Okay, I have to share an incident that happened to me last night. I was having dinner with a friend on her birthday, and we stopped by a bar that had outdoor seating. Anyway, we were just two single ladies minding our own business when a group of people, including this guy, sat down next to us.
My friend and the man spoke briefly, and then he turned to me and commanded that I “smile.” Practically the first words out of his mouth. The guy didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat.
Now, I wasn’t frowning or anything, just sitting there with a neutral expression. This has happened to me over, and over, and over again. Usually, I will be minding my own business, and some strange man (and it is always a man) will order me to smile.
Over the years, this has grown to piss me the fuck off. I mean it really gets on my last nerve. I think what annoys me about it is the sheer audacity of some stranger telling me to change my facial expression for his benefit. To me, it feels like a boundary violation. And for all this guy knew, my mother might have just died! It is unbelievably boorish and rude.
So, last night when I got in I decided to do a Google search of “men telling women to smile.” It brought up a huge number of hits. Apparently, this is a very common occurrence that a lot of women don’t like. There was a very interesting thread over at Alas, a blog. From what I have gathered, it seems to be very gender-linked, i.e., usually a man to a woman. And that has been my experience. Most of the research I have read has found that women smile much more than men, and a lot of that seems to be a form of appeasement, or accommodation. A reflection of our lesser status.
So, I think men who order women to smile are basically using it as a dominance gesture. Most of the discussions I have read have also brought up the idea that it is also a lame form of flirting. I think that may be true, but I believe there is a paternalistic psychology behind it. Basically, a woman is being put in a one-down situation so she feels less comfortable being assertive.
Most women are raised to be people pleasers, to be “nice girls.” Ladies don’t get mad or too serious. We are supposed to be happy and gay. The words “vivacious” and “bubbly” are only applied to women. So, for a stranger to tell a woman to “smile” implies that she is not being appropriately lady-like. Her behavior isn’t acceptably feminine. She feels off balance, and put on the spot. One commentator on the Alas blog indicated just that experience:
July 14, 2009, 12:13 a.m., anon writes:
I know I’m a bit late to the game here, but I just wanted to say that this happened to me a few weeks ago on the street, and I was incredibly confused. Immediately I felt a rush of ill-defined antipathy toward the man in question—but really, I thought to myself, the next second … what’s so bad about smiling?
I smiled at him. Appreciatively. As if I were grateful to him for his rude, unsolicited, sexist demand. It felt wrong, but I didn’t know why …
Personally, I think men who use this as a pick-up line, and I think that for some that is the motive, are putting the woman in an awkward situation where she feels like she is not being “a nice little girl,” and they’re doing it so she is less likely to reject their advances because she has already been made to feel like a bitch. So, she has to be nice to them right? By the way, I am not saying these men are doing this with any conscious awareness. Some are, some aren’t.
I once experienced an extreme form of this “reverse psychology” myself. I was sitting at a bar with my friends when a guy walked up to me and as an opening line (I kid you not) said, “I just came over here to find out if you were as standoffish [or stuck-up, I can’t remember which word he used] as the guy at the door said.”
Seriously, this was his opening line.
The only explanation I can think of for that kind of behavior was what I just said. To put me on the spot so I would have to prove to him that I was a “nice girl” after all. In other words, I would be more likely not to reject his come-on.
It didn’t work.
I’m not a people pleaser. And I resent the boorish sense of entitlement that such comments contain. So, I looked him dead in the eye and said, “I’m not standoffish; I’m just a real bitch.”
He got the message and got lost.
My friend and I had a discussion last night about this issue, and she believes that I overreact to “smiley men.” I don’t agree with her. I think it displays an extraordinary sense of entitlement. Most of us don’t go around telling other people to change their hair color, or dance, or tell us jokes. So, why should a facial expression be any different? Particularly, when it seems to be mainly motivated by a sexist sense of ownership. It reflects the idea that women are supposed to accommodate and appease men regardless of their own feelings. So, what do you think?