Don’t tell me to smile

Some things are weirdly predictable. A woman will write something about how much she hates being told to smile by strange men — such as [Smile, baby!] and [This morning a man told me to smile] — and the comments section will be full of guys telling her that being told to smile is no big deal and she shouldn’t dislike it so much. Nice work, random internet dudes! Not only do you want to tell me what to do with my face, you want to tell me how to feel about it when I get told what to do with my face! Say something else obnoxious — you could hit the jackass trifecta!

Anyway, why are you arguing? You should be taking notes. “Women hate being told to smile, okay, lemme cross ‘smile, beautiful!’ offa my list of fantastic chat-up lines.” Is there a particular reason you resist the knowledge that women hate being told to smile? It’s true, whether you accept it or not.

Maybe you are one of those “smile!” guys and you don’t want to think of yourself as a jerk. Fine. If you have never previously suspected that women hate being told to smile — if the merest inkling of a notion has literally never ever crossed your mind — I retroactively pronounce all past “smile!” incidents as the result of naivete, not jerkishness. But now that you know women hate it? Cut it out.

The cited articles and discussions tend to zero in on the “smile!” phenomenon as sexism and street harassment, and in the defense of “smile!”ers, some people point out that being ordered to smile isn’t always guys doing it to women they don’t know. This is true. Sometimes it’s your sweet but slightly annoying great aunt, or the person checking your groceries, or whatever. Sometimes people tell men to smile — I guess. I’ve never seen it happen, but whatever.

I always hated “smile!” for very Wednesday Addams reasons — I feel keenly the innate oppressiveness of the falsely cheerful mien. World, I am not smiling because I don’t feel like it, and why on earth do you think I ought to feel like it? You wanna see me smile, do something amusing. Telling a stranger to cheer up or smile might be kindly meant, but is actually a thoughtless thing to do — some of the people walking around not smiling have very tragic things going on in their lives that are absolutely none of your business.

If you wouldn’t tell a friend “smile!” or “cheer up!” when you knew they were coming home from a funeral, don’t say it to strangers whose circumstances you don’t know.

Being told to smile, no matter who is doing the telling, feels like being told that your own authentic feelings are invalid and don’t matter. Another person sees that you do not appear to be cheerful, and what they do in response is order you to appear cheerful for their benefit. If you are a “smile!”er, and you wonder why people hate being told to smile, imagine how they would react if you told them “dance, monkey, dance!” It’s pretty much the same thing.

Some feminist objections to the phenomenon of women being told to smile zero in on the idea that telling a woman to smile means you are telling her that you think she ought to appear decorative and emotionally available. But I think it’s even worse than that. Telling other people to smile can be a signal that you want them to take a subordinate social role. The higher status primate tells the lower status primate to smile, right? It doesn’t go the other way. (“Smiles, everyone!” — Mr. Rourke) That’s why your auntie is annoying when she does it (as your older relative, she is sort of in a socially dominant position by default) and that guy you don’t know can ruin your whole day.

Who wants to go around conceding the alpha primate role to random males on the street? Not me. Who wants to get called a bitch when they refuse? Not me, again. But if a guy genuinely thought that he was being nice when he told me to smile, why would he get so bent out of shape when I refuse? He wasn’t being nice to me. He wanted me to be nice to him. He wanted me to pretend he was boss for a minute. Well, no dice, buddy. You wanna call me a bitch? Whatever. Guess what? I AM a bitch. But I am not YOUR bitch.

That’s also why even seemingly innocuous things like “smile!” can be street harassment, and also why street harassment is part of what is called “rape culture.” A guy who wants to assert his dominance by forcing a smile is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through crude remarks is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through a subway grope is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through rape.

Most “smile!” men probably aren’t actually potential rapists, no. But if you are a “smile!”er, here’s the problem — remember how I told you that telling strangers to “smile!” can be downright cruel, because you don’t know them and you don’t know what misfortunes they might be suffering? Well, keep in mind that they don’t know you, either. They don’t know that you’re not a rapist, or mugger, or serial killer, or con man, or drug-addled to the point of violence, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or whatever.

They know only one thing about you — that you are obnoxious enough to tell strangers to smile. Can you blame them for assuming the worst?