What It's Like When a Stranger Tells You to Smile

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

Reader Kate Mauldin writes:

As I was reading your note about the sexism of telling women to smile in the wake of people criticizing Hillary Clinton’s debate face, a man on my train ****touched me on my knee**** to get my attention and tell me to smile. Is that a sense of entitlement and ownership of public space or what?

Since we published that note earlier this week, many women have been writing in to share stories about what it’s like to be told to smile. Rachel A. has a particularly thoughtful analysis:

I remember when I was living in Eugene, Oregon, I was told to smile often by strangers while passing them on the street. I grew up 30 minutes outside of NYC and don’t remember being told to smile in New York. I remember plenty of street harassment, being followed by men while driving, being gawked at, lewdly looked at, etc. But in Oregon, it was different. It was more of a “Let me know I’m an okay guy” kind of message, as if I was telling every man I passed by that he wasn’t doing his job well unless I was smiling.  

The strangers (all men) came across as attempting to be friendly to me by telling me to smile, as if to say, “Hey, cheer up, it can’t be that bad.” But I was taken aback, nonetheless. I felt I had tripped upon some unwritten rule and offended the sensibilities of those around me.

But I was also deeply offended in my own way. I couldn’t imagine that my facial expression should affect strangers in any way. I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to just go about life smiling at nothing all the time. It’s pretty nonsensical. Why would I smile for the duration of a 30-minute walk?  I felt it was very much about them, not me—as if my facial expression was a reflection of them, I wasn’t a whole person with thoughts and feelings of my own, and I was put on this earth to reassure men they were adequate on a daily basis. And I was viscerally aware that this rule only applied to me because I was female.

I made the opposite move, from Oregon to New York, and can second Rachel’s observation: People in my hometown of Portland have a different expectation of what a neutral face should look like, so that when I moved to NYC, I had to learn to make my expression less open to avoid inviting strangers’ comments. (Have you noticed different demands for smiling in different places where you’ve lived? Tell us about it via hello@theatlantic.com.) Here’s Rachel’s bottom line on smiling:

I think it’s about being perceived as a threat. We women have to be careful not to make anyone feel threatened. We smile with our women friends all the time, not only when we’re happy but because we need to reduce threat. We need to convey, “I’m on your side. No need to view me as a threat. And I don’t view you as a threat.”

Another reader, Beth, picks up on that dynamic:

As a female I have been a big smiler all my life, not at anyone’s urging. You can do it in advance to place someone at ease; it can confuse someone who is being negative; it is welcoming toward other people; it can be engaging as well as disarming.

As for the pressure on women to smile, I’m fairly certain it is sexist. But, can you imagine a new mother frowning at her newborn? Or a bride demurely coming down the aisle with a smirk? It’s an unjust placement, but women have traditionally had the role of caretaker. The smile conveys warmth, empathy, and caring.

I can certainly remember using smiles in all the ways this reader points out— often, in order to navigate a conversation with a male superior at work or at school. To me, it can feel empowering—though sometimes a little guilt-inducing—to turn a condition of being female that has so often annoyed me into a strategy that can help me get what I want. (If you’ve got a story along those lines, please write in.)

But when it comes to encounters with strangers, as this next reader points out, the mere lack of a smile can feel a lot less threatening than the demand for one:

One thing I haven’t heard people talk about is what might happen if one refuses to smile. My honest reaction to this demand is to tell the man that he doesn’t get to tell me what to do. To be more honest, my real reaction is to say “Fuck you!” But to do so is to invite retaliation. If I don’t comply, he takes it as an invitation to tell me I’m a bitch or whatever. Because he is the man with the power, he now feels he has permission to intimidate in any way he likes. It is freaking scary! I always try to pretend I don't hear the demand in the first place. It’s way too dangerous to engage.

Even ignoring the comment can become frightening, as Tierney Marey’s experience shows:

I was walking through the streets of New York by myself, admiring the buildings, snapping touristy shots, and walking through the beautiful neighborhoods. Then I heard it:

“Hey sweetheart … hey beautiful.”

I ignored it, something I have been taught to do and choose to do.

“Hey … what you ignoring me for? C’mon give us a smile.”

I continued ignoring the man, waiting for the light to turn green so I could cross the street and get away from him.

“Hey you … you with the long brown hair, and the red coat, and the blue jeans and the black boots … stop being so rude and smile!”

I flushed. Everyone was staring at me now that he’d just called me out and described me. I, much to my distaste, flashed him a smile to get him off my back and scurried away.

A block on I began to get really mad. I was rude? Me? For minding my own business? No. He was the rude one: shouting at me on the street, demanding a smile when I owed him nothing, and then embarrassing me in front of everyone, making me feel watched, vulnerable, and alone.