Do Strangers Ever Tell Men to Smile?

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

Jacqueline, a reader in Michigan, brings up “one thing missing from your discussion”:

All my life I have been told to smile more (I’m a 72-year-old woman, so that’s a lot of smiles). But until I read “The Sexism of Telling Women to Smile: Your Stories,” it never occurred to me to wonder whether it was because I’m female. If I could have reached this point without picking up on that, there must be many others out there like me, so I find it strange that you did not give any kind of evidence that this is a phenomenon that plagues girls and women in particular. I have always assumed that the fixation on smiling comes from an American cultural need to put a pretty face on things.

Thanks to Jacqueline for raising this point! It’s true that I haven’t presented much evidence beyond anecdotes from my own experience and from other women. That’s partly because I think collecting individual stories may be the best way to reveal a phenomenon that’s experienced one brief encounter at a time, in many subtly different ways, and can sometimes feel too trivial to talk about at all. After all, it’s not a single, offhand, well-meant “Smile!” to me or Hillary Clinton or any other woman that makes a sexist and degrading pattern; it’s the accumulation of many comments, to many women, over many years.

(Worth noting here: We’ve had dozens of emails in the past two weeks from readers who said the experience of being told to smile resonated with them, and most of them offered their stories—from the mildly irritating to the egregious. But only three of the emails so far have come from men.)

But in the longer term, my goal for this series is a broader discussion about the subtle power dynamics involved in smiling and in the instruction to smile. With your help, I’d like to start figuring out how, exactly, such a simple and natural act has come to carry such weight. And that does include gathering stories from men, as well as stories from outside the United States.

Alex Calder, a female reader in Dublin, posted our Notes discussion on Facebook and asked her male friends whether they’d ever been told to smile by strangers. Here’s what she found:

After a slow start, it began to generate a reasonable amount of stories. The conclusion I drew was that men seem to only get asked to smile either by older people (men and women) or by women when they’re drunk, usually late at night. (Except in the case of my husband, whose arrogantly mournful John Snow-esque face seems to attract a disproportionate amount of ire from pudgy-faced men.)

If you’re a man who’s often been told to smile—or if you’re someone who tells either men or women to smile on a regular basis—we’d like to hear your thoughts. Marc writes:

I’m a guy who doesn’t smile much; it feels unnatural for me. I constantly get told to smile by my mother and other women. I can’t remember ever being told to smile by another man, but maybe it’s happened. It has never occurred to me that this was unusual or crossed my mind to think I was the victim of some sort of sexism. I may have asked a women to smile once or twice in my life, I don’t know.

When women tell me to smile, I usually flash them an exaggerated fake smile and then go about my business. It’s annoying to be told to smile, but I don’t really get the sexual harassment angle. Pretty sure my mom isn’t sexually harassing me when she asks me to smile.

Here’s another man who thought my original note was lacking in evidence:

The conclusions drawn by this writer are ridiculous. I was told to smile by multiple older women when I was a scowling 8th-grade boy. Was that sexism as well? Give me a break.

One thing I find notable about this reader’s response is that he was a young boy when these women would comment on his expression. That doesn’t take away from how frustrating or painful the comments may have been. After all, as I’ve written, I was the same age as this reader when I found a man’s repeated demands for my smile to be demeaning and demoralizing. But it’s striking that so many adult women regularly experience strangers giving them the kind of unsolicited behavioral commentary—think of your grandmother telling you to smile or sit up straight—that might otherwise be reserved for one’s own children.

Intentional or not, that condescension is present in many of the encounters that other readers have described—the older male officer at an Army base security checkpoint who told reader Kristina to smile each morning as she handed him her ID, or the man who told a reader in Florida, “It’s not that bad! Smile, beautiful!” as she stepped outside to cry about her grandfather’s terminal illness. Then there’s this memory, from a 50-year-old woman in Jackson, Mississippi:

I was recently at Whole Foods, getting out my money to pay, and this teenage boy cashier told me to smile. I looked at him like he was crazy and said, “You know, that is a sexist question. Would you ever tell a male customer to smile?” He said, “No! Why would I do that?”

Adena DeMonte—who works at a startup that’s trying to combat unconscious bias in the workplace—puts it well:

I was at a professional conference the other day, and while walking onto the trade-show floor I was thinking about an upcoming work project with a focused look on my face. A man checking badges said, “Smile,” to me as I walked by. I realized that my reflex to this comment was to laugh in a girlish way, not make eye contact, and keep walking. When I did this, I got angry at myself for smiling, like I was a child being told what to do despite being a 30-something professional woman. And then I got angry at this man for telling me to smile, especially at a work event.

Speaking of work, that’s one context in which gender differences and discrimination—including expectations for demeanor such as smiling—have been well studied. In a piece for our site back in January titled “How ‘Service With a Smile’ Takes a Toll on Women,” Adia Harvey Wingfield discussed how a service-based economy can put pressure on workers to display stereotypically gendered emotions. Here’s one of the several studies she cited:

Jennifer Pierce, a University of Minnesota sociologist, found that the expectations for emotional labor in the legal profession apply to women working in every part of the field. In other words, while male attorneys—generally speaking—are allowed and even expected to be aggressive and domineering, that does not extend to female attorneys, who are frequently penalized if they attempt to conform to these emotional norms. Meanwhile, female legal secretaries described expectations that they would be deferential and caretaking towards (mostly male) attorneys, but male secretaries were not subject to the same norms. Thus, even when women worked in male-dominated positions, the emotional expectations deemed “appropriately” feminine still applied in ways that made it more difficult for women to do their jobs.

Many female readers have contributed stories about being told to smile at work, and we’ll be posting those soon. (If you have one, please let us know.) For now, here’s Jason, for whom the command to smile also came in the context of work:

I’m a male and I have certainly been told to smile by women. When I worked as a grocery bagger in high school, there were several people, mainly old women, who said I should smile more. I remember also being told to smile more by some grocery checkers, who were predominately women. I was never told to smile by a man. I’m fairly certain I wasn’t told to smile out of sexism or malice but it was certainly annoying.  

Interestingly, my grandma is a big encourager of people to smile more, which I’m sure is annoying to those people. In my experience, frequent targets of her encouragement are male waitstaff. I really don’t know what her motivation is to ask people to smile but I’m sure it’s not out of sexism or malice.

Courtney Solomon raises one likely possibility:

I think it’s multifaceted. There’s the obvious implication that women look more attractive when smiling, which is seen by many as our primary purpose. But as someone who worked for years in the hospitality industry, smiling is a job requirement (although more strongly encouraged for females). Smiling tells a guest / customer I’m demure and here to serve you, and not challenge you in any way. While I realize no one likes a cocky server, the industry is a pretty accurate microcosm.

If you have experience in the service industry and can speak to that point, please send us a note: Update from a woman who responds to some of the comments from men above:

The difference between an old lady telling a bag boy to smile and a man on the street telling me to smile is that I know if I don’t smile, it’s highly likely the man will lash out verbally—or physically. Because that’s what happens. It’s sexist and degrading and not okay and not remotely like a drunk girl at a bar coming on to a guy. It’s upsetting you’d even entertain those stories as if they’re remotely similar.  

More on that danger from other readers here.