I have a new hobby. I like refinishing furniture. I don’t mean that I take beautiful old antiques and bring them back to life. I find junk at Goodwill or the dump, slap some paint on it, and unload it on Craigslist. This is how I found myself standing in front of a wall of spray paint in my local hardware store. I had a can in my hand and was examining the label when a man in a headset and vest stopped and said, “And how are you doing young lady?”
“I’m good, thanks,” I said and went back to my label.
“You’re not smiling so you can’t be doing that well.”
I looked at him as if to say, “Not smiling while reading the label on a can of spray paint? Dude, if you see someone grinning while reading the label on a can of toxic chemicals, you can be pretty sure she is going to huff it behind your store. Do not sell it to her!”
Apparently he understood the complex sentiment I was conveying with what my friends have referred to as “The Look of Death” because he said, “I’m just kidding” and moved on. A few minutes later I was at the register with two cans of spray paint in hand. What appeared to be a teenage girl was ringing me up, when the same man appeared. The girl struck me as shy–probably new to her job, and was just trying to get through her shift without messing up. So when the man said about me, to the cashier, “I told her to smile and she looked at me like I had two heads!” I did not unleash a stream of expletives. I looked at him and shook my head, and went back to digging in my wallet for a $10 bill. He then assured me once again that he was only joking. This time I looked him in the eye, leaned on the counter (not smiling), and said, “Yeah, well…” and waited until he turned away.
Once he was gone I went back to interacting with the cashier like a normal human, even smiling at her from time to time.
Somewhere I know there’s a crusty old man wondering why I would be annoyed by someone telling me to smile. “He’s just being friendly,” you might say. No, he’s not. He’s being condescending. Men, do hardware store employees often approach you while you’re trying to find the right size screw and demand that you smile? No? Huh…I wonder why that is?
You know who was being friendly and helpful? The guy who walked by me, asked if I needed any help, and when I said, “No, I’m just debating about colors” told me to just let him know if I needed anything.
How many men do you know who walk down the street smiling indiscriminately at everyone and everything they see? More importantly, how many men do you know who have ever had someone suggest they should smile indiscriminately at everyone and everything they see? None…that’s how many. Meanwhile, women are supposed to walk around looking like the only thoughts it their heads are about kittens and flowers. You’re supposed to pretend you don’t have cramps, aren’t tired, and are elated to have some rando bug you while you’re trying to read. On the scale of crappy things people say and do to women, the “Smile!” is low on the list, but it really gets my goat.
Back in 2007, after many months of fighting cancer, my grandfather died. I got the call while I was at work. I informed my co-workers I was leaving, and headed out of the building. A smug, slightly lecherous guy happened to be on duty at the security desk that day, and as I walked by, doing everything in my power not to burst into tears while at work–which would have led to weeping on the train and bus ride home–he said, “Smile, it’s not that bad.”
Even if you honestly believe you are being friendly or charming (you’re not) by insisting that women you don’t know grin like idiots while in public, you need to stop now! You have no idea what is happening in her life. Maybe her cat just died, or she got fired, or her boyfriend is abusive. Maybe she’s just clinically depressed and your condescension is only making things work. Maybe she just struggles with resting bitch face. Whatever the case may be, it’s none of your business.