• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.



Pros and cons of smiling.

August 4, 2013
I really liked Catherine Newman's post about raising a daughter who is kind and ethical but not an automatic smiler.
I am one of the few women I know who has never been admonished by a relative, coworker or random stranger to "smile!" This is not because I'm so awesome or intimidating, but because apparently, except when I am intensely angry or sad, I smile all the time. Even when I don't think I'm smiling. Even when, in graduate school, I worked hard to maintain a "blank screen" neutral affect. (I came off like a talk show hostess in training videos. Truly, it was mortifying.)
This is at least partly an artifact of my Basic Girl Training as a people pleaser, and partly because most of the happiest intervals of my childhood and young adulthood were spent in small Southern cities where people routinely smiled and said hello on the street and struck up friendly conversations with strangers in the supermarket about how bread suddenly got to be so expensive or the culinary pickiness of toddlers. I loved this—it felt warm and safe and communal. I guess I never really shook the habit.
The admonition to smile is deeply offensive—it is, essentially, telling another person to behave in a way that is not consonant with her feelings, because her serious expression makes the observer uncomfortable. 
Smiling itself, though, is a mixed bag. It can signal joy or ironic amusement, subservience or noblesse oblige; it can result in connection or dismissal. Here are some of my experiences:
The best payoff: I have made many friends through casual friendly encounters in airports, locker rooms, running tracks and hotel breakfast rooms. Several years ago I made eye contact with another smiler at a tag sale. We started talking about the book I was buying, exchanged phone numbers, and met for coffee. She is now one of my closest friends and confidantes.
People in service positions tend to like me, and some of these have become friends as well. I have been the recipient of numerous unsolicited free guest passes, extra glasses of wine, fancy desserts, and pet toys (and everyone hates my cat, who is the opposite of a people pleaser!). Once the waiter at a very nice restaurant chased my smiler friend Pam and me out to the street to present us each with a rose plucked from a centerpiece. This wasn't flirtation; we were both middle aged and wrinkled and old enough to be his mother and aunt. He just liked us.
I can be very direct, and people usually don't take offense. I didn't realize how unusual this was in therapy work until I started supervising. I would routinely counsel supervisees to "name the elephant in the room" in clear language, only to have them respond that if they did so, the client would be sure to leave and never come back. Finally one said to me, "You can get away with it. I never could." When I ran this past other supervisees, they agreed that I am unusually blunt as a supervisor as well, but that because I communicate goodwill I don't (usually) tick people off.
It is sometimes hard to be taken seriously. Ideas that are presented in a soft voice,with a smile, I've learned, tend to be overlooked and talked over. 
People with the bullying chip are drawn to test limits with smilers, whom they assume are pushovers. This can be tiring.
When you're younger, men sometimes think you're flirting with them when, truly, you're just being friendly.
A few years ago I realized that a woman I admired, who was friends with several of my friends, tended to distance herself from me. When I asked another friend for her thoughts, she blurted, "She doesn't like girly-girls. Not that you are! It's just..." Yes, I know. The smile.
Ben is also a smiler who makes friends through random genial encounters. When we travel together, we love talking to people in pubs and on the metro. We've gleaned invaluable glimpses into other cultures and had some roaring good times.  I don't think there is a downside for him, as he is over 6 feet tall, with a deep voice and facial hair. But if I had a daughter, I don't know how I would feel. Thoughts?


Back to Top