If you’re female, I’m willing to bet this has happened to you. A man has told you to smile. Maybe a family friend, or a rarely-seen uncle. Maybe a colleague. Maybe a date. Maybe a complete stranger. Often it’s accompanied by a not-funny joke. “Smile. It might never happen.” “Smile. It doesn’t cost anything.”
If you’re a man, this has most likely never happened to you, or if it did, you were probably a small child at the time. Nobody randomly tells a grown man to re-arrange his face. If a man is looking serious, or angry, that’s fine. He probably has serious things on his mind, or a legitimate reason to be angry.
What’s more, if the imploration to smile is met with a frown, an evil glance, or a determined re-setting or your features into ‘resting bitch face’, the man will tend to take it personally. He has told you to do something, and you have not done it. This will make him feel annoyed, or maybe just awkward, neither of which he will enjoy.
To him, it is a simple thing. People smile. It makes them look better, especially if they are women, who tend to look prettier and more approachable when they smile.
And surely a woman wants to look pretty and approachable? Surely she wants male attention? Surely she should be grateful that she has been alerted to the fact that her face is currently displeasing but can easily be fixed?
As with every other sexist act on the planet, it’s not all men. Far from it. I recently overheard a guy telling a friend not to be dick, when all he’d done was tell a female barista to smile. He got it. Sort of. “Don’t tell random women to smile, dude. You don’t know what she’s going through. Her dog might have just died.”
Indeed, her dog might have died, or her dad, or her friend from her cancer support group. She might have just experienced a miscarriage, come from a long care shift with a relative with dementia, or realised that working all the hours God sends, she won’t be able to afford new shoes and a new winter coat for her kid this month. She might have unbearable stress at her high-profile job, big healthcare bills to pay this month for herself or her spouse, a family to provide for, or a divorce to pay for.
Because at the heart of that innocent “smile” is a big assumption. Women are not supposed to look serious, or angry, or stressed. They are not supposed to worry their pretty little heads about all the very real shit going on in their lives. They are supposed to be ornaments. They are supposed to arrange their faces in a way that is pleasing to men.
Is this what’s going on in a man’s head when he tells me to smile? Of course not. He’s not trying to objectify me, belittle me, invalidate my emotions, or negate my problems. If you ask him he will likely tell you he is trying to cheer me up, because I look sad, or lighten the mood, because I look angry.
So here’s some advice for the men who need it.
If a woman you know looks sad or angry, assume she has a valid reason. If appropriate, ask if she’s OK. If she wants to talk about it, listen, offer support, and (only if she asks for it) advice. If you want to cheer her up, ask if there’s any way you can help. If she doesn’t want to talk about it, assume she has valid reasons for that too, and allow her to arrange her face however the hell she wants.
If it’s a woman you don’t know? Just walk on by. She also has valid reasons for not smiling, and they are none of your business. Women have serious shit on their minds, almost permanently. With many women still working what sociologists call the second shift, they likely have twice as much serious shit on their mind as most men.
And for the guys who get it? Keep educating your fellow men. Keep calling out your guy friends for ‘being a dick’ about this. Tell them that if they wouldn’t say it to a man, there’s no reason say it to a woman. It’s not easy, but we appreciate your efforts.