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The Sexism of Telling Women to Smile: Your Stories
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Readers share their experiences of being told to smile by strangers and male colleagues. To share your own story and reflections, or to provide a contrary view, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

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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!

Hugo Correia / Reuters

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:

Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

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.

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:

Rick Wilking / Reuters

Last week, my colleague David Frum wrote a post defending a tweet in which he commented on the Democratic nominee’s smile during the first presidential debate. “Who told Hillary Clinton to keep smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party?” the tweet read. It had been called out in a segment by the comedian Samantha Bee, who noted how many pundits had told Clinton she should smile more—advice that’s given much less frequently to men and in much different circumstances. Readers debated that double standard in the TAD discussion group, but this was the most up-voted comment from a reader on Frum’s post:

Women hate being told to smile, and it’s only in the past four years or so that I’ve completely lost patience with it. The last time was the grocery store employee who walked by me and told me to “smile, sweetheart,” and I gave him a nasty look and moved on. No one tells a male stranger to smile; only women are expected to placidly smile all the time.

So when people critique Hillary Clinton for not smiling enough in one debate, then for smiling too much in the next, it takes us all back to those instances where some stranger reminded us we are supposed to smile and look pleasant at all times as far as they are concerned. Women are over it.

Do I think it was weird for Clinton to smile so widely while talking about certain topics? Yes. But she was told by so many people to smile and seem warm and positive, etc., etc. She did that. Surely there is another more useful critique less steeped in the casual sexism women experience on a daily basis to move on to rather than whine about this.

A second reader agrees:

An angry or serious man evokes an image of passion and determination, whereas with a woman it is seen as a sign of derangement or loss of control. I guarantee that had Hillary shown up with serious, stone-faced composure, she would have been called out for being too tense or cold and unfeeling.

I have had bosses, colleagues, clients, and total strangers tell me to smile, and when it comes from a man it grates on every nerve in my body. A bellhop once told my husband as we were riding up in an elevator that he was sure glad that he wasn’t the one sleeping with me because I didn’t “look happy.” The suggestion that a woman needs to smile and look happy or, at the very least, contented is used so frequently by men that I don’t think that most even realize that they do it, but some are very aware of its utility in deflating a woman’s self-esteem. I used to feel guilty for not smiling—not anymore.

Every woman I know seems to have a story about being told to smile. Mine involves my eighth-grade gym teacher, who decided when I was 13 that I wasn’t smiling enough in his class. Twice a week he would walk down the line of us, taking attendance, and stop in front of me. “Smile!” he’d say. “I like it when you smile!” The first few times I smiled at him involuntarily, then, furious at myself, rearranged my face into a scowl. Later, I came to expect it. I would clench my teeth as his sneakers squeaked closer, steeling my face to stay rigid and calm. Smile! You know I like it when you smile! He’d stand over me, waiting with his clipboard, until I finally gave in.