Open Thread: Obligatory Smiling

NinjaPenguin sent in an amazing link on men asking women to smile more. Quotes from the post:

So here’s the take-home lesson, ladeez. Smile and dress nice and act like a lady – and you will be considered to be a silly, thoughtless, insignificant girl. Don’t smile and dress for comfort and you will be considered to be a ball-busting, man-hating lesbian bull-dyke – or, possibly, Ozzy Ozbourne. You will be called a trope, or a caricature feminist, or a reverse sexist, or a slut, or frigid. You will be said to have fucked too much, or in need of a good fucking, or your problem will lie in the fact that no one wants to fuck you, in which case you need a good fucking but are unlikely to get one. But no matter who you are, and what is wrong with you – because, mark my words, something is ALWAYS wrong with you – there will always be some damn asshat around the corner just waiting to cheerfully insist that you smile, smile, smile!

What I found really interesting about the idea of obligatory smiling is how often I experience it in the context of street harassment — after my husband deployed in July, I couldn’t step outside my apartment without some “helpful” gent suggesting that I smile… because obviously my personal turmoil is less important than my role as a scene-setter in someone else’s glorious summer-time promenade. Perhaps next time I’ll remember to color coordinate with the flowers and brownstones, so that it is truly a perfect day. After all, women aren’t allowed to be the main character in their own stories — me, walking around, thinking my own thoughts and doing my own thing… well, it’s like a prop suddenly realizing that a film about the adventures of Wilhelmina the Light Bulb could be absolutely fascinating. It’s SILLY, it is, and that light bulb? She needs to be reminded that she’s a prop, that her story’s about being the bright light in someone else’s day.

More seriously, though, it’s scary for me when someone tells me to smile. It’s a command, generally from a stranger, and is an attempt to reduce me to an object. It’s also an attempt to force a literally primal kind of submission  — primates give an appeasing smile when backing down from a dominant group member, to demonstrate that they are afraid. Plus, this kind of heckling can escalate very quickly.The scariest time actually happened to me a few weeks ago: I was kneeling down to tie my shoes, and this guy leaned out the bus window to take a picture of me. He said, “Smile, big tits!” And then laughed, grinning back at me, like he must’ve just made my day. I called the police, since taking that kind of voyeurism is illegal in the US… but as you’ll see from some of the links I’m including, something being illegal doesn’t mean it’s not acceptable. Being female-bodied means that you cannot assume any reasonable or enforceable expectation of privacy, regardless of whether we’re talking emotions (“Smile! It can’t be THAT bad!”) or physical (“We can’t let women make their own decisions about their bodies!!”) or visual (“If she didn’t want her picture taken, she shouldn’t have gone outside!!!!”). Because sexual harassment like this falls on a spectrum of behaviors where women’s bodies are objectified, Hollaback engages in so many types of activist work not centered on street harassment.

BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS, the real victims here are poor straight men, who can’t tell hot chicks they want to bang them. :eyeroll:

Thoughts? Any good come-backs for when someone tells you to smile?


      • SunlessNick says

        Steve Gerber once wrote a short comic vignetter called “Obligatory fight scene” that was about a theree-way battle between a Las Vegas showgirl, an ostritch, and a killer lampshade. The three characters reappeared in a longer comic called Nevada, although the lamp was the bad guy. So we need Wilhemina for balance.

  1. Casey says

    When someone tells me to smile I either make a Cock-mongler/”DO IT F*GGOT!” grin or I just grimace horribly…then soundly flee. :(

    This reminds me, on Hugo Schwyzer’s blog over the weekend he made a post about how it being spring and therefore warmer and therefore people (women) will be wearing less clothes now doesn’t make it okay to leer/cat-call/street harass…some MRA asshole said something along the lines of “HAY IF I WANNA STARE I’LL STARE IF SHE GETS UNCOMFORTABLE/SCARED/PISSED OFF/VIOLATED THAT’S HER RESPONSIBILITY”…I told him “GTFO THIS BLOG” then soundly fled. :(
    There was also a guy who seemed to conflate “scantily clad” women as being a form of aggressive, unwanted sexual harassment…and another guy pontificated on how when he was a freshman in high school, some girl flashed him and it SHOCKED HIM~!!1 and made him feel all guilty and dirty ‘cuz his mom mind-fucked him or something.
    Hugo’s a good guy and all but more often than not his comments section is a shit-hole.

    • Cinnabar says

      There needs to be a PSA or something about Hugo’s blog. His articles are insightful and interesting, but you have to stay away from the comments! He seems like a great guy but for some reason he lets all these MRAs stink up the place. I suppose he feels that by allowing them to be there, there’s a chance that something he says will stick and they’ll begin to change their mind. I won’t comment on that. Just save yourself the headache and don’t look. 😛

      • Casey says

        Yeah, I guess since he’s a relentlessly optimistic feminist guy he hopes to reach out to his fellow man (LITERALLY) in a misguided manner by letting these assholes with a hateful grudge wank all over the place. (he should totally hire someone to mod the site…PREFERABLY MEEEEEEH! :D;):P)

        Also, aside from guest posts from him and Amanda Marcotte et. all, The Good Men Project website is an MRA shit-fuck too! :(

    • says

      Are we saying “Good Men Project” is Hugo’s blog, or is there another I don’t know about? GMP is a weird place– I want to like it, but then suddenly they’ll give “equal treatment” to MRAs which is…gross & stupid.

      • Casey says

        Naw, I’m talking about Hugo leaving guest posts/articles on GMP.
        (but I was taking about Hugo’s personal blog SPECIFICALLY first)

        The first instance of gross and stupid MRA-dom on GMP was a post about how YOU SHOULD NEVAR, EVAR GET MARRIED (on which I agree)…because that harpy gold-digging bitch of a wife will divorce you and take you to the cleaners ‘cuz the courts are a part of an ebil feminazi conspiracy to drain men of their money (fail).
        The second instance was a post about men suffering street harassment, with a whole chorus of MRAs in the comments section talking about how they got their crotches/asses pawed at and kissed against their will by female friends/acquaintances/co-workers and since they’ve never seen a woman get harassed/assaulted IT OBVIOUSLY DOES NOT EXIST AND MEN HAVE IT SO MUCH WORSE!!1
        (I guess they don’t realize those women got away with that stuff ‘cuz they were colluding with patriarchy?)

        • Cinnabar says

          *facepalm* I had hope for GMP, I really did. I really like David Futrelle’s article on MRA’s that they had there. If anyone wants to read it, it does a very good job of taking apart exactly what is problematic about MRA’s:

          And his site, Manboobz, is a great place to work off rage at or desensitize yourself to MRA’s by laughing your ass off at them:

          Both these sites are good to point out to fence-sitters who don’t know the difference between wanting equal rights for all genders and MRA’s. But a gigantic TRIGGER WARNING applies for Manboobz, even for the posts; and as always, DON’T LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE COMMENTS!

          • Casey says

            Oh yes, I do believe I’ve visited Manboobz site and enjoyed it quite a bit, however DUE TO THE COMMENTS YOU’VE WARNED ABOUT I usually find myself frothing with rage at all the MRA trolls on there, and since I can’t log in to comment unless I’ve got like, a Blogger or FaceBook account (I think) I can’t verbally assault them and thereby make myself feel better.

            I guess I’m a sadist, ‘cuz I usually try at least SKIMMING through the comments section at GMP/Hugo’s blog in hopes of finding at least a GLIMMER of goodness (after all, the comments section here and at Shakesville is what I most look forward to reading) but some MRA guy using violent imagery/rhetoric (ie “knock those princesses off their pedestals and cut them down to size”) in a Hugo-written article about how men can help their daughters not get warped by beauty pageant/princess culture just made me positively SEETHE.

            Also, in that first thread on Hugo’s blog about street harassment, some MRA named Tamen had the AUDACITY to reprimand me for calling being leered at “eye-rape” (angry!Casey sucks at typing tactfully) and telling me “I THINK THAT IS HYPERBOLIC AND TRIVIALIZES RAPE” and the thing that made me the most mad was that he was COMPLETELY RIGHT! It DOES trivialize rape and I, as a woman who has suffered street harassment but is privileged/lucky enough to have not been ACTUALLY raped (at least not yet) shouldn’t say such a thing, but the fact that he’s an MRA just made me want to tell him to fuck off, yanno?

            • Cinnabar says

              Oh dear. I learnt my lesson about comments sections the hard way.

              A few years ago when I was relatively new to feminism and social justice, I used to frequent a blog where there was a large number of women commenting. It had nothing to do with feminism, it was just an ordinary sort of blog and the readers happened to be majorly women. This is important only because suddenly one day, it got overrun with horrible MRA trolls who, as you can imagine, spewed the most vile, misogynist crap all over the place and directly at the women commenters. Being a non-feminist space, the other people there assumed “good faith” and engaged with the trolls repeatedly. Oh, the massacre.

              I was a very sporadic commenter but felt kinda protective of the place, so I suggested that maybe the blog owner could start moderating comments for a little while so that it didn’t turn into a fetid cesspool, and the MRA’s would atleast get bored and go away when they saw they weren’t getting attention. A few MRA’s then targeted ME with their crap (using female handles as a “disguise”, no less). That wasn’t the worst of it. The *rest of the place* descended on me too with your standard “nazi free speech killer!!!” rhetoric and personal insults.

              I can’t even begin to tell you how horrible it was to experience that, especially because I was trying to HELP. For a long time I wondered what I did wrong that caused that to happen. Was I really rude and a Nazi for suggesting that? Luckily I eventually recovered and can laugh heartily about it now. But yeah, the whole thing drove home the point pretty clearly that sometimes, it is JUST not worth it. Even seemingly reasonable people can react in irrational and awful ways, and you have the right to take care of yourself and preserve your peace of mind.

              And that’s my story! 😉

              • says

                People are really, deeply ignorant about what free speech and censorship are. Even in the US, you

                –Can’t publicly suggest shooting the president (at the very least, the FBI would start monitoring you)
                –Can’t yell FIRE to start a potentially lethal stampede in a crowd
                –A public school can expel you for saying disruptive things, and your family’s/guardians’ tax dollars are paying for that, for goodness’ sake.

                And that’s just in public, where everyone’s tax dollars are presumed to give their speech a sort of equality. In a privately owned space, such as someone’s home or someone’s WEBSITE (are y’all’s tax dollars funding the upkeep of my website? Didn’t think so), you’re limited even further. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not entitled to stand on your doorstep or in your living room for hours saying whatever they want – you can throw them out. Same with some old cracker spouting racist shit. Same with MRA’s.

                You have absolutely NO freedom of speech in a privately owned space. Your freedom of speech is severely limited even in public spaces. What freedom of speech means is that you can say the US govt sucks and Bush was an assclown and you hate the CIA and you think abortion is murder without getting thrown in jail. That’s all! Get over it.

                • says

                  I’m convinced that any unmoderated space on the internet will, given enough time and commenters, turn into a wasteland of trolls.

                  If I was the mod or owner of the website Casey mentioned, and I saw that there was conflict between two clearly defined groups like that, I’d ask myself which group I wanted to hang around: the regular commenters who are capable of having decent conversation, or the new commenters who are only here to stir up trouble. Because the trolls will eventually drive away 95% of the decent people.

  2. Jo says

    I’ve never tried it, but the only appropriate and proportionate response I can think of is another command (“Dance.” comes to mind, but so do “Fetch.” and “Play dead.”)

    Or, yanno, a stone-cold stare until they get uncomfortable.

  3. says

    This is a great article; my wife in particular lists this as one of her big issues on the street. Public objectification like this is so casual, & I think the “smile” is one of the genuinely stupid-not-evil pieces of Patriarchy. There just isn’t the education telling men why this isn’t okay. A facet of it that I, as a large white cis male, find interesting is that I don’t see it. It is groups of men targeting lone women, or lone men targeting groups of women– but once you throw another male in the mix, they back off. That right there is further evidence of how messed up it is.

    • Jo says

      I wouldn’t call it “stupid-not-evil” at all, Mordecai. It’s insidious. It is “look at me, I’m just being nice, to remind you where your place is.” It’s dominance behavior masquerading as politeness.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “men never do it when there’s other men around”, but I can say I’ve never seen a man be the recipient of the “Smile!” admonition. I’ve never seen a man do that to a group of men and women. I think men *have* to do it when there are other men around, however — how else do the young ones learn to do it? It gets passed on by example, like any other social behavior.

      • says

        I agree with everything you are saying– it IS dominance behavior, but like a great number of social cues, negative stuff is positively reinforced. Catcallers know that they are being jerks– even if they act like it is okay– but these guys don’t necessarily know that what they are doing is asserting that women are common property on display for them. Which is why I think those men need to be educated– which I don’t think is a controversial thing to say? & mind you– my point is that it is when STRANGE men are around, because my point is that it is a gross dominance & ownership behavior.

    • Maria says

      If you don’t see it, why do you feel comfortable saying what it is, and designating it as stupid not evil? Check your privilege.

      • says

        The whole reason that I mention that it isn’t something I confront is because I’m checking my backpack– I don’t think that rules me out from entering a conversation on the subject.

    • says

      There’s a level of stupid that might as well be evil, though.

      Men are adults. Men have access to the same sources of information that everyone else does. If someone’s hassling me, I don’t give a damn that oh, the poor little thing just hasn’t been told about this and doesn’t know why it’s wrong: he’s a grownup, he has the Internet, it’s incumbent on him to find out.

      • says

        I’m certainly not being an apologist for the behavior– but rather proposing solutions to the behavior? Men should be involved in gender studies, which seems to be what you are saying as well. I’m not saying it is incumbent on the target of inappropriate statements to be the educator, but noting that insidious social behaviors need to be addressed.

        • Maria says

          Mordicai, I don’t think anyone is calling you an apologist.

          I will say that the reason I’m troubled by your posts is that…

          1. You’re describing street harassment as a behavior, NOT as a problem.
          2. You’re naming what conditions it happens under (even though you say you don’t know a lot about it, and other posters who have experienced it are saying that your theorizing isn’t correct) and describing it as a series of isolated incidents vs a systemic issue
          3. You’re excusing this “behavior” and implying that it’s defensible because of a lack of knowledge
          4. and suggesting that “if they only knew better!”/”it’s an accident!” is part of what makes this part of the system go — think about it like an apology. For an apology to be real you have to recognize the other person as someone able to be hurt/offended/injured, acknowledge what you did as wrong, and acknowledge that you are capable of doing something wrong. By focusing on men and excusing/explaining their behavior, you’re ignoring women and what they’re describing as an offense.

          This last I find frustrating because it removes the intentionality from sexist behavior.

          • says

            I would add that this sort of harassment is a learned behavior. It’s not like guys come out of the womb thinking this is okay, and need to have it explained to them that it’s not. No one ever suggested I should go around commanding people to smile, and no one ever did that around me, so it never occurred to me to do that. It is, after all, an odd thing to do (it’s a little odd just to GREET a stranger, let alone tell them what to do with themselves).

            So education isn’t exactly the problem. Re-education of confused men would be immediately helpful, but the root of the problem is a culture in which women’s bodies exist to please men, and men who aren’t pleased feel entitled to offer criticism. Commanding a total stranger to “smile” is exactly as rude as telling
            a stranger to lose weight. Or dance. Or strip.

          • says

            I think you are definitely stretching my comments. Of course it is a problem; me saying it is a behavior is descriptive, not categorical. Of course it is systemic– I never implied that it was a series of isolated incidents. You want me to check my privilege (rightly so) but when I acknowledge that this isn’t something I personally deal with BECAUSE of my privilege, you…condemn me for saying it doesn’t happen? That isn’t what I’m saying at all. I’m saying I don’t have first hand experience, but that diminishes MY viewpoint on the matter, not those who actually face it. I mention my involvement in it– that I don’t frequently see it, despite knowing that it exists, & that I theorize that the “umbrella of ownership” is assumed because of my presence. This is an additional symptom of why it is MESSED UP.

            & yes, you are calling me an apologist. Your fourth point explicitly uses those terms, either. & I’m okay with that– critical readings of things I’m saying don’t hurt my feelings & we aren’t in a conversation about my feelings anyhow. I am saying– please don’t take what I am saying as an apology for these acts, or as an excuse for their intention. I’m certainly not. I don’t want my comments to be misconstrued; I didn’t come her to deny the thesis of the article but rather to agree with it, & that I’m glad it was said succinctly.

            What I AM saying is that men are responsible for their own actions, & for perpetuating a culture of objectification in which somehow it is okay to tell a total stranger how to feel & how to behave– as long as she’s a woman. & that isn’t alright. What I AM saying is that this should be addressed & dealt with, because men are at fault. What I AM saying is that gender issues should be taught, because it ISN’T an accident. It is a widespread part of a patriarchal culture the assumes that men have the right to control women. I am saying that there should be a concerted effort to educate people on this culture, because it is destructive & maladaptive.

            • says

              There just isn’t the education telling men why this isn’t okay.

              Catcallers know that they are being jerks– even if they act like it is okay– but these guys don’t necessarily know that what they are doing is asserting that women are common property on display for them.

              Emphasis mine.

              Men should be involved in gender studies…

              The thing is, when you are saying gender issues should be taught to and concerted efforts should be made to educate people on the failings of the heteropatriarchy and its destructive effects, the implication is that while systemic patterns perpetuate flawed cultural beliefs, men functioning within those patterns of abuse (to treat a person as a commodity, to be ordered to behave in a manner more desirable to the commander, as one would order a dog, is abuse) are somehow excluded from or at very least non-participants in or are unaware of “gender studies” (???), which would stop street harassers from behaving in a way they, as you said, know is wrong, because they would then know why they are wrong. This further suggests that in order to eliminate these patterns, education and influence must come from people living outside of those patterns, which, largely, would mean those existing outside of the “norms” of the heteropatriarchy, i.e. women (cis-, trans-, or otherwise queer) and non-heteronormative men.

              That’s why Maria said,

              For an apology to be real you have to recognize the other person as someone able to be hurt/offended/injured, acknowledge what you did as wrong, and acknowledge that you are capable of doing something wrong. By focusing on men and excusing/explaining their behavior, you’re ignoring women and what they’re describing as an offense.

              when you claimed you were being accused of apologism (which is something you brought up in the first place). Making excuses is a different behavior than apologizing.

              Besides which, when you say there should be further education on gender studies and gender relations for boys and men (which I agree with for girls and women as well, though that’s neither here nor there), but then mention that catcallers “know that they are being jerks” (which is a learned behavior, and a big reason why there is such an emphasis on teaching children right from wrong and the application of thinly veiled morality plays as children’s entertainment), one wonders where blame (or at least, responsibility for the empathy training in these boys/men) rests at the point of conflict in these boys’/men’s lives when they have to make the decision between treating women as they themselves would want to be treated (i.e. as people) vs. cultural standards for how men are meant to treat women (at minimum as an alien Other, and in many cases, also inferior).

              I do think this issue has spiraled a bit, though. Regarding your initial comment, I do understand what you were trying to say about catcalling as “stupid-not-evil” regarding catcallers’ intent in their behavior, however, intent is largely irrelevant when discussing consequences of action– action is material, and intent is immaterial, and largely unspoken. Someone being harassed is not responsible to infer the intent of the person harassing them, nor are they responsible for the gender relations re-education of the harasser. I wouldn’t go so far as to call cultural standards of dominance and ownership “evil” because I don’t like to use that word when referring to real life– there are shades of gray, after all– but it’s definitely not benign, just as hipsters in headdresses aren’t benign because they may not understand the cultural significance of what they’re doing, nor are kids calling each other “retard” or “faggot” as an insult, nor is slut shaming rape survivors (as in the recent case of a gang rape of a pre-teen girl), nor is… etc. etc. These things obviously aren’t necessarily the same amount of “evilness,” but they all function via individuals within a flawed society that “know that they are being jerks” when they make their own choices in their own lives.

              Just my 2c.

            • says

              This is my main beef with you. Jo said, “I’m not sure what you mean by “men never do it when there’s other men around”, but I can say I’ve never seen a man be the recipient of the “Smile!” admonition. I’ve never seen a man do that to a group of men and women. I think men *have* to do it when there are other men around, however — how else do the young ones learn to do it? It gets passed on by example, like any other social behavior.”
              You said, “I agree with everything you are saying…” You later said, “…I theorize that the “umbrella of ownership” is assumed because of my presence.”
              If you had truly acknowledged Jo’s point about ‘a man being there =\= other men not commanding women,’ then you’d have ground to stand on. As is, you’re ignoring someone else’s observation and logical conclusion in favor of your own limited experience (everyone’s is limited, obviously). I can personally say that the only people to ever say that to me were my father and my teachers (though I don’t go out much, and I ‘dress like a guy,’ whatever that means). That doesn’t mean I go about saying that schools and homes are the only commanding places in the world. Sit down, listen, and think before you respond. Make a list of the others’ points if you need it clearly drawn out. Ask for clarification before jumping to conclusions. Listen like you’re expecting us to listen.
              On the main topic of this debate- I only agree that we should educate the adults if your definition of the word educate is ‘get strong, intimidating people to tie them to a chair and calmly inform them of their hideous actions, and the consequences for continuing said actions.’ But that’s just me.

  4. M.C. says

    My problem is exactly the other way around. The always smiling has been so ingrained into my behaviour, that I find myself smiling even when I don’t want to, when I don’t feel like it at all. Therefore I’ve been in alot of situations, in which people don’t listen to what I say and don’t take me seriously because I’m just a pretty girl who’s smiling at them.
    And then I get mad at myself for not behaving accordingly to how I feel. And I know that it’s not my fault, that it’s society’s fault, but that doesn’t make it any easier…

    • Attackfish says

      I spiraled down to suicidal before I was able to tell anyone I was depressed. No one noticed I was depressed because I was always smiling.

      • Maria says

        I can empathize with that, for sure. There’ve also been times that men have really frightened me or harassed me where I have reflexively smiled because that seemed safer, and gotten really angry with myself after

        • Attackfish says

          The more depressed I was, the more I smiled, because the more depressed I was, the less energy I had to deal with the consequences of not smiling.

          And once you’re smiling a sweet appeasing smile, it’s so much harder to be aggressive. Because that smile doesn’t say “I’m happy”, it say’s “I’m submissive.”

          • Maria says

            And once you’re smiling a sweet appeasing smile, it’s so much harder to be aggressive. Because that smile doesn’t say “I’m happy”, it say’s “I’m submissive.”


    • Shaun says

      I do that too. I used to smile as a defensive mechanism growing up, so I often smile when I’m upset by things now. I don’t have demands to smile for sexist reasons but the smiling itself is probably a not-uncommon behavior.

      • Maria says

        I laugh a lot too — my therapist says that learning to recognize, acknowledge, and physically feel your feelings is important.

    • says

      I, too, never really though about why this bothered me so much. I’ve had it happen several times, and I more often get it from women older than myself than I do from men.

      Because of this, I thought of it as a sort of universal don’t-ruin-my-day-by-having-feelings-of-your-own thing. Growing up in an abusive environment, where my mother didn’t want to hear about my problems because she had enough of her own, and where we had to always act happy in public lest outsiders suspect what my dad was really like, getting this demand for outsiders seemed to be a logical extension of what I already dealt with.

      Seeing it now in terms of gender roles and women needing to “keep sweet” for men, makes it not just scary, but also depressing. People, in this case men, that think they have a right to tell me what to do with my body for their benefit are obviously problematic, but now when I get the command from other women, I’ll be sad to think of how deeply they buy into the dynamic.

    • Unwisely says

      Yes, this. I used to get this at work *all the time*, and this explanation makes *so much sense*. Although I still want a good comeback.

  5. Lindsay says

    If it’s a stranger, someone I will likely never see again, I usually tell them something horrible happened – like “my mother just passed away”, “I just found out I have cancer”, etc. The result is generally a stunned silence, and quite often a stumbling apology.

    I know it’s an awful thing to lie about, but generally, the look on the other person’s face (and the hope that next time they won’t tell someone else to smile), get me through the guilt.

    I don’t mean to trivialize the situation if anyone else is actually going through one of those situations, but it’s kind of a verbal slap in the face to the person who is barging into your day.

  6. Alara Rogers says

    Channel Wednesday Adams. Stare at them with a flat expression and say “Why?” in a monotone. They don’t know what to do with that.

    At least that used to work for me. Now, no one even *asks* me.

  7. Heather says

    I used to do what Shannon above mentioned because of the reaction it would get, but then I realized that, hey, I don’t NEED to be suffering from something for it to be ok to not be smiling.

    Now, I go with Alara Rogers’s response. “Why?”

    Ignoring it altogether results in “Bitch!” too often for me to be comfortable with.

  8. says

    I most often get told to smile when I’m preoccupied – I guess I frown when I think? Anyway, by the time I’ve expended the mental energy to stop thinking about my problems, shift back to the present and process what was said to me and who said it, I’ve realized this is all a huge waste of my time and energy. And it makes me angry at the person who said it to me. So I just glare at them and keep walking. So far I haven’t had any further harassment, but when I do my response will probably be “Mind your own business!” and a middle finger.

    I’m convinced “smile!” translates from privilegese to “stop what you’re doing and pay attention to me! I’m important! Meeeeeeee!”. Since they tend to look taken aback by the death glare, I have a faint hope they realize there’s at least one person who doesn’t give a shit. But I am worried about potential future problems, especially if I do end up moving to a larger city with more street harassment.

    • SunlessNick says

      I don’t know if this is an American/British thing, but it’s not that unusual for women to tell me to smile either. Although it generally carries a current of “buck up, it can’t be that bad” – which might be clueless, but doesn’t have the same play of dominance.

      • The Other Anne says

        That sounds kind of like a try to get you to act more “manly” and suppress those emotions of yours. Also a troubling thought, though as a woman I’ve only ever experienced the USian version which feels like a demand on the part of the person (always a man, for me) for me to smile because they can’t be bothered to realize I’m a person with my own things going on who should be told to smile just because some stranger tells me to.

        I hate anyone telling someone what to do in this way, and I find your experience is bad, but at least there’s that undercurrent which recognizes that you’re experiencing an issue as opposed to the one I get that tells me “you exist right now only to smile for me because I said so.”

      • says

        Even if it is just “buck up”, I still find it aggravating. Because it never happens to me when I might need cheering up. It only happens to me when I’m lost in thought. Having a stranger talk to me derails whatever I was thinking about, and realizing they had absolutely no point to this interruption does nothing but piss me off.

        And even if I did need cheering up, a stranger telling me to smile wouldn’t do it. A stranger smiling and cheerily wishing me a good afternoon might – but ordering me to rearrange my face? Not so much.

        • SunlessNick says

          No, and it’s still imposing their view onto you, because they have no reason to assume it’s [i]not[/i] that bad.

        • says

          I just want to stamp “co-signed” on everything you’ve written here, Sylvia. Apparently I am just a troublingly deep public thinker whose brow furrows threaten social harmony to the point I must be stopped, too. Gets right up my nose, seriously.

          • says

            Apparently I am just a troublingly deep public thinker whose brow furrows threaten social harmony to the point I must be stopped, too.

            Made me giggle out loud. Thank you. :) It also reminded me of:

            “How ghastly for her, people actually thinking, with their brains, and right next door. Oh, the travesty of it all.” (Soulless, Gail Carriger)

  9. Brand Robins says

    Every once in awhile some comes along and posts something so sharp and insightful (like this post) that I just sit there blinking, mouth open, trying to fucking imagine that happening, hammered by the extent of my own privilege.

    I think I may have seen a strange man tell a woman to smile. I think I must have. I think I didn’t notice, or assumed he must know her because who the fuck would say that to a stranger, or something else. Because, of course, I was allowed not to see it. Like how I didn’t used to see how people would bump my wife or her best friend on the street to move the around until they pointed it out one day and showed it happening while I watched.

    So when you ask for what I’d say… I can’t actually think of anything that would be likely to come out of my mouth. If I was wandering down the street in high dudgeon and someone came up and told me to smile… I don’t know if I’d even be able to cognate what was happening. I’d probably sit there staring at them like they had fourteen tentacles coming out of their neck where their head should be.

    But hell, next time I see it I won’t be blind fuck stupid. I’ve still got no idea what I’d say, but at least I’ll be able to see it happening.

  10. Mina says

    I suppose I should leave a real comment.

    Men get this too, but the context is different. US culture seems to treat not smiling as being hostile, so there’s pressure to smile in social situations as a way of showing you’re friendly and approachable. It’s different than the harassment, but I get told to smile in both contexts, and I never really separated the two in my mind until recently. The both seemed like random pushiness from other people.

  11. Dani says

    Fabulous post!

    Ew. I’ve gotten this before, and it makes me hideously uncomfortable. I never know what the person asking wants, and, frankly, I don’t *want* to know; I just want them to leave me alone.

  12. sbg says

    My comeback is generally just, “No.”

    I tend to look very grumpy when I’m not smiling. It’s something about my eyebrows and the downward tilt of my mouth at its resting position. So, when someone tells me to smile I tend to assume they are assuming I’m grumpy, but I’m not, which makes me, ironically, grumpy.

    • Casey says

      This reminds me, my MOM is actually the person who tells me to smile most (because apparently I look grumpy when I just try to be “expressionless/thoughtful/busy”). I tried telling her I DON’T SMILE so people actively avoid me but she said “YOU’RE JUST TURNING AWAY NICE PEOPLE!! THE WEIRDOS WILL BUG YOU NO MATTER WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE!”
      She has a point, I GUESS but that’s still not gonna stop me from NOT smiling.[/don’t give a fuck]

      • sbg says

        I worked at a skeevy motel once upon a time. Service industry – you’re supposed to smile, right? Well, when I did that the skeeviest skeeves who ever skeeved would then camp out at the front desk for HOURS, because clearly I was smiling at them for a reason other than, y’know, doing my job. But, anyway, I learned early on in that position to pick and choose when I smiled.

        • Casey says

          I think I remember you talking about that in maybe…a Scrubs discussion thread? Didn’t a bunch of lamers try picking you up/asking you to go to bed with them? Or was that someone who worked in a FANCY hotel so all the skeeves thought if they bribed you, you’d do whatever they wanted?[/ick]

        • says

          Yep. I have found consistently that if you want to get asked out by men, work in customer service. Do reception, clerking, whatever. You’ll pull more than you’ve ever pulled in your life.

          Of course, if you want to get asked out by quality men, this is precisely the wrong way to go about it. Truly nice guys get that you’re not in a position to show your true feelings, so they shouldn’t take your pleasantries personally.

  13. Patrick McGraw says

    I am very introverted and suffer from depression. I smile about as much as Batman or Prince Zuko.

    I have never, ever been told to smile by a stranger.

    Anyone who claims this behavior isn’t very strictly gendered towards forcing women into a particular role is either ignorant or lying.

    • Attackfish says

      Speaking of prince Zuko, this entry has made me wonder if some of the comments about Mai’s “man face” in fandom might just be her lack of smiling. Flat affect as a masculine trait? (because I really never got what fandom meant by that, except that she stands in the way of their Zutara, but why that insult?)

  14. TansyJ says

    You know, I was better about this when I was younger.

    I used to just give the straight blank stare to people when they randomly demanded that I smile. Of course, I had been in a long, drawn out fight with multiple cello teachers since I was 5 on the subject of smiling. I had this habit, of you know, concentrating on my music? And forgetting to SMILE! When I was playing, but I never really heard the boys in any of my classes being lectured on the same thing. It drove me crazy. So when random strangers would tell me to smile, it just felt like an extention of the same fight, and would usually result in a blank stare or scowl.

    Now that I’m not fighting it on a regular basis, I tend to automatially smile, because I’m expected to be appeasing, and non-confrontational to random jerks who demand my attention when I’m minding my own business.

  15. Nicky P says

    Huh. I pretty much never smile, even when I’m happy, and I’ve been told that I generally look pretty pissed off. No one ever tells me to smile. I wonder why?

  16. Ara says

    When I was a cashier at Wendy’s I got reported to my manager for not smiling. (There was nothing else wrong with that order at all… I just wasn’t smiling. Except I was smiling, as far as I could tell.) The manager knew very well that I’m the kind of person who is almost always smiling, so he didn’t do anything about it, but if I hadn’t been one of the cheery bouncy shiny rule-follower employees, there would have been a write-up because of customer complaint.

    Because smiling at Wendy’s is corporate policy and customers feel entitled to it.

    • says

      Worse than that, apparently this customer felt entitled to get you into trouble over it. Because it’s not enough you’re working for min wage and going home smelling like a fry basket so he can eat cheap food.

      • SunlessNick says

        So how does anyone think they’re owed more by a food employee than the food they pay for? A rhetorical question, I know how.

    • says

      I am so sorry for this. My dad’s also of the, ‘if they don’t smile they aren’t friendly’ variety. I’m not sure he’s ever complained about it to anyone in charge, but I still can’t go to places with him because of that and other things he’s done… (And yes, there was attempted educating, but it was useless.)

  17. Shuu says

    It frustrates me too because I usually instinctively smile when told to… and then feel even more annoyed that they got the reaction they wanted, like a loss of control.

  18. lilacsigil says

    I find it significant that the only male people I have ever seen given this order are teenager boys working in low status service jobs, particularly if they dress unconventionally or wear piercings or make-up. “Smile, kid!” Definitely a power dynamic there!

    • Attackfish says

      I’ve seen prepubescent boys, old men, and men with disabilities told to smile too. Power dynamic oh so very much. Of course in my experience, it’s usually women telling the old men and men with disabilities to smile. Don’t know why.

      • SunlessNick says

        While I mentioned that I get women telling me to smile, it’s usually women who are noticeably older than me. (Where it’s not, they’re usually explicit about saying I look like I need cheering up).

        In these cases, as well as a power dynamic, I think there’s an easy-feelgood dynamic, in that they think telling someone to cheer up is in itself comforting, and doesn’t take any effort on their part. It’s still “I’z arbitrate your mood” though.

      • Shaun says

        Hmm. It’s not really the same dynamic everyone else is describing (the hi you exist for my sexual or visual gratification way), but usually if someone tells me to smile it’s in this patronizing… here you obviously don’t know how to function in polite society so let me tell you how to do it kind of way. I usually write it off as an unconnected microaggression but it’s illuminating to see it all laid out like this.

        I THINK I’ve experienced the young, low-end service job version too but the only circumstances I can remember right now are the former.

    • Finbarr Ryan says

      It’s happened to me before with my old college flatmates, but until I read this comment I just wrote it off as an unusual experience. On reflection though, my relationship with them had a power dynamic to it (I’m thinking of Jennifer’s article on extroversion privilege over at WP). The weirdest thing about my experience was that my refusal to smile on their command once resulted in one of them tickling me, and then getting upset with me when that failed to cheer me up.

      • sbg says

        Whut. Tickling would do the exact opposite of cheering me up, and is totally inappropriate for most social situations.

        • Finbarr Ryan says

          Yeah, it had the opposite effect on me too. They tried to pressure me into apologising after I shoved him off me, because god knows invading somebody’s personal space in order to stop them from invading your personal space is criminal.

          • says

            I’d have stormed out and never talked to them again. Or told an administrator and demanded an apology from them. Or both. As long as I could do that without being kicked out/forced to pay their rent, of course. God, I hate being unable to do anything but smile.

      • Casey says

        If somebody violated my bodily autonomy (even if they’re doing something as “benign” as tickling) I wouldn’t cheer up either. >_<

  19. Anka says

    I *HATE* this “smile!” thing, for all the reasons outlined so eloquently above. When I lived in the United States, especially during my early twenties, I got it on average once a week. I used to be extremely unassertive, and would give a sickly half-smile and hate myself for the rest of the day. But the day I went back to work after my mother died, some a**hat told me to “SMILE!” as I walked past him in the street, and, instead of my usual, I snapped. I whirled around, clenched my fists, froze my face in a frightening rictus, fixed him with a death glare, and snarled, “MAKE ME!” in a Darth Vader-esque voice (the voice just kind of came out–it wasn’t planned). He blanched and recoiled. This made me so happy that I not only smiled but laughed, and said “Thanks! It worked!” and went on my way. I snuck one last look at him over my shoulder and he was still standing there, bewildered, scratching his head.

    I’m not going to pretend that this is a solution to this pervasive and disgusting problem, but it was SO satisfying that time.

    • says

      This is an older comment, but I was just checking up on this post again and laughed out loud. Still the best thing I’ve read all day.

  20. says

    Back when I was a cashier, I was working the register on a busy Saturday one of my male customers said to me, “Smile! It can’t be that bad.” Then I tell him, “Actually, I’m working under a lot of pain right now. My lunch break is over an hour late, my head is killing me, my feet hurt, I’ve got cramps, and I’ve still got 4 hours on the clock.”

    His response: “Oh.”

  21. says

    I don’t know if anyone has linked to this, but there is a great illustration by krisatomic called “Chronic Bitchface” which is about just this topic:

    “Why aren’t you smiling?” is one of the most insidious forms of sexual harassment, because it’s impossible to respond to this without being accused of “bitchiness”, because the asker is of course, “just being nice”. I have never witnessed a woman say this to a man.

  22. ALIG83 says

    I used to work in banking and once had a male customer tell me “You must be single because no man wants a woman who doesn’t smile.” I nearly cursed him out, and I told him that I didn’t care about what some man wants, but he didn’t hear me because his attention was already on something else.

    Another time I had a man tell me, “Smile, you’re young.” after I frowned at him because he told me that every time he sees me I get more beautiful and beautiful, and I was thinking to myself, like, what is he talking about every time he sees me because I had never seen him before a day in my life.

    I once had a male manager who would tell me to smile. He complained that I didn’t talk to the customers. I’ve always been one to focus more on getting the work done rather than chatting people up. He also once told me that I needed to ‘lighten up’.

    I get harassed by men on the street so much that it transferred over to how I interact with male customers in my jobs. I always feel apprehensive to wait on them because they will either try to flirt with me or stare me down as I wait on them. I once had a male customer complain about me, but he never actually said if I had done anything wrong. My guess is that he wasn’t too happy with me because I didn’t smile at him.

    • Casey says

      “[…]what is he talking about every time he sees me because I had never seen him before a day in my life.”



      • ALIG83 says

        I could only guess that he said that because the bank I worked for was inside of a grocery store, so maybe he saw me there. Or, maybe he has seen me walking in the area because I do not have a car.

        I’ve always found it interesting that men who have seen me before interpret it as actually knowing me.

        • says

          You know, I’m just feeling compelled to emphasize that don’t think MOST men would interpret it as knowing you. I think most men would interpret it as seeing you every day because your routines cross paths. I think most men would realize how stalkerish it would sound to even mention to a stranger “I see you all the time.”

          But sadly, there are a large enough number of men who don’t have proper social boundaries out there to give a woman the impression that “men” interpret seeing you as knowing you. But also, that this is a direct result of male privilege, because if a woman oversteps her boundaries too much, she gets smacked back into them quickly most of the time. But when men do it, no one corrects them, and the targets of their unwanted attention usually feel (speaking for myself, but I think this is general) that giving them a pushback might “provoke” a more dangerous level of interest, so we just take it and hope that’s the extent of it.

          • ALIG83 says

            But a lot of them do interpret it that way. I was on a bus stop once and a man waiting for the bus also, turned to me and asked, “You don’t work at the bank anymore?”. I turned to him and asked him who he was since I had never seen or talked to him before. He replied, “Oh, I know you live in the area and that you work at the bank.” I never bothered to answer his question because he never told me who he was but it seemed that he thought he knew enough about me without actually ever meeting me to ask me such a question.

            There are men in my neighborhood who often see me walking, so without them ever knowing anything about me, they offer to give me rides in their car. I’ve even had men approach me in public places to tell me that they have seen me walking before, they tell me where they live and that if I ever need a ride that they will give me one.

            One day while I was at work while working in the bank, a man came up to the window and asked me what time did I get off from work. I looked at him and asked him why would he ask me such a thing because we did not know each other. He told me he lived in my neighborhood and that he could give me a ride home. This scenario happens quite a lot. I have lost count the number of times men have offered to give me a ride in their car simply because they have seen me before.

            To me, I feel that they think they know me simply because they have seen me before. There are two different men in particular who make it a habit to honk their car horn at me when they pass me on the street. In my opinion, most people with cars honk at people who they know, not strangers.

            I have a blog where I write about my experiences with street harassment. You can check it out here:

            • says

              But a lot of them do interpret it that way.

              Oh, yes, I wasn’t arguing against that. What I’m trying to say is that the behavior you’re describing is NOT one prescribed by our culture. Even in romantic comedies, where stalker behavior is often conflated with true love behavior, a man you’ve never seen talking to you like he knows you would be considered weird and potentially worrying. AND YET there are enough men doing it and getting away with it for you to have lots of different experiences with lots of different men. This suggests to me that… well, we have an alarming number of men who have no boundaries and feel entitled to go OUTSIDE cultural boundaries to find methods of interacting with women against their wills.

              I think I’m having an off-day and can’t say things well. Did this make any sense?

            • The Other Anne says

              Did any of them even ask you if you prefer walking or did they just assume you’re a helpless person and they should save you that terrible walk home?

              And how does this not strike them as inappropriate behavior? Parents always tell kids never to get in cars with strangers. Do they think you somehow magically sense that they’re Just Great Guys Who Want To “Help” and not get that to you they could be incredibly dangerous and life-threatening? Does Not Compute.

              • ALIG83 says

                Of course none of them have ever asked me if I prefer walking. I once had a man pull up next to me and tell me, “Go sit down somewhere, you’re always walking.” I don’t have a car or anything, so how else am I supposed to get around?

                I’m sure they don’t think the behavior is inappropriate. It happens to me so much that I think men think it is only normal to offer strange women a ride in their car. You know what? I am twenty-five, but I look about ten years younger. Maybe they think I am a young, naive girl who would jump at the chance of male attention.

  23. says

    I always get, “You have a beautiful smile; why don’t you smile more?” from my father. Even when he was driving me to the hospital and knew I was in a lot of pain. Or maybe he didn’t- my face normally doesn’t show pain, so I must have been ‘lying’ when I said it hurts- but then why was he driving me in the first place? Probably to appease his little ‘overdramatic princess.’ Oh, well.
    From teachers, it was actually in our school policy- you could get penalized for not showing enough ‘school spirit,’ kinda like that one town where it was illegal to smile. (Ref: )
    I have never met someone who told me to “You should smile!” outside of school and my father, but I don’t go out much and I ‘dress like a guy,’ or so I’m told. If I did, though, I’d probably give them my pissed-off smile and say, “And you should mind your own business!” in the same cheerful tone. But I guess not a lot of people have a pissed-off smile- that may just be my conditioning, there.

        • says

          Truly. And I find it quite disturbing that it makes it seem as though the ordinance was harmless or even helpful.

          As a thought on good comebacks, one might say, “We’re not in Pocatello,” to a commanding stranger. (I personally would take great pleasure in their possible confusion at this statement.)

            • sbg says

              Uh, above she linked to the City of Pocatello, Idaho website, which has an ordinance making not smiling illegal.

              So it both means something (snarkily) and is confusing. Hehe.

              • says

                What, you expect me to remember something for two whole days? I’m a modern consumer, you’re lucky if my attention span lasts fifteen seconds. =P

                Seriously, thanks for the reminder.

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