Miss Manners and Smiling

Recently, this corner of the blogosphere has been discussing women smiling (or not) at strangers. (You will find dicussions by: Amanda at “Mousewords”, Amp, here, at “Alas, a Blog”, Astarte at “Utopian Hell”, and Hugo at “Hugo Schwyzer”.) There have a been a number of issues raised; many are interesting and important. I’m going to ignore most. Rather, I will discuss this one:

With some frequency, strange men, suddenly, out of the blue, instruct women whom they have never met to smile.

Many women find the man’s behavior intrusive and often, aggravating. At the very least, the woman would prefer to be left alone so they can go about their business as they originally planned. They certainly do not wish to be forced to devote their attention to this complete stranger simply because he has suddenly demanded it.

The woman’s question: What response does etiquette dictate?

Well, it turns out that Miss Manners weighed in on this situation some time ago. Her advice:

Bad as it is to issue smiling orders to strangers, issuing them reprimands is worse. The way to indicate a rejection of any sort of improper approach is to sail by as if the person did not exist.

There we have it! According to traditional etiquette, those who accost strangers and demand smiles are guilty of rudeness. The correct response by the innocent who has been rudely accosted is to ignore the rudeness.

The correct response has nothing to do with moral guilt or innocence or concerns over physical safety. It has nothing to do with friendliness and coldness. The etiquette question is resolved by examining who controls their boundaries. You get to decide if you are going to smile; I get to decide if I am going to smile. Complete strangers do not have the right to demand others smile.

Of course, we all know why this issue is a feminist one: Some people don’t believe women have a right to boundaries. Women do.

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125 Responses to Miss Manners and Smiling

  1. 101
    Ruchama says:

    I don’t know of anyone who cares about people with neutral expressions. Color me surprised that they would react in assholish ways (ie it makes no logical sense). They’re assholes to start with, has nothing to do with the expression then, or their maleness.

    But it happens. It happens all the fucking time. Plenty of women in this thread have said that it has happened to them, and that it has almost always been men telling them to smile.

  2. 102
    Grace Annam says:

    Schala:

    Makes no sense to me.

    With all due respect, Schala, then you’re probably not in a good position to propose any but the most extremely tentative hypotheses on why people do it, nor to critique the well-considered opinions of others for whom this is lived experience (which does not include me, for the record). I’m not saying that you can’t speak your mind or have an opinion; I’m just saying that when something makes no sense to a person, that person probably isn’t going to guess right about how the something works. Something making sense is a necessary precondition or side-effect of understanding something correctly. (It can also accompany an incorrect understanding, but I don’t think it can accompany bafflement.)

    Grace

  3. 103
    Schala says:

    I said it before, but what male privilege I had were scraps of leftovers, because I didn’t qualify. I wasn’t aggressive enough, I wasn’t assertive enough, I was too passive and docile, I wasn’t masculine enough. And I wasn’t ambitious enough (reaching the high spheres…requires actually wanting to). And I was aspie on top, so I was totally clueless about social contexts, what they mean and how to date, why, and what happens during it.

    I have the female privilege of neutralizing half my aspie disadvantages (I don’t need to initiate to have some kind of romantic life).

    I miss the male privilege of being assumed competent in stuff I’m not in, being “respected” (ignored) by everyone on the street, and being viewed as overly ambitious even though I’m not (career before all, go for president), when I can’t even deal with the mere thought of firing someone.

    I’ll deal with being assumed vain and decorative, if it means I won’t be assumed dangerous and predatory for breathing.

  4. 104
    Ampersand says:

    Schala, you seem to be changing this thread into a “let’s compare how sexism effects men’s and women’s lives and conclude that men have it worst” space.

    Please stop doing that. If you want to discuss that topic, take it to an open thread. No more on this thread. Thanks.

  5. 105
    Elusis says:

    I’m just really enjoying watching the effort to conclude that

    - being ordered to “Smile!”
    - a phenomenon which almost exclusively happens to women
    - and which is largely carried out by men
    - and which women seem to find almost universally irritating, condescending, annoying, enraging, intrusive, controlling, othering, etc.
    - is Definitely Not Sexism
    - and is clearly evidence that no one cares about men’s feelings.

    I mean, there’s Olympic levels of Twister going on here.

  6. 106
    Elusis says:

    And Grace, FWIW, I have a hard time expressing how grateful I am that you’re willing to raise the subject of the male privilege you experience/d in a thoughtful way. I find it very hard to know how to talk about male privilege with transgender men and women without blundering in transphobic/cissexist ways, but sometimes being silent about it really anguishes me when it feels like its present in the room. I just want to honor the fact that you’re willing to bring the topic up, and I appreciate the opportunity to hear what you have to say and let it sink in and inform me as a cis woman who is both a feminist and a trans ally.

  7. 107
    Schala says:

    - being ordered to “Smile!”
    - a phenomenon which almost exclusively happens to women
    - and which is largely carried out by men
    - and which women seem to find almost universally irritating, condescending, annoying, enraging, intrusive, controlling, othering, etc.
    - is Definitely Not Sexism
    - and is clearly evidence that no one cares about men’s feelings.

    Well, what theory do you have that is plausible and doesn’t rely on a Borg collective of men doing it to oppress a Borg collective of women (ie it’s not a conscious decision of a group to oppress another)?

    Because yes, it is sexism. I’m trying to find out why. Because to stop a problem, it’s interesting and useful to know why.

    The Duluth model did not explain DV adequately, in fact in some situations made it worse. It also completely ignores about half of DV (and has contributed to its erasure). I’m looking for more plausible explanations than “well, men are evil”.

    I’ve never been asked to smile, and I’d likely tell whoever to fuck off or ignore them (I’m not very sociable). But how often does it happen for someone who goes to work every day? And how much % of men do ask that?

    I’m wondering if its epidemic like 20% of men do it (very common value amongst men), or a small proportion like 2% (not a common value even amongst men).

    but sometimes being silent about it really anguishes me when it feels like its present in the room

    Not like male energy I hope.

  8. 108
    Elusis says:

    I think I’ll just quote Amp.

    Schala, it’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s not even CLOSE to a conspiracy theory.

    It’s saying that sexism exists and follows some common patterns. Believing that doesn’t require believing in any sort of conspiracy.

    Nor does it require a hive mind, BTW.

    but sometimes being silent about it really anguishes me when it feels like its present in the room

    Not like male energy I hope.

    Huh?

  9. 109
    Schala says:

    Certain radfems, namely on Michfest boards, and on VRR organization, often say that men doing stuff that has been taught to them (like being assertive) or that they overwhelmingly do job-wise (or more than women, possibly with less sexism to enter it) is a sign of their male privilege.

    Also any trans woman in any place, regardless of her behavior, exhibits male energy. Like all men do.

    You’re passive, docile and compliant? You’re just being a stereotype of what you think women ought to be. Misogyny incarnated. Same deal if you dress or look feminine. Or have a predominantly-female occupation (nursing or hairstyling).

    You’re assertive, possibly dominant and don’t take things lying down (ie you’re the activist type)? You’re just showing your male privilege.

    Note that presumably-labeled-male qualities are only bad when male-assigned-at-birth people do it. Cis women being assertive is not a sign of anything, besides being a strong woman. Trans women who are assertive is proof they are not women.

    And this “I can feel it in the room” was mostly using to refer to male energy, taking space, being assertive or comfortable in women’s space as a trans woman (not groveling and begging for inclusion, or going away, but taking it for granted). Imaginary energy that is assumed to be of evil nature, and that all boys and men are socialized into having (it’s not genetic, but it’s still unavoidable in a biology -> destiny way regardless).

  10. 110
    Grace Annam says:

    Well, I see that Schala replied before I managed to finish my reply, but what the heck, here’s my reply to Elusis at #106.

    It got a lot longer than I originally intended, as I found myself waxing explanatory. You may already know much or all of what I’m about to say, and I don’t mean to imply that you don’t. Partly, this is my own first attempt to articulate some of this in my own words.

    And Grace, FWIW, I have a hard time expressing how grateful I am that you’re willing to raise the subject of the male privilege you experience/d in a thoughtful way. I find it very hard to know how to talk about male privilege with transgender men and women without blundering in transphobic/cissexist ways…

    You’re welcome, Elusis. It absolutely is difficult, because there is a long history of some people using call-outs on male privilege as a way to silence trans women. As Julia Serano points out elegantly,

    When you’re a trans woman, you are made to walk this very fine line, where if you act feminine you are accused of being a parody, but if you act masculine, it is seen as a sign of your true male identity. And if you act sweet and demure, you’re accused of reinforcing patriarchal ideals of female passivity, but if you stand up for your own rights and make your voice heard, then you are dismissed as wielding male privilege and entitlement. We trans women are made to teeter on this tightrope, not because we are transsexuals, but because we are women. This is the same double-bind that forces teenage girls to negotiate their way between virgin and whore, that forces female politicians and business women to be aggressive without being seen as a bitch, and to be feminine enough so as not to emasculate their alpha male colleagues, without being so girly as to undermine their own authority.

    So, it’s really hard for allies like you to point out places where trans women like me may be stepping on toes in a privileged manner, especially awkward trans women who are taking their first social steps as women, still learning how to interact socially as women and yet not be doormats. Part of the problem is that trans women want very, very much to be accepted socially by other women, and yet, by virtue of different socialization and unfamiliarity with some of the unspoken, unconscious rules, trans women can come across as asserting male privilege in the way that men often do. (And indeed, sometimes they are.) This can be off-putting all around, as the other women feel uncomfortable with the dynamic and push back and the trans women feel judged or silenced. If that isn’t all worked out with trust and care, trans women get their first stabby experience with the No-Win Scenario.

    To some extent, all of this is inevitable as a trans woman transitions. It is part of the whole loss of privilege which comes with presenting socially as a woman.

    Elusis:

    …but sometimes being silent about it really anguishes me when it feels like its present in the room.

    You should be aware that this particular phrasing is going to be problematic with many trans women. I don’t think you were intending to use it in any of the ways I’m about to talk about, but I think you would want to be aware of it.

    When you say “…when it feels like it’s present in the room…”, is “it” referring to male privilege? If one way to cut a trans woman down is to call her on her male privilege, a more backhanded, indirect way to do it is to not address the trans woman directly, but instead allude to an unwelcome “male energy”. Since the trans woman often has no idea what she’s doing wrong to make other women uncomfortable, she has no useful feedback to learn from, and so all she can do is bull ahead and keep doing what she’s doing, or shut down, and perhaps leave.

    To further complicate matters, sometimes cis women who are simply transphobic weaponize these same dynamics and use them against trans women directly, as Serano discusses in the quotation above.

    Incidentally, one thing trans women are perhaps generally better at than most traditionally-socialized cis women is getting called out directly. Even if they don’t like it, most of them are familiar with it from their lived experience of interacting as though they were men. But many cis women are not comfortable doing that, and demanding it of them creates further discomfort, and lessens their ability to accept the trans woman as a woman.

    So, that phrasing is sometimes used as a passive-aggressive weapon against trans women, by talking generally about a “male energy” or a “masculinity” which they “feel in the room”, without directly addressing the trans woman who is implied to be the only possible source of this “energy”.

    That’s almost certainly what Schala is reacting to with her comment about “male energy”.

    Elusis:

    I just want to honor the fact that you’re willing to bring the topic up, and I appreciate the opportunity to hear what you have to say and let it sink in and inform me as a cis woman who is both a feminist and a trans ally.

    Thank you, and you’re welcome.

    I think it helps make me comfortable with the current discussion that I brought it up. If you had brought up my my lived privilege, you’d have been negotiating a much trickier path, because of all that stuff above. (And also because the “check your privilege” thing is always potentially fraught, even between two cis men or two trans women, or whatever.)

    Grace

    —–

    Schala, you’re acting like a jerk. Elusis said specifically that she found it hard to know how to do it, and said that it was hard specifically because she did not want to blunder in ways which hurt trans women. If you demand perfection of your allies and eviscerate the ones who aren’t perfect, you’re going to end up standing alone. This kind of thing is the reason that many trans allies are reluctant to say anything at all. Knock it off.

    Grace

  11. 111
    Elusis says:

    Grace – thanks for your comments, and for clarifying.

    Yes, I’m aware of the repulsive “ohhhh, ‘male energy’” thing that some radical feminists do, and I find it disgusting and transphobic and I absolutely don’t want to invoke that same kind of thing, hence my reticence. Thanks for pointing out where I was getting incoherently close to straying into that territory; it wasn’t my intention and I’d like to not go there even inadvertently.

    I think the “it” I was talking about is what I would describe as the internalized misogyny/sexism that, in my experience, some trans women sometimes have, and the complexity of feeling like some of its has to do with being raised as if one was entitled to live on the advantaged side of the gender privilege equation. And which it’s hard to talk about when one *doesn’t* want to be one of those “well what do you know about gender, you’re really a man” assholes (and, for the record, who wishes those assholes would get the hell out of my feminism and quit making people feel shitty and giving feminism a bad name.)

    I have run into similarly complex situations when the subject of male privilege and trans men comes up. I’m thinking in particular about a class on gender and sexuality I was teaching where a student observed that one group of guys in a video we were watching seemed to “really be enjoying getting to be the recipient of straight male privilege for once,” and I thought she had an interesting point but didn’t know how to talk thoughtfully about it in a class entirely made up of cis women without straying into transphobia/cis privilege myself.

    Anyway.

    Thanks for being willing to help me sort that out. Because yeah, I am NOT on team “assigned as a ___, always a ____.” Ugh.

    And in other news, I’m still waiting to hear why Occam’s Razor leads to Definitely Not Sexism in the case of women being ordered to rearrange their facial expressions, which happened to me JUST TODAY as I was
    - walking through driving rain
    - to get somewhere I’d never been before
    - in a semi-bad part of town where I didn’t want to be carrying my phone in my hand to use my map (see also: umbrella)
    - where I didn’t want to look like a drowned rat because it was a professional meeting for one of my severely underpaid adjunct jobs
    - after driving across the Bay Bridge in said rain
    - and having to do a rather tricky parking maneuver
    - after a difficult personal therapy session
    - after a night of too little, rather poor sleep because my partner and I had Difficult Business come up at a rather inconveniently late hour.

    So OBVIOUSLY it was a time when I needed to be walking around with a pleasant expression on my face, Mister Dude Smoking A Really Stinky Cigarette Under An Awning Blocking The One Dry Spot On The Whole Sidewalk.

  12. 112
    Schala says:

    And in other news, I’m still waiting to hear why Occam’s Razor leads to Definitely Not Sexism in the case of women being ordered to rearrange their facial expressions, which happened to me JUST TODAY as I was

    Occam’s razor can say it’s sexism, sexism against women, and might even be common (how common? I can’t say).

    I only objected into applying it in a Duluth Model way (men as a class do it in a conscious move to oppress and control women as a class), because it’s never ‘worked’ as a theory. All it does is ignore everything that doesn’t confirm itself, and pigeonholes all men into some big thing where all men are responsible for the few bad apples (even though 99% of men can’t even *influence* said assholes, let alone make them change).

    I think the “it” I was talking about is what I would describe as the internalized misogyny/sexism that, in my experience, some trans women sometimes have, and the complexity of feeling like some of its has to do with being raised as if one was entitled to live on the advantaged side of the gender privilege equation.

    Wether and how whichever side is advantaged really depends on what you want from life. But I wonder what you think an example of this internalized misogyny and sexism (against women I presume) would that be?

    Is this an example? Early in transition, and almost to justify it to whoever wants to hear, there may be promulgations of stereotypes (like a 5 years old wearing a dress and saying it makes her a girl), but it’s usually temporary. I know of many adults who hold that Their Stereotypes Are True, and prove they are real…and those people are cis. Usually insecure cis people, but still. This is lifelong for them. And it’s both men and women. Trans people just aren’t immune from it.

  13. 113
    Elusis says:

    I wonder what you think an example of this internalized misogyny and sexism (against women I presume) would that be?

    Well, since you asked, I think your repeated refusal to acknowledge men telling women to “smile” is informed by sexism and power dynamics that work against women in favor of men is an example of internalized misogyny and sexism, which fits with a bunch of other things I’ve seen you post that also refuse to acknowledge sexist dynamics that hurt women and frequently try to make men out to be the victims instead. But Amp likes us to not get too personal, so I’m reluctant to go in a direction that would turn you personally into the topic of conversation here.

  14. 114
    Varius says:

    So Elusis gets personal and then “takes the high road” by saying she won’t get personal because Amp doesn’t like it.

    And all because she can’t accept that not everything is an evil conspiracy by her oh-so-hated men.

  15. 115
    KellyK says:

    For both Schala and Varius

    “X is sexist” =/= “Men do X on purpose because they hate women”
    “Sexism exists” =/= “Men suck and I hate them”

    Just sayin’

  16. 116
    Ampersand says:

    Varius, thanks for your interest in commenting on Alas. I’m afraid, however, that what you’re currently offering doesn’t fit this blog’s needs. For that reason, please don’t leave comments here anymore.

    If you look around, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of blogs more suited to your interests. Alas.

  17. 117
    Schala says:

    “Sexism exists” =/= “Men suck and I hate them”

    Of course, though sexism can be multi-dimensional and have two sides.

    This issue here is mostly or only sexism against women (if sexism against men is even there, it’s a side-effect of something else, not the smiling issue), but I don’t agree with FF101 that only sexism against women can even exist.

    Well, since you asked, I think your repeated refusal to acknowledge men telling women to “smile” is informed by sexism and power dynamics that work against women in favor of men is an example of internalized misogyny and sexism, which fits with a bunch of other things I’ve seen you post that also refuse to acknowledge sexist dynamics that hurt women and frequently try to make men out to be the victims instead. But Amp likes us to not get too personal, so I’m reluctant to go in a direction that would turn you personally into the topic of conversation here.

    I do believe that informing women to smile is sexism (ie directed at women specifically because they are women). There is no need for higher criteria to say this. Sexism is simply discrimination based on sex. I said so multiple times, yet here you’re saying I’m denying it.

    I don’t think the dynamics you mention “work in favor of men”, except in a very very indirect way though. If it hurts women, it doesn’t work in favor of their brothers, uncles, fathers and sons – so why would it be in their favor?

    Does it work in favor of a man’s mother if he his denied shelter after being battered by his girlfriend? I doubt so. It works in disfavor of men, but not in favor of women, in this instance.

    Not being disadvantaged by something bad that happens to the other group is not “having something working in your favor”. It’s like being told you should be ashamed of being able to walk and having relatively good health because disabled and people with illnesses have it bad.

    I’m trans, there is stuff working in my disfavor. But other people are not unfairly advantaged, in that what they get is the reasonable deal. I’m the one with the situation that should be fixed, theirs is not “too good”, or even better than it would be otherwise.

  18. 118
    Ruchama says:

    Not being disadvantaged by something bad that happens to the other group is not “having something working in your favor”. It’s like being told you should be ashamed of being able to walk and having relatively good health because disabled and people with illnesses have it bad.

    Where did shame come into this? I do have a disability, but I can walk most of the time, and I know that that gives me an advantage in many ways over someone who always uses a wheelchair — climbing some stairs might hurt me, but it’s possible for me to do it, and thus I have access to whatever is at the top of those stairs, while a person who can’t climb the stairs doesn’t have access to that same stuff. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s just a fact to acknowledge.

  19. 119
    Grace Annam says:

    Schala:

    …but I don’t agree with FF101 that only sexism against women can even exist.

    Did I miss where someone in this thread said this? Or is this a StrawFeminism argument?

    Grace

  20. 120
    Elusis says:

    Did I miss where someone in this thread said this? Or is this a StrawFeminism argument?

    Hisssssssssssssssss!

  21. 121
    Schala says:

    Did I miss where someone in this thread said this? Or is this a StrawFeminism argument?

    FF101 is accepted by many mainstream feminist sites as being THE source for basic information, whereas if someone is disagreeing with basic tenets of feminism (ie the existence of patriarchy ka patriarchy), they get sent there.

    FF101 argues that sexism cannot exist against men.
    FF101 argues that female privilege cannot exist.
    And those two are self-evident, because patriarchy.

    Do you disagree with FF101′s tenets?

  22. 122
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Schala – so, if I understand, your argument is:

    1 – There is a feminist website that makes rather strong statements about privilege.
    2 – Other feminists have in the past agreed with that website.
    3 – You disagree with those statements.
    4 – Elusis and Grace are feminists.

    Therefore, the particular phenomenon under discussion here, involving women given unsolicited advice by strangers relating to their moods, cannot be a legitimate example of male privilege.

    Am I right? What am I missing?

  23. 123
    Grace Annam says:

    Schala, you did not answer my question. But I’ll answer yours.

    Schala:

    Do you disagree with FF101′s tenets?

    Well, I googled “FF101″ and came up with this, which I’m guessing is what you’re referring to.

    It looks familiar. Casting about a bit within the site, I find that I’ve seen their page on privilege, probably awhile back when I was looking at definitions.

    However, I have not read the site in detail. Since you talked about a definition of sexism, I clicked through to their FAQ on sexism which reads, in part:

    Short definition: Sexism is both discrimination based on gender and the attitudes, stereotypes, and the cultural elements that promote this discrimination. Given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class (see male privilege), an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.

    Having done all this research to figure out what you were probably referring to, I can now answer your question: I find merit in that paragraph, and I think it’s important to recognize power differential in any analysis, but I’m not comfortable with the last sentence, and I’m pretty sure I know a bunch of feminists who would say that it’s more complex than that. The site’s authors apparently think so, too: they label that definition as “short” and then go on to draw a distinction between “sexism” as requiring a structural power differential and “prejudice” as a more general case not requiring a power differential, with “prejudice against men” being a specific case.

    For the purposes of their site, I’m comfortable with that definition. I don’t think it’s how the word “sexism” is generally understood, nor does it map perfectly onto how I myself have used it.

    None of which changes the fact that you stated, apparently in support of your contentions, your disagreement with something which I don’t think any participant in this thread has said. Which makes that disagreement a strawman.

    Grace

  24. 124
    Schala says:

    You’re missing this Eytan:

    This issue here is mostly or only sexism against women (if sexism against men is even there, it’s a side-effect of something else, not the smiling issue)

    Quoting myself, at 117.

    And I didn’t say it was or wasn’t a male privilege, at least I don’t remember doing so.

    @Grace

    I disagree mainly with this part of their definition:

    Given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class (see male privilege)

    and find this bad too:

    Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.

    As I don’t think the system works by needing group A to police group B. It needs group A and B to police group A and B. Hence basically everyone is complicit, unless they explicitly reject all stereotypes and only ever treat others as individuals. It didn’t occur to the site authors that men could discriminate against men apparently (and women against women).

    Group A isn’t oppressing group B for most bad things. The entirety of society is (oppressing both group A and B, in different ways, often opposed). The attitudes, stereotypes and cultural deals are as much a product of your mother’s and female peers as it is your father’s and male peers. The media is doing “what sells”, usually sticking to existing stereotypes.

    On the smiling issue, a small subset of men feel entitled to having women smile to them, because of a cultural issue with ignoring men and not-ignoring women. This can result in annoyance from the recipient. On the other hand, some people want to be noticed (even platonically), and being ignored feels bad to them (lowers self-esteem). They can even be the same person, but want it toned down without “turning it off” altogether.

    There is no “neutral” setting, where you only ever get positive, wanted attention, but never negative, and never ignored. So, until it is fixed (if ever), only people who like their situation personally, get it good.

  25. 125
    Elusis says:

    a small subset of men feel entitled to having women smile to them, because of a cultural issue with ignoring men and not-ignoring women

    [slow clap]

    Keep going, you’ll get this issue re-framed as something that disadvantages men if you just have enough persistence.