down!’

Have you encountered the smile police? How do you deal with them?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

30 thoughts on “Smile! (Your Face Is Making People Unhappy)

  1. Older men in particular, for some reason, are obsessed with telling me to smile. In high school, I always dreaded days when teachers were out sick because there were two regular male substitute teachers and both of them would always tell me to smile without fail. Older men, strangers, tell me to smile on the street. Older men are also about 90x more likely to engage me in conversation at bus stops and such. I am not sure what invisible sign is on my forehead that says “Are you over 55 and male? TALK WITH THIS GIRL.”

    For the substitutes, I’d generally give them a little smile because they were authority figures and I would have to deal with them repeatedly. Random strangers get the flat stare more often than not.

  2. My dad has the same thing you do where his mouth is turned down. Even when he’s smiling, the corners of his mouth are turned down. My mom loves to take pictures of the family, and she’s CONSTANTLY telling my dad to smile for the camera, and if his smile isn’t “smile-y” enough, she’ll make him turn up the corners of his mouth, which to me looks totally fake. I’d rather have a picture of my dad looking happy (you can tell by his eyes!) than one of him “smiling.”

  3. When I worked retail just out of college I was told to smile all the time… I was suffering a bout of clinical depression, and was in pain, and even if my face was in one of those neutral customer service smiles it wasn’t enough… I was ordered to basically radiate the smiley ‘feeling’, which apparently is just as important as the actual smile.

    When I was up for either staying on after the seasonal work or leaving, my boss actually cited my ‘not smiling enough’ as a reason she didn’t think she should keep me on.

    Interestingly enough, I was one of the most helpful people there, who would take time to get to know the customer and find the correct product for them. I just didn’t have a smile pasted on my face the whole time. It was really frustrating that my job performance was rated not on how I helped people, how well I sold stuff, but how much I smiled before / during / after I did it.

    OTOH, my husband has a mouth that has a slightly downturned neutral position. He works predominantly with men, and does not get the same pressure to smile.

  4. I don’t have solutions, but I hate people telling me to smile. Not because I smile less than average, or I have an impairment specifically impacting my ability to smile, but because so much of my life has consisted of people telling me I should use my body in a particular way (not understanding that it was difficult or impossible) or playing the emotions police.

    (And we did a similar thing at work, and I don’t think people appreciate how problematic these games are – they rely on people looking similar. No-one had a visible disability, but there were quite a few who were obvious due to race or age. And that’s not even starting on the issues many trans* people could have with them.)

  5. I’m a natural down-turn, too. My neutral face apparently looks very angry, since I get asked if I’m upset regularly. Nope. Just not grinning, but I will be angry if you tell me to smile. My last boss demanded I smile regularly (“It’s not so bad!”…well, no, everything was fine until you demanded I conform to your behaviour ideals).

  6. I had the “problem” as a child where my smile didn’t look enough like a smile, due to atypical face reading. My kid photos can be picked pretty easily too.

    My response was to work for years to train my face to smile “properly”. I hate that I felt pressured to do so.

  7. My sister used to stop what she was doing and ask me what was wrong, because apparently, I looked sad or mad. I was just reading or thinking or whatever. My reaction? “Oh.” *go back to whatever*

    My mom was mad at me and told me I better be smiling next time she saw me and I was so ticked off, I was tempted to put on a horrible fake smile, like the Joker’s or something. But the next time I saw her, I was just in a happy mood.

    Being happy is more than just a big smile across your face, it’s your whole body or face.

    Though we used to have our baby picture hanging right next to each other, taken about 2 and half years apart. I had that baby smile on my face and my sister looked PO’d about something. Oh, I picked on her forever because of that.

    But that classroom exercise sounds… odd. Babies look like um, babies. Toddlers don’t look that different (barring gender and skin color) either. And toddlers’ moods can turn on a dime – smiling before the picture, after the picture, but not during the shot.

    I took a picture of myself smiling with my laptop camera, and I can tell it’s a smile, though it doesn’t look anything like this :). My teeth show, but it’s my face and my eyes (okay, you can’t see them behind the glasses) that convey “smile” more than anything.

    I haven’t had anyone tell me to smile, but I have been off in thought (hmm, Johnny Depp is hot) and had someone come up and ask if I was okay. Not quite the same, but still.

  8. My mouth points downward at the edges too. Much to my frustration, the last time I was told to smile, I was at work and it was such a habit to smile when any customer began speaking to me that I automatically smiled and he said, “There! That’s better!” before my brain even had a chance to process what he’d said. I try, but am not always successful, to pause a second before I answer anyone so that I can fully process what they’ve said and decide on my answer.

  9. Smiling is a learned social behaviour, and in western culture, people of all kinds both smile and are “expected” to smile as part of the normal interaction of human beings that is as much a part of communication here as shaking hands or nodding.

    Many other cultures do not have this expectation, and even place different meanings on smiling or nodding. In the animal kingdom and amongst primates, baring one’s teeth is considered an act of aggression.

    As a learned social behaviour, however, those who do not conform to the social norm are considered to be more difficult to understand or communicate with. If I offered my hand for you to shake, and you didn’t shake it, it would share many traits with a social situation in which I smiled and you didn’t smile back. These things are part of the normal language of human interaction, as normal as an exchange of greetings.

    So if you think that it is only (or predominantly) women who are “expected” to smile, then I think that it’s possible that you’re gender stereotyping yourself, or attributing it to gender when that may not be the reason at all. We are all, to a degree, expected to smile – in certain social contexts – and there are times when smiling is wildly inappropriate. Good communicators, both male and female, are adept at appropriate expression, and sometimes that involves smiling.

    I personally feel that this has less to do with gender than it has to do with social interaction and expectation – regardless of gender.

  10. One of my favorite shows, In Treatment, about a therapist, has a female college student as one of the patients. She talks about how the construction workers tell her to smile, and how she regrets never having the perfect comeback, until one day, one yelled at her, “Smile, it’s a beautiful day!” and she yelled back, “I have cancer!”

    I don’t have a big problem with it, but unless I’m having a really awful day I tend to smile at everyone, out of habit. But my mom’s neutral expression is read as really unhappy, and the extended family gives her a lot shit for it.

  11. While I don’t remember ever being told to smile when it wasn’t for a photo, both my brother and I have been told that we seem unfriendly, unhappy and unapproachable because we don’t smile whenever someone talks to us. I got better at faking a smile, but that was not until my late teens. However that means that the facial expression “smile” has absolutely zero to do with how I feel. It’s impossible for people to figure out how I’m feeling by looking at me, but everybody thinks they should.

  12. I can somewhat relate. My parents used to tell em a lot to “act cheerful”. Smiling was part of that, but I think it constituted something more. I don’t have a physical problem tha tliits my facial expression (although I am told that my face is somewhat less expressive than most people’s). However, when I was young, I was pretty much uhappy. I can see why you’re not supposed to whine and rant all the time, but why I should alter my physical appearance to look less unhappy, I do not know.

  13. Vartha, I’ve decided to let this comment through even though it violates the ‘splainin’ clause of the comments policy because I think it exemplifies a lot of the problematic thinking about smiling and facial expressions. I’m sure other commenters will have some thoughts on your comment as well, but, in a nutshell:

    -This is a site which centres the voices of people with disabilities. This includes people with nerve damage who can’t smile, and neuroatypical folks (such as myself) who do not appreciate being reminded over and over that we need to engage in the ‘normal language of human interaction.’ There is a long history of reifying ‘normal’ modes of communication, punishing people who don’t use them, and forcing people to use the ‘normal’ method; look up ‘oralism’ for some examples of what I’m talking about.

    -This is a feminist site. Which means you probably shouldn’t misgender contributors (I’m not a woman) or make patently ridiculous statements laden with gender essentialism. Women are indeed expected to perform socially in a way men are not and this is a pretty 101 topic.

    -I’m not a big fan of pseudoscience used to back up a fountain of ‘splain’, especially when that pseudoscience centres Western experiences.

  14. I’m a woman and I get told to smile very regularly on the street. I never do it, of course. This is sexual harassment and I’m beginning to understand the importance of confronting harassers (“Why do you want me to smile?” “Am I here to decorate or to make you feel good?” “Your comments represent harassment.” “Don’t harass women.” “Show respect.”)

    The only times I smile on a stranger’s request is when they’re homeless and ask for money or a smile – I sometimes give them both but in any case, always a smile.

  15. Thank you for this post. I have never seen anything that discussed this naturally occurring downturned mouth “problem.” My mouth is the same way. I have come to think of it as extremely unattractive and lately I have been working with that, e.g. “this is the way I look, and so it is fine.” I do tend to reflexively smile at people who make eye contact with me, and so the smile police aren’t a problem, but they used to be. My best example is of my uncle telling my mother “she’s so pretty when she smiles, she should smile more often.” At his daughter’s/my cousin’s funeral.

  16. Oh, the smile. My mouth also naturally turns down, and I frown when I’m concentrating, even if I’m enjoying myself (playing a tricky piece on the piano, reading an absorbing book). The only person I will tolerate asking me to smile is my husband, who only asks when he’s genuinely concerned (and doesn’t actually tell me to smile, just asks me why I’m frowning, because he’s worried I’m in more pain than usual).

    I hate being told to “smile!” so I usually bare my teeth in a rictus-grin or glare. Many days I’m way too exhausted to care what other people think of my facial expression; I’m just trying to make it home so I can go to bed. It’s horribly gendered – my husband doesn’t smile because he doesn’t like showing his teeth, but no-one ever demands he smile.

    It’s a power trip – make the woman respond to you, so you can feel good about yourself. And it’s overwhelmingly performed by men (it’s part and parcel of the “compliment” that is actually intended to make you talk with them, since they get very put out if you simply nod and go back to whatever it was you were doing).

  17. I am a woman and have experienced the “smile, baby,” command numerous times. I can’t recall receiving this command from a woman outside of something like a group photograph, or a cheesy grade school performance. Furthermore, I can’t recall being commanded to smile by a woman as an adult. Yet, quite often, random men find this an acceptable comment to make on the street, at work, at school, in passing, whenever. I find this outrageous, the idea that anyone NOT presently working on a film set should presume to dictate the facial expression of anyone else, especially a stranger. Why do I need to convey happiness to you on the street, strange man? How do you know I haven’t just come from a funeral? Perhaps YOU are actively making me UNhappy. Possibly I’m just not built physiologically or mentally to roam the streets grinning like a moron for the comfort of complete strangers. Even if we were standing in the middle of a parade of clowns and unicorns and free cotton candy, I have absolutely no obligation to anyone to convey any specific feelings, facially or otherwise. Do these men roam cemeteries and cancer wards barking “LOOK SAD AND CRY, BABY,” as well? Is that any less appropriate than demanding any other display of emotion?

  18. I hate this. So much.

    No. I will not smile for you. I don’t even KNOW you. Anyone who knows me knows better than to demand it. Anyone who thinks they can demand it probably isn’t going on my list of “people to get to know better”, because it is my face & I’m not going to go to the effort of rearranging it for a stranger.

  19. Huh,

    I’m tempted to ponder the possibilities of culture (particular white vs black American culture) in this context, because while I have had people approach me because I’m not smiling – it’s usually, predominantly, not an order.

    I get things like:

    “Are you ok?”

    “Hey, baby-girl, it can’t be that bad, can it?”

    “Keep, keeping your chin up, it’ll be ok.”

    So my experiences have been in getting reassurances and random comfort, rather than being told I’m being unpleasant or look unpleasant or other coded messages that I’m not conforming.

    White men do not tell me to smile, or talk or notice me at all just walking down the street. Black men offer comfort or say they’ll pray for me, or ask me if everything’s ok. And once or twice little black older ladies too.

  20. Thanks for responding to Vartha Eyck, s.e. The amount of privilege espoused in zie’s comment is rather large. Women ARE policed as to their physical presentation in public (not just clothes/makeup, but also behavior/facial expression/speech), in a way that is highly gendered. Men do not get treated the same way as women in public. They simply don’t. If one doesn’t know this, there are many places to start looking. Amanda Hess at The Sexist did an excellent series about street harassment. That’s a good place to start for more info.

  21. I also have the natural downturn to my mouth. I am tired of people telling me I look stressed or worried or asking if I’m okay, when I’m really just concentrating or just, you know, not smiling.

    My current pet peeve with this is the counselor at the school where I work asking me nearly every time she spots me in the halls if I’m okay. I’m considering answering “well, I was dreading the social exchange with you that I knew was coming” next time she does it. I’ve also thought of taking that opportunity to initiate an extended, graphically detailed conversation about my mood swings. Sadly, I’ll be skipping both of these, as I think they’d put my job at risk.

  22. As a neuroatypcial person I’ve learned to do a “social” smile and I kind of do a smile when I’m laughing. But my happy faces, I’ve found, don’t look like smiles at all. I think the closest thing I have to what most people would consider a smile (in terms of what it conveys, not what it looks like) is a very hard to explain expression that I’ve honestly never seen on anyone else: I kind of pucker my lips and place the inside of my lower lip between my teeth and my two upper front teeth usual show. It doesn’t LOOK like a smile at all, but it’s my equivalent to a beaming smile. For a more subtle smile like an “I love you” kind of smile, I make an expression that looks similar to a frown. My “going about my day smiling” smile is my face very relaxed with my mouth slightly open and the tip of my tongue between my teeth a little.

    Oh wait, there is a time when I “smile” naturally. It’s when I’m very nervous or taken aback. It’s not a good thing.

    … and I have a facial tic that occasionally makes me grin for a second or two.

  23. It’s only my experience so it’s worth whatever that might be. But I didn’t come out as trans* until I was in my late twenties; I spent a longish time being perceived as male.

    I don’t smile much. Even when I’m doing something I enjoy like playing video games. My wife used to ask me a lot if I was okay if I was having fun etcetera. My resting face apparently looks scowly.

    Moira gets many more suggestions to smile than [the name I had before] ever got. There seemed to me a gender perception-based difference.

  24. How do I deal with the smile police? I tell them to get out of my face. If I don’t feel like smiling, demanding I do so is not likely to help.

    Great post.

  25. I use a power wheelchair, so I am read as disabled from a mile away. I think that contributes as well as the fact that I am often read as a women. I mostly get told to smile by women, and I think they are misguidedly trying to be nurturing or something. Mostly, I have smiled for them and they must leave feeling like they cheered me up, done their good deed for the day.
    One notable time (the last time this happened to me and, not coincidentally, right before I started shaving my head) I was on a bus on my way home from work as a telemarketer. I liked my job but it was draining, and my natural expression at rest is sort of sad-pensive (something considered sexy in a man, I think). I was listening to loud music on my headphones and kind of zoned out when I saw a middle-aged woman trying to get my attention. She smiled. I nodded. She smiiiiled. I ignored her. She pulled the corners of her mouth up with her fingers, signing for me to smile. I smiled. She got off the bus feeling good about herself, and I started crying, cussing her out in my head.

  26. Wow I can’t believe this bothers other people too. I don’t understand why people think they’re entitled to see me smile when they treat me like s***. Anyways I got fired from my job today, because the maintenance guy (or so i thought, apparently he was a bit higher up than that) told me to smile and i went on to tell in great detail how much my day sucked and why I’d smile when I felt like it.

    Aside from that I like to give people the finger when they tell me to smile.

  27. I always was told to smile /more/ when I was a child, because my smile wasn’t big enough. My mother was a professional (artistic) photographer, and I grew up with a solid belief that big, toothy smiles were goofy, and they weren’t my style. But come portrait day, every strange photographer (i.e. not my mother’s colleagues), would suggest I wasn’t smiling, even though I could feel the muscles in my face working. They’d coax me to smile bigger, but I’d refuse, knowing that to them “bigger” meant “big, toothy grin.” Add that to my embarrassment of the antibiotics stains on my lower teeth, and it just wasn’t happening. It was one of my few acts of rebellion during a decade of my life as a teacher’s pet.

    I look back on those photos and like them; I can see awareness in my eyes, understanding, and a refusal to fake my smile.

    One spring, we had the opportunity for my daughter to get a photo with the Easter Bunny when there wasn’t anyone else around (no one at the mall for some reason), and they couldn’t get a decent shot of her, since her “smiles” for cameras are squinty-eyed and almost comical in their extreme. But the guy in the suit said something funny to her, and she started giggling. She’d turned sideways a little and was in the process of covering her mouth. I told the girl behind the camera to take the shot, and I paid for it. The girls thought I was crazy for wanting *that* photo, but it shows my daughter’s true joy, not some manufactured smile. Isn’t that what’s important?


    Now let’s talk about “How are you today?” and the expectation that we’ll lie. In Germany, if you’re asked that question, even by a stranger like a store clerk, you’re expected to be honest.

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