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

Mick Tsikas / Reuters

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!