Don’t tell me to smile

smiling faces

By Tara Cavanaugh

Let me first say that I have a serious-looking face. In photos where I’m not smiling, people ask me what’s wrong. In my passport photo, for which I was instructed not to smile, I look like a terrorist.

I’ll also say that I’m expressive, the kind of person who talks with her hands, and my moods are easily read on my face.

All that being said: Do not tell me to smile.

I hear it often. Brushing past a colleague in the hall: Smile! Rushing out the door late to an appointment: Smile!

There’s a whole bunch of reasons I hate being told to Smile. One, it assumes I’m going to be happy all the time. Two, it assumes that even if I’m feeling something slightly negative, I better not show it. Three, it’s a judgment that says: if you’re feeling something negative, well it can’t be that bad, so get over it.

Of course I won’t be happy all the time. And it’s my own face, dammit. So who is this stranger to judge whether or not I should be feeling something negative?

I’d much prefer for someone to say, “Hey, you OK?” When that happens, I usually snap out of whatever thing I’m scrutinizing in my head and I go, “Oh golly gee willikers, I’m great!” or something to that effect. Because whatever frown I’m wearing is probably due to the fact that I just realized I’m wearing my underwear backwards and they’re riding up.

But what most bothers me about the Smile edict? It’s such a woman thing. As in, women should Smile. We Smile all the time. When something’s wrong, when we’re worried, when we’re in pain. I found myself doing it the other day: Someone I’d just met asked about my parents. I was shocked at such a personal question, and I smiled as I said, “Well, they’ve passed away…”

I Smiled because it’s a painful, personal thing, and I wanted to spare this stranger my feelings. But this stranger asked a personal question so freely, and should have been prepared for a personal or emotional response.

And maybe it’s just my own experience, but I’ve never heard a man told to smile. Maybe “Cheer up,” or “Don’t sweat it.” But the Smile thing, the present-your-face-as-happy thing, is a woman thing.

So the next time I’m flying past someone who says that annoying, sing-songy “Smi-le!” I am going to flash my best Smile and sing right back: “RU-UDE!”

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