December 9, 2013

Please Stop Telling Me to Smile.

Photo: Author’s own

I have no little crinkles at the outer corners of my eyes, and (I am told that) people often think I am snobby, angry or unhappy until they get to know me.

I have never been a smiler, and although I am more apt to smile these days, it still feels strange unless I’m dealing with a small child, an animal, or someone with whom I am extremely comfortable.

As a child, I did not smile in school pictures, and on at least one occasion my parents received a note from a teacher saying that I “seemed sad,” and asking if “there was a problem at home.” There was no problem at home unless you count the existence of my little brother, and I was not, in fact, sad. I was a happy, well-adjusted child with friends and a loving family who had simply failed to pick up the habit of smiling at appropriate moments.

What seems to me to be a personality quirk is apparently seen by the larger community as an indicator of an Affective Disorder worthy of re-orientation therapy. Strangers, from checkout clerks to hospital orderlies feel perfectly comfortable telling me that I should “smile” because “it can’t be that bad.” My failure to smile generally doesn’t stem from hostility, but that kind of remark turns the tide in the direction of serious ticked-offedness.

It is not the business of anyone else whether or not I smile, and for all they know, there is something “that bad,” and I have a damned fine reason for looking grim.

Here’s what I know about smiling. I have always felt sort of glaringly ridiculous and self-conscious when I smile, like I’m trying on someone else’s personality, and everyone looking at me can see that it’s a bad fit. It feels like wearing wooden teeth or a having bad dye job.

If it comes naturally, as it often does when I am flirting with a baby in the checkout line at the grocery store, it feels natural, and I get in the groove. I feed off the energy from the return smile, and I smile even harder.

When it’s forced (because I do understand the social cues that should prompt a smile) it takes so much mental effort that I find myself without the ability to speak normally, or think rationally.

I think that my inability to smile has historically made it harder for me to make friends, attract men, and do some of the work I have done in my life, although I have managed to get married and make and keep wonderful friends.  Not everyone is going to stick around and work to get the sparkling geode of dry wit and loyal friendship out of what appears to be a gray and impenetrable ball of stone. I get that.

I recently read that a study at De Pauw University found that the less people smiled in yearbook photos, the more likely they were to be divorced later in life. It mattered not only that one smiled, but that one smiled “intensely.”

Irrationally, my first thought on reading this was to be glad that I had, in fact, smiled for my high school yearbook picture, because the photographer insisted on it. Then I began to wonder if it was intense enough to safeguard my marriage, and whether a fake-y smile was any better than no smile.

I read on to learn that the “smiling effect” was proven valid based not only on yearbook photos, but on childhood and adult pictures, candid and posed. Failure to smile in all of those other contexts was still linked to the likelihood of divorce. So I’m totally screwed.

I have also read that smiling in women, is viewed by soc-psych types to be part of a pattern of docility and assent in the traditionally dependent “weaker sex.” A woman’s refusal to smile, particularly at men, is perceived as threatening and as a silent assertion of power.

I can guarantee you that at no time during my pathetically dateless high school and college life was I asserting power in order to avoid being dominated by the male of the species. I just really didn’t know how to do it, when to do it, or how to look coy, amused or flirty.

I know that I was smiled at often, from the time I was born, smiling starts when we recognize that facial gesture in the people dearest to our tiny hearts. We imitate it, to give it back to those we love, and, learn that it’s an easy signal of friendliness, affection, openness…all good things.

Books are judged by their covers, for better or worse, and, at some point, my book cover apparently changed from “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” to “Bleak House.”

It’s getting better. As I grow older, more comfortable with myself, and surer of my place in the world, I smile more.

I’m still incapable of smiling “on command” in any context. I find myself smiling naturally and broadly at children, Christmas pageants, all babies, funny stories, friends and sometimes, even, a beloved voice on the phone.

I cannot, yet, smile back at strangers in public places. I know that they are “in the right,” socially speaking, but it is as strange to me that they walk around smiling at nothing as it probably is to them that I walk around looking kind of sad.

I think my whole life might have been a little easier if I’d been a smiler. I can’t claim that unsmilingness is one of my immutable characteristics like being short or having brown eyes.  I probably could have changed it earlier if I’d really tried.

For me, anyway, it is not a political statement, feminist or otherwise. It’s not a reflection of some personally nihilistic worldview. It’s just the way I turned out.

The thing is, though—if I smile at you, I really mean it.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

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