From a recent Miss Manners column:
Dear Miss Manners:
What is the correct response when people tell me to smile? I am not at a photographer’s studio or where photos are being taken. I’m just going about my business.
The other evening at a social function, I was waiting for my husband to bring the car to the door. An acquaintance was getting her coat at the coat check. We exchanged some pleasantries when out of the blue she told me to smile.
I told her it really annoys me when people say that to me. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, we bid each other goodnight.
This request to smile has happened to me more than once. I am a reserved person and not one who goes around grinning from ear to ear. I’m not sad or mad. I’m just me.
How should I handle this request? Am I obligated to give them a big toothy smile? Was I rude to my acquaintance? Do I owe her an apology? I am perplexed by this command.
I fucking hate it when people—especially random strange dudes on the street—command me to smile. Miss Manners appears to agree…although far more politely.
The Mannerly One replied:
It is indeed both common and rude to command others to smile, as if this conferred a favor by improving their outlook on life.
Miss Manners was once told this by a stranger on an airplane, although she was dressed in black from head to toe, on her way to attend a funeral. Later she regretted that she had restrained herself from bursting into tears.
Still, your chastising the offender was rude. You could have conveyed the point politely by asking, “Why? Did you say something amusing?
Personally, I didn’t think the letter-writer sounded like she was chastising the other woman when she said that it really annoyed her to be told to smile. I suppose it depends on the tone and body language she used.
I do think its worth mentioning that being commanded to smile this way—even if it’s well-intentioned—is a presumption exclusively inflicted on women. Growing up, I was definitely chided “Smile, Becky!” by teachers and certain family members. I was a bookish, serious kid, and being smile-y and giggly just wasn’t part of my shtick. But I was a girl, and girls should be cute and pleasing and smile at people!
It’s the same situation when stranger on the street—inevitably a dude—tells me to smile. That reliably sends me straight into Be A Bitch mode. What he means is Pay attention to me! I want you to be cute and non-threatening so I can skeeve on you! Never mind that it’s totally inappropriate to walk up to a person you don’t know—male or female—and tell them to do anything. The expectation that I should do as he says and smile just because I’m the girl and I’m supposed to be sweet and pleasant is straight out of the chauvinist pig handbook.
For the naysayers who want to downplay this infuriating behavior—Oh, they’re just being friendly!—I will offer up this proof of chauvinist piggery: when I fail to smile on command, I get called stuck-up, or a bitch or sneered at: Well, you’re ugly anyway! Not so friendly, is it?
The next time someone commands you to smile—don’t. It’s manipulation, and you’re under no obligation to go along with it. And you don’t need to give them that fake, wan, okay, I’m smiling, now please leave me alone smile. Just ignore the request. Or roll your eyes. Or put on your bitch face. Or deploy Miss Manners’s exquisitely polite “Why? Did you say something funny?” (if you must, you can deliver it in a sarcastic tone to give it some zing.) You don’t have to smile at anyone unless you fucking want to.