What It’s Like When a Coworker Tells You to Smile

Mick Tsikas / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Among the many stories from women (and some men) who were told to smile by strangers, we’ve also heard from readers who have confronted such comments at work. Melissa writes:

I work in a male-dominated environment with a high percentage of former military. About once a month I encounter some dummy in the hallway who says “Smile!”—always a man, and most of the time far below me in station.

Ugh! I don’t have to smile; I’m at work. I have a lot of stuff to do!

Ugh, indeed. And yet, it’s complicated: While pressure to smile at work is usually less overt and less frightening than street harassment, it can also carry greater repercussions. The need to preserve a good relationship with coworkers and clients means that responding angrily to frustrating requests isn’t really an option. And the subtle, unconscious biases that influence things like promotions and evaluations make the office one place where women sometimes really do “have” to smile to succeed.

Take teaching: There’s an ever-growing body of evidence that female professors are rated more harshly than their male peers on things like classroom demeanor, which means the stakes of “not smiling enough” or appearing “too outspoken” can become very high. As reader Michelle explains:

For years I’ve been an adjunct instructor. I get exhausted smiling, always being cheerful and pleasing. I know that fewer smiles would mean lower student evaluations, less enrollment in my classes, no work. I genuinely love teaching and care about my students. The extra emotional energy that goes into always being sure I’m pleasing would be better spent on real professional concerns and authentic emotional expression. With a paycheck on the line, I have to let this slide.

One woman who didn’t let this slide is our next reader, “a Boomer mom” who’s taught at a community college for almost 30 years:

Our union has always negotiated contracts with tenure after three years, but I was turned down at first. Both my then-department chair and my then-supervisor did not support me. So I had to investigate on my own to discover why. Conversations with both of them and with other faculty soon revealed that I did not get tenure basically because I did not “smile enough.” They meant it literally!

It seems that when I walked about the campus, I had failed to smile at the people who would determine my status as faculty or reject. It also turned out that I did not dress appropriately; interrupted men when they were talking even if they paused for breath and it seemed to me they were done rambling on and on; spoke out about controversial issues like presidential campaigns, civil rights, lack of diversity in both employees and courses; and a host of other things I did that identified me as a “left-wing feminist.” I knew I had an EEOC case when the female faculty member assigned to be my “mentor” explained to me that “you have to dress to please the men” in order to get tenure.

I decided to fight back, with help from other faculty members, some people in the community, and some people working behind the scenes who to this day I don’t know to thank. They got me positive press in the local paper (a deep abiding fear of the administration was negative publicity) and other positive visible exposure in the community. All in all, it worked, but it was the most draining thing I’ve ever done, far more so than anything in grad school including a dissertation.

A reader from a different field shares a shocking incident of harassment by her direct supervisor:

It’s been almost 20 years but I remember exactly what he said: “If you don’t put a smile on your face, I’ll shove my dick so far down your throat, it will make you smile.”

This was reported to H.R. at the time. His supervisor, who was also his best friend, tried to help him, but it turned out that my supervisor had been transferred to the property that I worked at because of this type of behavior elsewhere. He was on probation. He lost his job.

Of course, he blamed me for it. I know this because he called me at work and told me—before his best friend, my new immediate supervisor, fired me.

How to prevent horror stories like that one? Joann S. Lublin has a piece on our site this week addressing that question. Part of the answer, she writes, is to change corporate culture to one that won’t tolerate sexual harassment, which means putting more women in charge:

As more women gain powerful corporate posts, they can serve as a countervailing force to powerful men—including those who sexually harass female employees. Junior women will feel comfortable about approaching and trusting senior female executives who enforce and even expand standards of acceptable decorum in the workplace.

But how do women get to the top in the first place? This next reader, Gail, shares what she learned from “25 years on Wall Street, working my way up from secretary to Managing Director”:

Always dress better than the discount to men’s comp that you’re paid, never overtly take credit, always settle for the unwanted or under-performing accounts, learn fast how to deal with customer and coworker sexual overtures without alienating, and SMILE.

To me, that story is inspiring, but also a little discouraging. It doesn’t seem fair that success, for a woman, would demand minimizing accomplishments, putting up with sexual harassment, and maintaining a specific appearance and behavior in a way that isn’t required of men. On the one hand, it’s learning to deal with the realities of the system in order to (hopefully, eventually) change it; on the other hand, it can feel like giving in. Take it from Patricia, who’s still frustrated by the way she internalized her male coworkers’ expectations:

Men at work (at an unnamed federal agency) constantly told me to smile. My way of warding them off was to teach myself to “wear” a benign, pleasant look. This is a menace to this day because it’s ingrained. Strangers always think I’m smiling at them. I’m not. Why would I?

I’m retired now and it infuriates me to learn that young women are still enduring “Smile!” What I did was to capitulate and that was not the answer.

What’s your answer? If you’ve worked in environments with sexist expectations, how did you navigate the line between working with those expectations and pushing back? Have you ever felt that a stereotypically feminine attribute—your smiles, your looks, your “caretaking” attitude—helped you in your career or in a specific encounter at work? I’d like to hear your stories: hello@theatlantic.com. Here’s a related one from Katy:

My childhood is full of memories of my mother going up to managers, teachers, authority figures of any kind, saying, “I’m so sorry, if you could help me, I don’t mean to bother, etc.” At times I wanted her to be less apologetic, less passive. But here’s the thing: My mother gets things done. She even gets the rules bent at times. She knows what she’s doing, and she never does it out of self-promotion. It’s always to help her family.

It’s something I’ve absorbed and wrestled with as I’ve grown up as a woman—and as I find myself using the same tactic. I try to frame it as a persistent politeness used to navigate complicated, unfeeling and sometimes discriminatory systems. The hard thing is to figure out how to pass on to my own daughter. I want to give her all the tools needed to navigate the world as it is. But I don’t want to keep passing on the same survival tools to a new generation.

On that front, Julie has an encouraging story:

When I was working in educational research, my male supervisor wrote “Julie has a nice smile” in my performance review. I asked him if he wrote the same thing in my male colleague’s review. He looked at me and said no. I asked him to remove that statement from my review.

I was a little nervous that this request might backfire, but it did not. I felt as though my supervisor actually had more respect for me and my work after this.

Here’s one final reader, Cea, who used a non-smiling face to her advantage:

I tend to have a neutral face. My mom would try to get me to smile, “even a little” because she feared I’d “scare away the boys.”  My dad called it a poker face and, interestingly, told me it would be useful as I got older because I didn’t give anything away.

He was right. It was of inestimable use when I practiced law. Male attorneys would make comments about my lack of “smile” and a couple of them told me it was disconcerting. Female attorneys just thought I was cranky. That’s a good thing in a trial practice.

When I would get told I should smile more, I always asked “Why?” and would be told the jury would like me better. As I had a family law practice, never really appeared in front of a jury, and the judges didn't care, I would point out the nonsensical nature of the advice and suggest that the people asking only wanted me to smile so they would feel more comfortable. It made a couple of them irate; they felt I was making fun of them, but I really didn’t care. I still don’t. And kudos to my dad, who was smart enough not to try to “fix” a part of me that wasn’t broken.