‘I Will Not Smile. I Am Not Your Monkey.’

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

In a previous note, a reader wondered “what might happen if one refuses to smile.” Here are some readers who did refuse—and then responded forcefully to the men who’d solicited their smiles. Sarah writes:

We all have these stories, don’t we?

Long ago, I was out at a bar with some friends when a Nice Guy decided to be cute with me. My attention had wandered and this, apparently, was unacceptable. So Mr. Nice Guy grabbed me by both shoulders, shook me, and yelled “Hey! Smile!”

This happened a month or two after I had been sexually assaulted. I’ve never liked being touched without my consent, and that was particularly true at this point in my life. I reacted instinctively and pulled back to lay Mr. Nice Guy out flat. I stopped myself before my fist connected with his face, but—too late.

My negative reaction to his “just trying to be friendly!” act got me a torrent of anger and insults: I was a bitch, I should crawl back under my rock, I was (of course) fat and ugly, etc. He was ready to hit me when my male companions intervened. Mr. Nice Guy slunk away, only after he had shared his opinions about my looks and attitude with the men in my group.

I don’t believe for a minute that the problem in that little interaction was my attitude. I am certain that Mr. Nice Guy never would have pulled that stunt on a random male at the bar who seemed preoccupied, because he knew that doing so would get him punched in the face.

Anne writes:

Picture this: I had just left the nursing home to visit my dying mother (who did not recognize me in her advanced stage of Alzheimer’s) and pulled into a restaurant to have a late breakfast before the long ride home. I am sitting at the table, reading a serious email from my sister about my mother's care and what the long-term plan was for my terminally ill father.

An older gentleman approached me and said, “Smile!” The rest of the dialogue went something like this:

“Excuse me?”

“You should smile. I saw you reading and you just look too serious.”

“I’m not reading anything funny.”

“Yes, but you are just too INTO it. I saw you through the window. You look mean, so I think if you would just smile it would make you feel better.”

“Sir, with all due respect, I will not smile. I am not your monkey and you have no right to comment on my countenance. I think, therefore, that you should walk away and mind your own business.”

His wife overheard this exchange and gave ME the stink eye.

I told my girlfriends about this, and they said, “Aww, he was just a harmless old man trying to flirt with you.” This made me more upset than being told to smile; my friends just didn’t get it. Did I really have to explain this?? It still angers me when I think about it.

Have you gone through a similar experience when talking to female friends? Or, are you a woman who finds strangers’ comments intrusive but would stop at calling them out? Let us know. Meanwhile, here’s another reader:

I was laid off (along with most people on the contract I was working on), and after out-processing and turning in my badge on a warm summer day, I wasn’t in the best mood. On my way home, I stopped at a Circle K convenience store to pick up a six-pack of beer to drown my disappointments and dull the anxiety I was feeling in my predicament. I walked into the store, grabbed my six-pack, stood in line, and finally it was my turn at the register. The guy, probably someone my age, said, “You really need to cheer up, young lady, and smile! Life’s not that bad and you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously!”

I looked at him, stone-faced, and said, “First of all, don’t call me ‘young lady’ since it’s obvious we are about the same age. Second, maybe I don’t have a reason to smile. Do you walk around randomly smiling? Do you feel obligated to improve the scenery everywhere you go? You don’t? Well, neither do I. It’s none of your business, but I just lost my job and I’m unemployed, so maybe I have a reason not to smile.”

The people behind me in line started to get agitated and uncomfortable (who knows if they were irritated with me or sympathetic), but that shut him up. He seemed to entertain the points I had made, maybe even feeling a bit humiliated about the exchange.

One more reader, Sophia, also had a significant reason not to smile—but she ended up choosing not to share it:

I remember being told by a passing man at work to “smile” not long after my younger brother had overdosed and died. I considered telling this guy why I didn’t feel like smiling but decided that would be inappropriate.

To me, these stories illustrate part of why comments on smiles can be so insidious and so frustrating. To tell someone to smile is invasive. It’s a comment on personal circumstances, on the thoughts and feelings that person should be allowed to keep private. It’s rude in the same way it’s rude to comment on someone’s weight gain or scars or miscarriage or divorce. But a smile is the part of someone’s mood that gets presented to the public, so on its face (and I do intend that pun), the command to smile seems casual, innocuous. To reveal the very personal reasons why we might not feel like smiling can seem like a much more obvious breach of social norms. And the pressure to be polite, to not make a scene, is deeply ingrained in us from childhood.

That last point is illustrated by Chelsea Henderson, a reader who contended with comments far more intrusive than the passing demand for a smile:

While I consider myself a strong, independent woman, I have a history of buckling under societal expectations: Be nice. Be polite. Smile. Hug men who only deserve a handshake.

Just recently, I was at the airport in San Francisco making my way to the BART train when a man stopped me and asked if I knew how to get to the train. I didn’t, but I know how to read and follow directions, so together we started to make our way toward the train. I’m generally not one to talk to strangers, but we made small talk as we walked. I mentioned I like to fly cross-country because it’s five hours of the day no one can bug me (meaning, electronically, of course).

“Oh, you are very beautiful, so you must be used to men bugging you all the time,” he said.

That was when the first red flag went up, but I continued to walk with him, continued to make small talk.

“You know, I have a hotel near the airport. You should stay with me tonight,” he said, about three minutes into our initial encounter. And what did I do? I fucking smiled and said, “That’s nice, but I’m in town to visit a friend who needs me.”

He pressed me. Made me take his phone number. Told me to call him if I changed my mind. “If not tonight, how about Monday?” he asked.

Still, I never said NO, I DON’T KNOW YOU AND I’M NOT STAYING WITH YOU or moved away from him or looked for a security guard. Instead I smiled and told him my friend was going through a rough time and I couldn’t leave her alone.

It was only when we parted company that I realized how much I enabled him. How I should have shut him down. Said no. Been more forceful.

Ugh, I regret that moment. I wish I could take it (and many others) back.