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. 1
    J Stevenson says:

    “Some people don’t believe women have a right to boundaries.”

    People don’t really believe this do they?

  2. 2
    lucia says:

    Some sure act like they don’t!

    Honestly, I believe there are some who don’t. Or, some think you may have a right to not be murdered or raped, but you don’t have a right to “trivial” things, like, oh, deciding how to spend your time particularly if your choice is to turn down an invitation to spend your t ime with them.

    I still remember sitting at a table in the dorm cafeteria, and a guy asked me to play pool that night. I said no. Repeat 4 more times.

    I finally turned to the other guys and said: Have I turned him down 5 times now? (Ok… kind of rude. But, I couldn’t think of decent alternatives.) And the guy asking me on the date actually said: “Well, why should she turn me down. I’m a nice guy“.

    I really think he didn’t think he was overstepping the boundary. ( Oh.. engineering dorm. Mostly guys at the table. They laughed. )

    There are guys who really don’t think women have what I would consider normal rights to self determination. (I advise not playing pool with said guys….)

  3. 3
    pseu says:

    Miss Manners said it. I believe it. That settles it.


  4. 4
    Lin says:

    I don’t understand the whole ‘smile’ thing. When I was a teenager, I thought people were telling me I looked miserable, and I felt subconscious.

    It’s as if these men who tell women to smile take it personally that a woman isn’t smiling.

  5. 5
    Jen says:

    I recently discussed this very subject with my boss (also female). As a young woman I am spoken to/approached by men I do not know on a daily basis. At first I thought I was special but a man approached my boss (25 years my senior and experiencing female pattern baldness) and I the other day at our lunch table to tell us he was sure glad to see us ordering some real food b/c he was afraid that the drinks and muffins we were snacking on meant we were on a diet. Translate, I’ve been watching you fine chicks since you sat down and you don’t need to be on no diet. Anyway, my boss says it happens to her alot too.

    I don’t get the “smile!” command alot, which I think is rude and basically says you need to soften/beautify yourself a bit or the next guy’s gonna have to look at that mug of yours too.

    Highlights that were said to me in the library during my lunch breaks over the past month.
    1. You made me forget what I was looking for.
    2. Stop distracting me. (wink)
    3. You have nice hair.
    4. Can I draw you? You are like an angel. Can I have your picture? (No, I’m not joking).
    5. Do you like to read?
    6. I really like your shoes. (in this guy’s defense he is probably mentally ill but does say it to me everyday regardless of the shoes I wear and not to other guys that I’ve noticed).
    7. What kind of exercise plan are you on? You look good and I was just wondering how I might look as in shape as you. Whatever it is, it’s working.

    This does not include people hiding behind the stacks and peeking at me or blatantly staring.

    I’m cute, I guess, but I’m not out winning (or entering!) beauty contests. I’m your average female wearing a wedding ring, sitting by herself reading, wanting to be left alone.

    You can be nice or you can be rude. These men will remain the same.

  6. 6
    ms. jared says:

    i get the “smile command” a lot because i purposely don’t smile as i’m walking down the street to avoid ADDITIONAL street harassment. it really pissed me off and i usually tell the person to fuck off, but it’s even more infuriating that it’s only men commanding women to do it. they don’t command one another to smile and women don’t demand it from men. it’s only MEN telling WOMEN to smile as if we are on this earth and within their vicinity to amuse and entertain them.

    another thing that bugs me is when men walk into a room full of women and say “what’s up guys?” i know it’s petty, but if i were to walk into a room full of men and say “what’s up ladies?” or “what’s up gals?” they’d piss themselves.

    it’s so annoying. or maybe i’m just on the rag? don’t EVEN get me started on THAT one!

    xoxo, jared

  7. 7
    NancyP says:

    Miss Manners is a feminist in real life, as in “Feminism is the notion that women are people”. I have not noticed that her columns place the onus on women to be mannerly and men to behave any old way. I find her comments to be gender neutral. She did an interview with Ms. magazine about 3-5 years ago.

  8. 8
    Amanda says:


    J, fine then. People don’t believe women have the right to the same boundaries that they allow men to have.

    Miss Manners is my hero for commonsensically insisting that “Ms” replace “Miss” and “Mrs”. Her point, and I agree, is that beyond all the politics, it’s completely ridiculous to expect people to keep track of who is a “Miss” and who is a “Mrs” when we clearly live in times when women are not solely defined by their marital status.

    Also, she is funny. For instance, she excepts herself to that rule, because “Miss” Manners is a proper Victorian lady who does not change with the times. Judith Martin, however, uses the honorific “Ms”.

  9. 9
    Jake says:

    I *heart* Miss Manners. I do my best to live my life by her advice. She’s a total feminist and does a lot to discourage the notion that being polite means allowing yourself to be victimised. She maintains that there are polite ways to make people leave you alone (going to the police, for example, is a perfectly polite response to being touched by a stranger without permission). I also really like the way she handles letters from men who complain that the women they know are being “rude” simply because they’re not responding to these men’s advances. I could go on about Miss Manners for hours. Suffice it to say she rocks, and you should all buy all her books.

    This is not a paid advertisement ;-)

  10. 10
    Mary says:

    Last year in college I took a polisci class on feminism, and one of our assignments one weekend, after having read a piece by Butler, was to go out and basically do something that you wouldn’t expect someone of your gender to do. Most girls did things like open the door for their boyfriends or pay for dinner, but I went out and told random men on the street to smile. I’m Southern and a manners stickler, but let me tell you that I never had so much fun being balls-out rude in my LIFE. You’d think I had actually said something like “Did you know your penis is very, very small?” They were just appalled. I wouldn’t ever ADVISE doing the same thing, of course…but if you should ever happen to try it, in the interest of SCHOLARSHIP, you know…

  11. 11
    ema says:

    Apropos of: Some people don’t believe women have a right to boundaries. From this article:

    Very well, now we have a problem of underpopulation, a situation in which we need to raise the fertility rate, one where women need to have more babies, not fewer. Logic tells us then that we need to reduce the amount of both contraception and female empowerment in our society so as to bring about that happy state of affairs.

    So, as long as a stranger only asks you to smile (vs. asking you to become pregnant)…smile. You are, indeed, ahead of the game.

  12. 12
    lucia says:

    Heck, ema, it just occurred to me. If you smile you may attract that “friendly” man, get married and get a head start on creating your brood! Do your duty, save the economy and smile, smile, smile!

  13. 13
    Tara says:

    I too love Miss Manners. Unfortunately I don’t think she’s published a really nice fat book for a very long time :(

  14. 14
    Amanda says:

    That’s fun, Mary. Also fun is start taking up physical space. Sit next to a man in the movies and take the armrest. Sit next to a man on a bench and spread your legs out so that he has to slam his legs together and sit up. Lean into men when you’re talking to them. Surprisingly few think you’re being forward, because you will come off as “aggressive” and put them off.

  15. 15
    spot says:

    I used to get the “c’mon, smile” command quite often when minding my own business walking down the street. I finally got aggressive with my response. “C’mon, eat #$%@” or “I just had to put my dog down, @$$hole”. The men were quite taken aback, and I was well on my way before they could recover. This worked for me at the time. I don’t get the “smile” command anymore now that I am older, thankfully!
    In these times I think that it is best to just ignore the “smile” command as per Miss Manners’ suggestion. It is not a question of assigning guilt to a verbally agressive (command to smile) stranger, but more of distrusting a verbally agressive stranger.

  16. 16
    frida says:

    It’s funny…I’m trying to think back to the times I’ve been told to smile, and the only ones I remember are the times I’ve been told to smile by older women, which doesn’t seem threatening at all. But then, I’ve lived in rural areas and small towns most of my life; and from the anecdotes I’ve read, it seems that a lot of the “men telling women to smile” phenomenon happens more in larger cities where people are constantly meeting each other on the streets [and where there are streets]. If it ever happens, though, I’ll think back to this and try to remember to ignore the fellow. Or I might just stick out my tongue. Can’t say for sure.

  17. 17
    zuzu says:

    I’ve definitely gotten the smile command, and it’s really damn rude. But at least they’re not touching me — I have friends who’ve had total strangers feel like they can touch their pregnant bellies, and another, quite petite friend, who had some strange man pat her on the head. Who raised these people? And you know they wouldn’t go around touching adult men like that.

    I do love Miss Manners. One of my favorite responses of hers, to a person who had blurted out someone else’s name while in bed with her boyfriend, was, “Why do you think the term ‘darling’ was invented?”

  18. 18
    Margot says:

    This used to happen to me all the time when I was younger and walked everywhere. I even had teachers honk at me and complain in class that I had ignored their honking…like I should acknowledge every driver that honked at me? What a way to invite trouble.

  19. 19
    Linnaeus says:

    I totally agree that there’s no need to command strangers to smile – I don’t do it myself, even when I do smile and the recipent doesn’t respond – but I have to say that if someone said “smile” to me (especially if the person was a woman), I’d probably do it and not think badly of it.

  20. 20
    Leo says:

    Let’s reverse roles. If a woman smiles at me and I have no interest in speaking to her, should this “really piss me off” and should I tell her “to fuck off”? (Both pieces of advice generously provided by ms. jared; see above post.) I amazes me how feminists let constructs like “setting boundaries” muck up normal human interactions.

  21. 21
    Anne says:

    Leo: Reread ms. jared’s post. It was about being ordered to smile by strangers, not being smiled at.

  22. 22
    Leo says:

    To Anne:

    Point taken. I stand corrected. To reformulate:

    If someone tells me “Have a nice day” (a pleasantry that I detest), should I tell him/her “to fuck off”? (suggestion courtesy of ms. jared; see above post). Doesn’t civil human discourse require a large dose of a “Grin and Bear It” mentality? Does this situation differ from the situation where a woman objects to a suggestion that she smile?

  23. 23
    lucia says:

    First, I am sure Miss manners would also tell you it is very rude to tell the woman who did nothing more than smile at you to fuck off is very, very rude.

    However, as Anne points, you are describing a different scenario from the one I described in my initial blog. Someone smiling at you is not the same as someone telling you to smile.

    In fact, I think if the following example is closer to the one I initially posted.

    Suppose a woman smiles at you and you respond by ordering: “Stop smiling”.

    You would be telling her facial expression to adopt. The only difference from the initial example is that you ordered the opposite facial expression from the one in the initial example.

    Clearly, the level of rudeness would be the same, and the boundary infraction would be the same. You don’t get to decide if someone else smiles or doesn’t. If you think you do get to dictate some else’s expression, that’s a boundary issue.

    The reason you hear the complaint in the main story is that stray, randome unknown men do order women they don’t know to smile from time to time. I don’t think the opposite order to refrain from smiling happens as often. (Or if it does, it happens in other circumstances. I can think of times adults tell kids to “wipe that grin off their face.” But, the scenario isn’t quite the same.)

  24. 24
    lucia says:

    “Have a nice day” (a pleasantry that I detest), should I tell him/her “to fuck off”?

    No. And Miss Manners also specifically criticised jared’s “fuck off” response. There are two acceptable non-rude responses: a) Ignore the statement b) Say something more or less neutral and courteous. (You too is common.)

    I would note howerver, the “Have a nice day” comments generally occur in different sttings than the “smile” commands many of us experience. (Or at least, I find they occur in different circumstances.)

    As a general rule, people say “Have a nice day” at the end of a conversation or commercial transaction. So, I’ve usually been dealing with them in some way, and they are sort of terminating the conversation with some trivial statement.

    In contrast, the “smile” commands most of us find disconcerting generally come absolutely out of the blue. You’ll be walking down the street and some stray guy will suddenly say “Smile, would you?”. The equivalent activity involving have a nice day would be if some woman were walking down the street and suddenly, saw you and said “Have a nice day!” And then seemed to expect you to actually show her, in some way, that you intended to do as she said!

    In both cases, the non-rude responses are: a) ignore the person b) say something neutral.

  25. 25
    monica says:

    I’d never heard of this smile command thing. Or that some men (re: Hugo’s post) should assume that the default is that women should always smile when crossing them? where did that come from? You just don’t smile at people you don’t know and are not having any interaction with. In Britain you’d be taken for an idiot if you were to go round smiling at everybody in the street. Is this an American thing? it sure is weird…

  26. 26
    Julian Elson says:

    Monica, funny you should ask: I often smile at strangers while walking down the street, and think nothing of it. I’ve never been in a foreign country for a stretch of more than about six weeks, though. Abiola Lapite, who’s lived in Nigeria, Europe, the United States, and God knows where else, noted that this isn’t the norm in many other places.


  27. 27
    lucia says:

    Interesting— Abiola also mentioned the “boundary” idea:
    as if others couldn’t recognize the boundaries of my own personal space and were wilfully trying to intrude on it.

  28. 28
    Amanda says:

    Monica, there is no doubt that each man who says it has a different standard of when women are obliged to smile. But in my experience, it usually comes from strange men who might have been trying to get my attention for whatever reason and have been thwarted either because I’m just not looking at them or because I know if I do look at them, they’ll be coming on over to hit on me.

  29. 29
    monica says:

    Julian: maybe we have different situations in mind. It just doesn’t feel natural to me to smile *at random* at everyone in the street that you just pass by. Unless you’re in some tiny village where everyone says hello and good evening to everyone else they meet, sheep included.

    I asked because I’ve been to America, I didn’t notice a difference in that respect with Europe, but then I’ve only been to the big cities and only for a short time. If everyone were to smile at each other in a crowded street or on the subway, imagine how mental it would look! It’d be freaky, in a city. I’d feel like I was in an ad for Colgate, or the Stepford Wives. They sure don’t do that in NY, thank god.

    The thing about getting asked to smile is the freakiest of all. What I don’t get is, is it a pick-up line? Do they expect the interaction to continue? Or are they *literally* only asking a woman to smile for them? Honesty I’d like to see it. The way it sounds is very very weird.

  30. 30
    monica says:

    Amanda, so these guys the kind that just imagine all women must want their attention? It is a pick-up technique, then?

  31. 31
    Julian Elson says:

    Well, I apply different standards depending on circumstance. If I’m walking alone down a street, and I see another person walking alone the other way, I’ll often smile or say “Hi” or something. If it’s a big crowd or something, though, such standards don’t apply. So your nightmare scenario of freakishly grinning American crowds isn’t the case. Usually.

  32. 32
    Anne says:

    Nah, it’s not really a crowd thing. More like, a woman is walking on the sidewalk or in a store by herself, and a strange man says “Smile!” to her.

  33. 33
    Tara says:

    It’s partially because people don’t usually walk down the street smiling at everybody that it’s absurd to order someone to smile.

    I live in Montreal and we look at each here a lot more, people make a lot of eye contact, looking at eacher, walking down the street. It’s normal, it’s not threatening (in and of itself) and people DON’T go around smiling at eachother.

    I find that one of the most effective responses to things like “smile!” (alhtough it’s only seldom that I have the presence of mind and guts to use it) is to respond along the lines of, “Please don’t tell me what to do, it’s really not your place.” In a completely pleasant but assertive voice. It throws people way off and it shows that you’re not intimidated by them.

  34. 34
    Tara says:

    It’s partially because people don’t usually walk down the street smiling at everybody that it’s absurd to order someone to smile.

    I live in Montreal and we look at each here a lot more, people make a lot of eye contact, looking at eacher, walking down the street. It’s normal, it’s not threatening (in and of itself) and people DON’T go around smiling at eachother.

    I find that one of the most effective responses to things like “smile!” (alhtough it’s only seldom that I have the presence of mind and guts to use it) is to respond along the lines of, “Please don’t tell me what to do, it’s really not your place,” and walk on, don’t stay to engage in dialogue. In a completely pleasant but assertive voice. It throws people way off and it shows that you’re not intimidated by them.

    Once on the metro this beggar was going through the train. People mostly avert their eyes, but although I don’t always give money, I sort of feel that I should treat them as human beings to the extent of seeing them and saying something along the lines of “sorry.” Any way this guy takes my lack of aversion of eyes to mean I’m an easy hit and if he justs hangs around and keeps asking me, I’ll give him money. I surprised myself when I said to him, “You know, it’s really rude for you to hang around and harass me after I’ve said I’m not giving you money,” in sort of a stern teacher voice. Was he pissed! He cursed me out a little and walked on.

  35. 35
    karpad says:

    I happen to be a male who regularly gets the “smile” command, from people of both genders. generally, though, I find that, yes, men are MUCH more likely to phrase it as a command. women, or men who respect personal space, will more often phrase it “are you ok” or “is something wrong”

    I find the question form much more pleasant than “cheer up, man!”

    I don’t know if you surly looking lasses have ever actually hear “cheer up” but I tend to think it’s much more unpleasant. not only do they feel entitled to tell me how to look, but how I should feel.

    worst part is, I just have one of those faces. so I’ll be feeling great, walking along, I will in fact, be SMILING as much as I ever do, and some jerk says “hey man! buck up!”

    and that just fucking ruins my day.

    and I don’t really feel any implicit threats behind such commands, just an obnoxious invasion of personal space. I can’t really imagine tolerating such behavior at all if the command was issued with the expectation that “if you don’t you’re an uppity bitch who should be punished.”

  36. 36
    Amanda says:

    Nah, I can’t make broad statements like that. It’s just my experience. But I live in a way cruise-y city, so what can I say?

  37. 37
    monica says:

    “If I’m walking alone down a street, and I see another person walking alone the other way, I’ll often smile or say “Hi” or something. If it’s a big crowd or something, though, such standards don’t apply.”

    Well then Julian I think that’s pretty much the same across the world. It just depends on the context and how many people you’re passing by.

    I’ve had the “cheer up” thing a couple of times, in the “oi, cheer up luv” variant, but it was drunk men outside the pub so it doesn’t count as normal. I’ve had even funnier experiences than that when the pubs close. It would annoy me a lot if it was the kind of thing karpad is talking about.

  38. 38
    zuzu says:

    Amanda, so these guys the kind that just imagine all women must want their attention? It is a pick-up technique, then?

    In my experience, it’s not necessarily that the smile command is a pick-up technique. It’s more like these men feel entitled to demand the attention of women, who of course are just waiting for the opportunity to decorate some man’s world.

  39. 39
    Hogan says:

    Marge: Well it doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know? It’s what shows up on the surface that counts. That’s what my mother taught me. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you, and happiness will follow. . . .

    Marge: Lisa, I apologize to you, I was wrong, I take it all back. Always be yourself. If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you. And when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there. From now on, let me do the smiling for both of us.
    Lisa: Okay, Mom.
    Marge: I said you could stop smiling, Lisa.
    Lisa: I feel like smiling.

  40. 40
    Masaki says:

    Well, this is certainly interesting. I guess you could interpret the “smile!” thing as just an invasion of personal space (which I think it is), or claim that it’s some kind of evil act of males oppressing females (which I think is silly), but as far as being an ‘approach’ … I am a young guy, I am not gonna toot my horn too much but let’s just say that I have a traditionally very popular look all-around, and am a good enough person(ality) that I attract a lot of attention academically, from my male peers and from women.

    I can laugh along with you at some over-persistent guy or scary/dirty stranger getting tossed for saying something like “smile!” but I wonder about the cases when it was sincere? It seems that with feminists, not only do men have to feel ashamed if they are proficient in the ‘game’ but feel incompetent if they aren’t, as the unskilled ones’ getting their lame attempts shot down is the theme of many an ivory-tower-girls-only get-together. But what if a cute guy did this as an approach and seemed sincere but unknowledgable about ‘How to Pick Up Chicks?’ Is he off your list for being an evil misogynist or off for not having been around the block? Ah, nevermind. I guess if you met people like that you wouldn’t be spending all your time whining on a site like this anyway.

    And really, we wouldn’t even be evaluating things in this way if it weren’t for the notion of ‘social spaces’ and personal space i.e. ‘picking up’ is not only inappropriate outside of certain strictly defined places but also if it is unwanted, which the men who have no sense cannot tell until they give you both barrels. Of course I wouldn’t disturb someone quietly reading a book or with an obvious gleaming rock in a certain place, but if I didn’t often do SOMETHING to get chicks’ attention besides sitting there looking good, I would not have any dates. And my calendar is full, maybe because I must be an evil male preying on uneducated women. But, to go back to the idea of ‘social spaces’ … None of you would be surprised to be approached by someone at a party or in a club (if any of you go), but of course on the street or during working hours you are off-limits. I respect that, I’m a pretty busy person and wouldn’t really want chicks hitting on me all the time either when I’m on my way to an appointment, for example. However, something in me would feel a lack of human decency if I were to blow up on someone (or yes, even ignore them) even during those times. Someone here mentioned looking at the homeless guy to treat him as human and not ignore his existance – which is what someone else RECOMMENDED as a way to deal with “smile!” guys. I suppose males can be treated however you please. I don’t see a way you can do that and feel alright unless you place the blame for thousands of years of male dominance in society upon the shoulders of that one dude.

    Anyway, I am not going to change any minds. No chick cool enough to want to associate with me would not be caught dead here, in any case. I don’t suppose you people are comfortable with socializing with people in the real world, after all you have to go around in your little impregnable bubbles. I don’t suppose I’ll be seeing you around,


    P.S. Sorry for many inflammatory and strange things I may have said in this post. My command of english is not so great.

  41. 41
    Amanda says:

    Gosh, you’re right. We should do what aggressive and angry men tell us to do because it’s just unfair that women have all the pussy.

  42. 42
    Masaki says:

    Well, jeez. I tried to be as constructive as possible, and you respond in a way that is rudely dismissive of everything that I said and seems to misconstrue my very point, or worse put words in my mouth by saying something that has nothing with what I said at all. I don’t see how you could have gotten what you did out of my post even with my bad english.

    You seem only interested in promoting stereotypes and your own paranoid way of thinking. Rather sad … “smile!” :P j/k

  43. 43
    wolfangel says:

    Wow, that was being *constructive*? You posted once, and ended by saying you wouldn’t change any minds, and it didn’t matter anyways because no one here could be cool enough for you, plus we’re all too scared to actually speak to people except on the internet.

    I would hate to imagine how you’d act were you being critical.

  44. 44
    Amanda says:

    Stupid women–instead of just listening and doing as we’re told we “make fun” of the good man who has come to insult us for our own good.

  45. 45
    tim says:

    Masaki doesn’t get it.
    zuzu’s comment was right on:

    “‘Amanda, so these guys the kind that just imagine all women must want their attention? It is a pick-up technique, then?’

    “In my experience, it’s not necessarily that the smile command is a pick-up technique. It’s more like these men feel entitled to demand the attention of women, who of course are just waiting for the opportunity to decorate some man’s world.”

    the thing that might bridge the Masaki idea and the zuzu view(aside from the pick-up/player assholes who are trying for an opening), is that a man may (it’s a testosterone thing… ask any F to M transexual) be stricken by someone, and irrationally caring for her, is desperately instructing her to be happy, to feel the goodness in the world where she inspires love… to remember that she is gifted(with beauty, among other things), …and now that i’m writing this down… yeah, zuzu is right on.

  46. 46
    Nick Kiddle says:

    Some people don’t believe women have a right to boundaries

    And the horrible thing is, it’s not just men that believe this. Some women don’t believe they have a right to boundaries, and they would rather make themselves feel uncomfortable the whole day long than give offence to any other living person. Which is why so many women *do* smile on command.

  47. 47
    Sheelzebub says:

    I guess if you met people like that you wouldn’t be spending all your time whining on a site like this anyway.

    Golly, that was constructive.

    Tell me, if you attract so much attention due to your good looks and wit, what brings you to this site to whine?

  48. 48
    Kelli says:

    I may be wrong here, but I was under the impression that when you smiled at someone it was like a greeting. Like saying “Hello” without voicing it.

    I have smiled at many a person man and woman and only remember receiving unwanted attention from one, a man who did take it as a pick-up, and I corrected his perception quickly.

    I’m not to sure about the man vs. woman thing I’ll be honest. I never really gave it much thought. All I know is when I smile at people some smile back, some say hello and some ignore me. Doesn’t really matter much to me.

    I feel better when I smile, if nothing else it makes me happy.

  49. 49
    zuzu says:

    Kelli, we’re not talking here about smiling because you feel like it, we’re talking about walking along and having some stranger demand that you smile. That’s a huge difference.

  50. 50
    Lizvelrene says:

    I used to get this treatment all the time when I was in college. I was going through a rough time for awhile and probably looked it, and would be walking across campus lost in thought, and I would regularly have some guy (always a guy) telling me to smile, saying something like “pick up your head and smile!”. It would be one thing if someone just smiled at me or just told me to have a nice day or in some other way tried to cheer me up, or if I had been scowling at them or being rude to them or in some other way taking notice of their existence, but some random guy out of the blue ordering me to smile for them really pisses me off. I have my own feelings and emotions, I am not always happy, I am not walking around for your viewing benefit.

    Of course, some of this may have to do with where you live. I got this all the time in Indiana, but now I live in Boston where you’re *expected* to be in a lousy mood and it never happens. ;)

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  52. 51
    Wendy says:

    I hear you! I used to really wonder what the @$&%* was going on when I was in college. )I got it a little before college too.) It really got bad once I started college though. I swear, not a month could go by without it, for years! I would be just walking across campus or down the street minding my own business and some guy (usually, although I did get it from older women sometimes too) would order me to smile! Also, I would get told I looked tired, or sad, or asked what was wrong. I was really disappointed that people seemed to invent something lacking in me and notice that, rather than notice that I was thin or pretty or nice, or whatever.

    Oh, and I’ve had complete strangers tell me not to order something to eat at fairs, too, because, as one dirty old man put it “you’re going to get fat.” I think he might have been the same dude who ordered me to smile earlier. Oh, and I have had people come up to me at the bus stop when I’m reading and ask me questions about my book, interrupting me. Usually men. And I’ve had complete strangers try to pile in on me on an outdoor cafe table, while I was reading, even though there were many empty tables, because they “thought I looked like I needed a friend and a reason to smile.” Nosy intrusive jerks.

    It’s rude to order someone to smile because it sounds corrective. It’s like you’re asking someone to change. And yes, I do get it from women, too. I don’t know whether it means something different to the women who say it than the men? Are we clear what it means to those who say it? It’s damn rude, no matter what. And it’s rude to barge in on someone eating or reading because it’s rude to interfere with them going about their business as intended.

  53. 52
    Aura says:

    I’ve received the command to smile before, I’ve also ben told “Don’t laugh out loud, you sound horrible.” Frankly these people are jerks.
    I have female a supervisor where I work though who is always telling me to “smile”, even when I think I am. It confuses the hell out of me. I’ve never been quite sure how to respond. Lol, At least I know she’s not trying to pick up, ;p

  54. 53
    Em says:

    I get told to ‘smile’ , even when I think my face is looking perfectly happy or just neutral. But what about crying too?

    I had a close male friend when I was about 15 and I was crying about something and he said, ‘you shouldn’t cry, it doesn’t suit you.’

    I wasn’t looking for his comfort, but this made me very angry.

    Things like this really made me realise what an idiot he was, especially as he cried in front of me an awful lot (it was a strange relationship) The implication was that, as a girl I was there to look pretty and crying was unattractive to him, so made him uncomfortable.

    It seems to me that people are unsettled by females expressing any real emotions or just leading normal lives as human beings. Their faces are there to be commented on and looked at.

    If I’m not feeling happy, I try to keep my head down in the streets because I get sick of people thinking it’s their right to make a comment on my appearance. I know I should just not let it get to me, but I get tired of it.

    I find it sad that women have to be so confident just to walk with their head up all the time. (perhaps it’s just me being shy). I don’t have experience of being male, but I think that if they looked people in the eyes as they were walking down the street, no-one would comment on their appearance.

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  56. 54
    Storm says:

    I just want to add that anyone wishing to find the blog article that Julian Elson provided a link to, may find it at the following, now:


    When I clicked on the link, I was redirected to the author’s new blog site, but not before I managed to note the date of the original post (fortunately). Also fortunately, the author archived the material from the original location, thus this updated link.

  57. 55
    Ampersand says:

    Thanks, Storm!

  58. 56
    pure_entropy says:

    I realize that this post is really old and many of the comments are old, too, but I have to say two things.

    One, to Masaki and people who think like him, how is insulting people you don’t know anything about ‘constructive’ in any way? You missed the point, that it’s wrong to demand a smile from someone that you don’t know. Human interaction is fine, but /telling/ someone to do what you want them to do is wrong. In this case, it’s sexist because we’re talking about a situation where mostly men are demanding this of mostly women, as if they have the right tell us what to do, and then expect us to do it. Privilage.

    Two, I can see where Masaki is coming from. I found that some of the comments were shockingly abrasive. I realize that some people hate to be bothered, but interacting with random people is a very important part when it comes to making friends, or just being a polite human being. Why be cold and rude to someone you don’t know, what’s the point? If a random stranger wants to strike up a conversation with me, out of boredom or interest in what I’m reading/what I think, unless I’m busy or in a particularly bad mood, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I don’t automatically assume that they are bad people, or they’re hitting on me. I ride the buses a lot, and end up chit chatting with people around me, as well as when I ride an airplane. It’s part of being human to want human interaction, but you do have the right to refuse to talk to people. There’s just no need to be so rude about it.

    Also, awesome post, lucia.

    /long-winded reply over, heh, sorry.

  59. 57
    Schala says:

    “Things like this really made me realise what an idiot he was, especially as he cried in front of me an awful lot (it was a strange relationship) The implication was that, as a girl I was there to look pretty and crying was unattractive to him, so made him uncomfortable.”

    My impression is that you look too deep into it. It wasn’t that he thought you had to just look pretty and it was unattractive – he was uncomfortable, because he didn’t know what to do. He wanted to help but didn’t know how, so this is an awkward and rude way of him of trying to help.

    If I cry it makes others uncomfortable, makes me uncomfortable too. If someone else cries, especially if I care about them (ie my mom) it makes me uncomfortable too. Besides a hug and talking (with my mom, I’d be too shy to hug someone else unless they did, I’d hug back only), I have no idea what to do about it, and it can become really awkward.

    In my experience, if someone is feeling more or less happy, they want others to be happy too (they don’t want to be the only ones being happy in a sea of people being depressed), so they awkwardly try to ‘spread the joy’, sometimes with opposite effects from what they intended. People think they can (or want to think they can) make others happy, even when they can’t.

    I’ve had a lot of people in my family, mainly aunts and uncles, ask if I was okay if I had a gloomy face. And I didn’t mind if it was noticed at times. But yeah the smile command doesn’t help because it doesn’t solve the source of unhappiness, it would be a fake smile.

  60. 58
    redwagon says:

    Masaki Writes:
    November 12th, 2004 at 5:10 am
    I am not gonna toot my horn too much but let’s just say that I have a traditionally very popular look all-around, and am a good enough person(ality) that I attract a lot of attention academically, from my male peers and from women.

    I can laugh along with you at some over-persistent guy or scary/dirty stranger getting tossed for saying something like “smile!” but I wonder about the cases when it was sincere?

    Masaki, we are all so deeply touched that you want us to stop what we are thinking and negate our emotional processes so that we can validate your feelings that you are really attractive and that we are paying attention to you. Because your self-interest is so totally *sincere*

    Seriously, no one is this much of an egocentric fool and blogging at feminist sites. Masaki is a group of undergrads in women’s studies trying to understand innate male arrogance. Good work, it really had me going.

  61. 59
    Cwastg says:

    You know, I’ve actually been guilty of this in the past, and never would have thought of it as rude until I read this post (and thank you to lucia for the heads-up). Of course, demographically I’m the poster-child for the most likely culprit, being white, male, and from the South. For my part, I not only understand but appreciate (in my somewhat limited capacity as a man) the female perspectives that have been voiced on this matter. From what various posters have said above, such an interaction is an uninvited and typically unwanted intrusion, and I get how that could be both off-putting and, depending on the delivery, quite rude. The very act of walking up to a stranger is skirting that border in the first place and in this day and age, with so many creeps walking around, an immediate shift into a more self-protective (if not outright defensive) frame of mind is not only warranted, but advisable.

    Now, I know for a fact that I haven’t done the “Smile” thing in years, so please don’t flame me for copping to it. Having read the preceding take on that behavior, I have no intention of engaging in it again, lest I have the unintended effect of making someone unhappy/uncomfortable/etc (which is the exact opposite of what I would want). I’m fairly new to the ideas of global/systemic misogyny and male privilege, but even I recognize that this behavior is undoubtedly the product of the same sort of misogynistic clap-trap that women have to put up with all the time. That being said, as someone who has at one time or another engaged in this much-detested behavior, I thought it might be worthwhile to add my perspective regarding the thoughts, feelings, and intentions that I historically associated with it. I certainly can’t speak for all (or even most) men, but for me the whole “Smile” business was never about trying to command or control another person to make my (or some other hypothetical man’s) day better. It was about helping the person I was speaking to. I’d see a woman who looked troubled or unhappy, and in the spirit of the “Smile. You’ll feel better” school of thought, walk up to her, smile warmly, and suggest that doing the same might make her feel better. I realize now that *how* I said it was probably crucial and, admittedly, this was almost entirely during my younger years (<25), but I can’t recall a single time that approach generated a negative response. In fact, more often than not, their face would light up and they’d thank me for my concern, explain that they were deep in thought, or engage in some other form of verbal exchange. On rare occasions, someone who was really upset would even talk to me about what was bothering them. Regardless, I generally didn’t hang around to overstay my welcome and I never tried to get a date out of it. In my mind, it was just a simple expression of compassion that might help to brighten someone’s day just a little.

    If only it were that simple. Because it’s not. Otherwise, why did I tend to do it more with women I found attractive? And why only women in the first place? That, unfortunately, is a good bit more complicated and strongly rooted in my upbringing. From an early age I have been conditioned to dislike seeing women upset. It’s the damsel in distress archetype, the save the princess motif that is sometimes thrust upon young men and made to seem their responsibility. As a result, the sight of an unhappy woman makes me unhappy, and if she happens to be especially pretty, it’s even worse. I probably irritate my wife a bit because of it; she’s a stunningly beautiful woman (IMO) and when she’s upset or overwhelmed I feel positively compelled to help. As any self-respecting feminist will tell you, of course, princesses should be able to take care of themselves, and if they can’t it’s not some man’s job to do it for them. And how dare he presume that he can handle the situation better than she in the first place! Again, complicated. The impulse that will see a “decent guy” or a “proper Southern gentleman” stopping on the side of the road to help a pretty woman with a flat tire has nothing to do with procuring sex or a belief that she can’t do it herself. He’s just following an internal script, a set of ethics if you will, that says that that’s what he’s supposed to do. If she says she’ll take care of it herself and sends him on his way, he’s still managed to discharge his sense of social responsibility by asking. The guys who ARE thinking about sex when they stop generally have no interest in helping you with the tire in the first place, and most modern men are well aware that the average woman is both mentally and physically capable of changing her own flat tire. So why do they offer? Because it’s what they’re “supposed” to do. Even though they’re strangers and (unbeknownst to them) you’re probably uncomfortable because you don’t know them from Adam. I mean, sure, he might just be a nice guy genuinely offering to help, but he could also be some creep who plans to force himself on you as soon as you drop your guard. A quick cost vs. benefit analysis of the possibilities makes the prudent course of action clear: send him packing. And, yet, the script still exists, so the offers still come. And why preferential treatment for more attractive women? Again, not because as a man I expect a date, sex, or whathaveyou, but because that’s part of the script too: beauty is to be treasured and protected. It’s not fair, and it’s probably not right, but like so many other areas of life, how most men treat women has a lot to do with something as tiny as a quirk of genetics. You can take the same person, alter a few physical traits, and get very different results, even in a controlled setting. Which is pretty shitty, because the message that comes across is essentially “We don’t care who you are, just how you look.” That’s not entirely true, and it definitely isn’t fair to men like myself. We do care who you are, we’ve just been programmed since birth to respond very strongly to how you look as well. Some of us are trying to do better, others don’t even realize there’s a problem.

    I guess my point in all this is that men are as much a product of their conditioning as anyone, and that their motivations aren’t necessarily as clear-cut or obvious as they may appear at first glance. That’s not to say creeps and assholes don’t exist, or that the whole “save the princess” script isn’t the legacy of a load of misogynistic bullshit that we’re all better off without. They do, and it is. But just because the seed of an idea originated from an objectionable source doesn’t *necessarily* mean that the entirety of it should be discarded. After all, the thing that led me to tell people to smile was innocent and well-intentioned, if somewhat misguided (IMO). And I personally find the male imperative to help women in need quite charming, if a bit quaint; I know for a fact that I would think less of my fellow Southerners if they didn’t at least offer to help a woman in trouble. So there’s good and bad. In my mind, what’s really a shame is that we don’t offer such consideration to our fellow men nearly as often.

  62. 60
    pure_entropy says:

    I am very glad that you posted such a thought-out reply of some of the things that I was thinking, but couldn’t really explain because I’m a woman and I don’t understand much of it. And while it’s not mens’ fault, it still hurts my stomach a little to read just how differently beautiful people are treated from average or less then average looking people. And it’s not just men who do that, women are very much to blame for treating pretty people differently, as well. I think that it’s not just genetics, though, I believe that we attribute sloppiness/bad posture/bad hygiene/being ungroomed to what’s attractive, which is something that people can control in most circumstances. When people don’t care enough to take care of themselves, it makes us feel as though we shouldn’t care, either (imo). That doesn’t make it right, because we have little-to-no idea what other people think just based off what they look like, but human beings are judgmental beings, that’s what we do, we judge, everything.

    Anyways, yes, thank you, Cwastg.

  63. 61
    mythago says:

    Amanda, re Miss Manners, the joke is that “Miss” is her first name.

    Leo, imagine regularly being harassed to “Smile!” by gay men twice your size. Imagine how much fun this would be.

  64. 62
    Michael says:

    Telling anyone (woman, man, child) to smile is rude. Unless you are in the army or prision you should be able to make your own facial expression decisions freely, without insistence by those that have no rights. The world would be a much better place if everyone lived by 4 simple letters,, MYOB,, just that,, MYOB,, Mind Your Own Business. There have been many times when my heart ached to try and coax a smile from some stranger (woman) I have seen out, somewhere. Some woman that looked SO, so Sad. The need to comfort her (if the male has been raised “right”, And it took) is built in to us. I cannot hardly Stand to see a woman cry, i feel an almost irresistable urge to help her. but I live by MYOB, i do not intrude on her sadness, I like to think she was’nt sitting hoping someone, anyone would stop and try to cheer her up.

  65. 63
    Hannah says:

    How strange. I didn’t realise other people experienced this. I’m a young woman who is nearly always grinning or laughing or talking animatedly. So much so that when I’m walking along and thinking, my face relaxes and to my horror I’ve realised that, naturally, I have an incredibly sulky-looking face. Awful! So then, imagine walking along, not a care in the world, thinking about that nice thing you plan to buy or what you’ll be getting up to that weekend and some man, out f the blue, takes one look at your normal face and tells you to smile. I have had so many men (often quite old) tell me to smile and it does ruin your day a little (unless I’m drunk. I’ll smile for anyone willy-nilly when I’ve had a few sherberts. I’m a real smile-whore) because it makes you feel self-conscious, it’s unsolicited attention, it’s not a particularly constructive thing to say to someone anyway….why do it? Essentially, they’re saying ‘your face looks miserable – do something about it!’ I wouldn’t dream of saying to someone in the street, ‘you walk funny – sort it out!’ or ‘your shoes don’t match your outfit – go home and change!’

    Ok, that was a little over the top but it is irritating having people tell you what to do. “Cheer up love!” I’ve had too (because of my Naturally Sulky Face Syndrome (NSFS)), which is annoying if I’m quite cheery already. They don’t know anything about me. How dare they make assumptions about me and how I’m feeling?

  66. 64
    georgie says:

    I’ve had this happen to me on many, many ocassions – it’s certainly not a US only thing, as I live in the UK and am regularly instructed by random men to ‘smile’, ‘cheer up’, ‘give us a smile, love’ and recently ‘shake them titties’, which was hollered at me by two teenage boys whilst I was out running. I shouted back ‘don’t be so rude’, which made them giggle but also shut up.

    Has anyone else noticed that it is not just grown men who feel that they have the right to issue commands to women, but also teenage boys? I have noticed that they also like to call me ‘love’ and ‘bab’, and seem not to notice that I am twice their age and infinitely more wise and knowing than they are. Of course if you tell someone not to address you as ‘love’ or ‘sweetheart’, it’s all the bloody feminists overreacting, where’s the harm and can’t they take a joke…

  67. 65
    Kori says:

    Personally, I haven’t gotten the comment a lot. Lately, I’ve gotten my hair cut short and been frequently mistaken as male, especially but not exclusively by small children. I dress rather androgynously at times…

    I’ve gotten a load of compliments about my hair, though, which is green. I should think and hope that the compliments are because my hair is green, and not because I’m a girl…

  68. 66
    Kelly M says:

    When I was younger, I was VERY shy! I had freckles on my nose and everyone felt the need to comment on them not knowing how completely insecure of them I was. So whenever a stranger ((it has always been adult men)) would tell me how cute i was with the freckles, I’d instantly begin crying. I clearly remember the first person who told me to smile. It was right after he made me cry. Ever since that day, I’ve hated the “smile” command.
    I still hear it quite often usually in the context of “Why do you look sad? You’re too pretty to be sad. Smile!” While they may think that they are being nice and complimenting me, they are actually pissing me off. I don’t tell them to stop smiling because they look better with a serious expression.

    I’d rather punch them in the face than smile for them. Just saying…

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  71. 67
    Elly van Zanten says:

    I’m absolutely appalled that this happens. I live in Australia and I can’t think of an instance where I’ve even heard of this happening, so, I’m sort of shocked. :/ I can imagine being extremely short with anyone who tried this.

  72. 68
    Jessica says:

    I’ve gotten the “smile” command a few times where I work as a cashier. And it’s ALWAYS older men. The first few times I didn’t think much about it. But then it started to get old. I’m WORKING. I cannot smile the whole 5-8 hours that I’m there. Some people can smile at every customer they check out. I am not one of those people. I have bad days and it’s very easy for me to get lost in thought. And just because I’m not smiling does not mean that I’m not happy. Seriously, who walks around with a grin plastered on their face 24/7?

    This older couple came in and the woman’s husband told me to smile like I was somehow depriving myself. It may have looked like I smiled, but it was nowhere near a real smile. Then his wife told a little joke and it did really make me laugh and smile. I liked her better.

    If you really want to get me to smile, don’t effing command me to. Because you’re not going to get one anymore. Tell me a joke, do a little dance, make an effort to get me to smile. And don’t do it because you want to see how pretty my smile is. Do it because you want to brighten my day.

  73. 69
    Gav says:

    Americans are weird. I’ve never seen of nor heard of this happening in Ireland, the UK, the rest of Europe and now Asia. It’s an interesting symptom of US-centric thinking that what appears to be a weird local custom is interpreted as a feminist/gender issue; maybe it’s just that, well, Americans are weird.

  74. 70
    Ampersand says:

    Gav, why frame it as an either/or choice (either it’s an American thing, or it’s a feminist issue)? I don’t see any reason it can’t be both.

  75. 71
    Elusis says:

    FWIW I’ve been told to “give us a smile, luv” in London.

  76. 72
    mythago says:

    Yes, Gav, we get it. You’re a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, not constrained by the tiny, provincial views of America. Go, you. Have a cookie. The rest of us will talk about feminism, ‘k?

  77. 73
    Thene says:

    Elusis – I’ve had it happen to me in the UK too but I think the USA’s culture does try harder to prevent women from expressing negative emotions than the UK’s culture, possibly because US culture is more afraid of negative emotions in general than the UK’s culture is. (British people are more inhibited with positive emotions and affection IMO). Nonetheless, there are definitely men on (at least) two different continents who feel entitled to demand that I smile for them when I have no reason to smile for them. The specifics of sexism can differ from place to place and yet still be sexism.

  78. 74
    Athirena says:

    It certainly does happen in the UK. I have, as someone else said above, a face that naturally reposes into something others may interpret as downcast, even though I’m perfectly content. And yes there are men – it is always men, in my experience – who think they have the right to tell me to conform to their wishes as to how I should conduct myself by ‘smiling on command’.

    I remember one man – a total stranger – ordering me to smile when I was going for a train and concentrating on getting the correct platform. I just ignored him. He continued to press the matter and tried again, telling me to cheer up and ‘it may never happen’. I rather vehemently told him I couldn’t help what I looked like and he was totally taken aback. He had no idea of how utterly rude he had been! I still remember that one more than others which is an indication of how much it disturbed me. And no matter if I looked sad, but wasn’t, or if I was sad for a reason, what right does any stranger have to comment like that?

  79. 75
    Ruth6100 says:

    I get this all the time (and I live in the UK).
    Ever since I was a kid men have randomly told me to smile in the street and it never fails to make me angry, no matter how cheery I may have been beforehand.
    It’s usually just the simple order “Smile!” but sometimes the “Cheer up love!” followed sometimes by “it might never happen!”
    I usually try to ignore it, fixing my face into a firm scowl to protest against being ordered around in the middle of the street. This is usually met with a comment either mumbled or shouted to my departing back, “miserable b**ch!”

    The one time I’ve answered back was when a man passed my and said “Smile love! It might never happen!” and I (rather upset) replied “actually, it just has. My auntie died last night so f**k you!”

    He looked bewildered and hurt.
    I mean, really?? You shout orders at strangers in the street because they aren’t pleasing to the eye and are surprised when they get p**sed off??!

    It makes me so angry to have people think they can order me around.

  80. 76
    lorus says:

    No, this isn’t an American thing! Agree with Ruth6100.

    I have lived in Scotland my whole life. We’re a pretty dour bunch in general but despite that it is not uncommon to be told by a male stranger walking towards/by you to ‘smile’ and/or ‘cheer-up, it might never happen.’ Happened in my teens and beyond. Now I’m much, much older it doesn’t happen (not for a long time), so I think it’s also linked to an (not necessarily conscious) impulse to control/dictate/manipulate the behaviour of someone you see as much weaker, primarily because they are female but also, a young (or younger than the man) female. An older woman is less likely (IMO) to get spoken to in this way. It is obnoxious, intrusive and, when it used to happen to me, puzzling. It would really throw me – a stranger you hadn’t communicated with chastising you and trying to modify your behaviour. You’re minding your own business, thinking and someone pipes up with that shite. Really they want your attention – it’s a verbal snapping of the fingers to get you to pay attention because they’re disconcerted by the fact a female is walking along not noticing them. I kind of wish it still happened as my response would be much better now.

    A lot of obnoxious behaviour is sexist, racist, homophobic but part of it is, I think, a desire for attention – even negative attention will do. If you look at a person like Nick Griffin (Leader of the BNP, a British racist, right-wing, vile political party) it’s not hard to see that he wants attention, wants to feel important. I hate attention-seekers.

    Ignoring the idiot who says something to you like ‘smile’ is probably the best thing to do. Maybe starved of the oxygen of attention he will eventually shrivel up and die off…

  81. 77
    Rien says:

    I always thought this was a “I am depressed” thing, not a “asshole guys do this to lots of girls” thing.

  82. 78
    May says:

    Just to point out it’s not only an anglo-saxon thing, I live in France and it also happened to me, most notably by young men. They said things like “you’d be prettier if you smiled”.
    I usually have a rather blank expression, and my step-mother (who is of the smiling at everything type) too tried to have me enticed to smile, because she thought my expression “icy” and “ghost-like”.

    There was also one time when I was feeling really down, and it probably showed a lot. A man I had passed over not far from the station actually followed me into it and on the platform, and began asking if was okay. After I insisted he leave me alone he went and exited the station, thus confirming his following me. Needless to say the encounter totally creeped me out.
    Obviously, that story goes far from the average “smile!”-type scenario, but it shows I think to which lengths the “concerned bystander” thing can be pulled out. I have no idea what goes though the head of the people enticing you to show this or that expression, nor do I really wish to know. To me, it’s a form of casual harassment, i.e. people trying to step over other people’s boundaries to control them in some way, even as fleeting as obtaining them to smile, or even just pissing them off in the attempt.

    Seeing one of the posts above commenting about random obnoxious people trying to touch a pregnant woman’s belly reminds me of those people (often not even being acquaintances) complaining to a mother not trying to advertise her baby’s gender through the colour and style of clothing she made it wear. It really baffles me because I don’t see how it could be their business to know what gender a one-year old baby is. It’s not like it’s a potential sexual partner or anything, so why do some people feel entitled to pester anyone about it is beyond me.

  83. 79
    Nate says:

    What does “it might never happen” mean?

  84. 80
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I’ve had people (mostly, possibly always men) tell me to smile. Sometimes I’d snap at them– sorry, I can’t remember what I said– and their faces would fall, which cheered me up immediately. It was like turning a switch.

    On the one hand, I was a little concerned that making someone feel worse made me feel better, and on the other…. they did want me to smile.

  85. 81
    Serena says:

    I realize this thread is years old, but I’d like to add my perspective: The Smile Command is offensive because it implies that your upset-ness doesn’t matter. I think both men and women are looked down upon in some way if they’re upset or crying. The command is often given with the implication “Hey, you’re not allowed to be upset! You have to smile!”

  86. 82
    Angelica says:

    I, too, realize that this blog post is very old, but since it is a subject that is sore with me, I wanted to comment on it. I’m older now (44) and am never ordered to smile anymore, and I don’t remember too many strangers on the street commanding me to smile, but I DO remember vividly being told by coworkers, always men, to smile.

    This was the typical scenario: I’d be walking down the hall, deep in thought, and one of my male coworkers, usually older and more senior, would walk by, see me not smiling, and say, “smile!” Since I tend to be a gloomy person by nature, I was always struck instantly with guilt that somehow I was being offensive and would reflexively smile. Eventually, I noticed the pattern and started wondering, why are these people asking me to smile, and, more importantly, what right do they have to ask? So what if I’m lost in thought? Why must I be smiling all the time?

    What I finally decided to do was to do an experiment. One part of the experiment was to tell one of these men (again, usually older and higher up in the organization) to smile. This was usually met with incredulity on their part and some kind of comment like, “smile? Why would you want me to smile?!” In other words, they *never* reflexively accepted that it was their role to do as they were told by a woman, the way women are conditioned to accept that they must respond as a man tells them to.

    The second part of the experiment was to formulate a response when ordered to smile. When one of these people told me to smile, I would look them right in the eye and say, “I will if you will.” Surprise, surprise, they never did. And they looked miffed that I had asked them to smile.

    I think ultimately the smile command is one issued by people of superior social rank (adults to children, higher-ups to their employees, and, unfortunately, men to women) in order to keep their world pleasant. In the case of my coworkers, no doubt they felt their lives were stressful enough without having to worry about what the young woman who was lower on the totem pole than them might be worrying about. If they commanded me to smile and I did, not only was it an affirmation of their power, but they had brightened up their own day a little bit.

    I honestly think it’s true that men are uncomfortable with women having an interior life of their own and not always being pleasant and sunny for them, the men. Apes of lower rank will smile at those of upper rank as a sign of submission, and I think that’s what lies at the heart of the smile command. You’re being told to submit, in one way or another.

    I read the posts that said attractive or young women were most often told to smile, and I think that’s because men most want to control women who might be sexually available to them, because it makes them less of a threat. And, perhaps, because these women are less experienced, usually less empowered, and will put up with it more. I’m not sure I buy the argument that it’s about rescuing or protecting women (the “damsel in distress” thing). I think it’s about domination. Domination can be hard or it can be soft. Telling someone to smile may seem friendly, but it’s soft domination, pure and simple.

  87. 83
    Ben Lehman says:

    Angelica: That seems pretty insightful, to me.

  88. 84
    Angelica says:

    Forgot to mention: a smile is, at its essence, a sign that the person wearing it is nonthreatening. If you as a man are insecure and a woman frowning or seeming engrossed in her own private thoughts is threatening, it makes sense that you would try to make your world “safer” by issuing the smile command.

  89. 85
    Schala says:

    I thought it might go with the uncomfortable awkwardness surrounding someone crying.

    Whereas the boy or man is likely to be told to man up and stop crying, the men around a woman or girl who cries are likely to feel they want her to stop, without telling her in a rude manner, and without really knowing how.

    I figure telling people to smile is a way to have people not unhappy. Though its absurd that smiling could truly make someone feel better (if it does, they didn’t even feel bad to start with).

    The incredulity of the men might be because no one cares about their well-being usually, at least not strangers (family and close friends might) and someone wanting them to smile is wanting them to feel better…they can’t understand why someone would want that – because people don’t usually move heaven and earth when they really do have trouble, why would they now?

    If you’re used to be left alone or shunned when you need help, told to suck it up. A sudden interest in your state of mind is taken as suspect.

  90. 86
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Schala – I really don’t think this has anything to do with concern – no matter how superficial – about a woman’s state of mind. It’s “concern” about a woman’s appearance, plain and simple.

    I can tell you that personally, I find smiling women more attractive than women who are not smiling. I don’t know if that’s a conditioned or a biological response, but it is an automatic reaction. I’m sure I’m not that unique in having it. So if I were the type of man who thought women around me have a requirement to act in such a way that maximized my enjoyment when I looked at them, I would want them to smile, all the time. Just like I’d like my potted plants to flower all the time, and my paintings to be hung straight and dust free.

    I’m not that kind of man, and I’ve never told a woman to smile because, you know, women are people, not decorations. But it’s not surprising to me that a lot of men (and women) don’t quite get that last bit.

  91. 87
    Schala says:

    “I can tell you that personally, I find smiling women more attractive than women who are not smiling”

    I can’t really relate to this, but I can relate to the awkwardness about crying (it’s something annoying (and not just because of the sound, but because of the reaction it triggers – I also react to anger, raised voices etc, even if not directed at me), that I want to stop, without making the crying person feel bad, possibly helping the crying person).

    To me, wether someone is smiling or not is immaterial, their beauty is unchangeable regardless of their expression to me. And it’s only aesthetic. I might as well complain that columns are round.

    I can tell you that personally, I find smiling women more attractive than women who are not smiling. I don’t know if that’s a conditioned or a biological response, but it is an automatic reaction.

    Do you think a smiling woman is more attractive (as a societal standard) than a smiling man, so that asking a man to smile would be useless, immaterial, and something no man or woman would do? And hence the origin of the double standard?

    Ie you can embellish your pretty plants, but your cacti are…cacti (ugly) regardless of what they do.

  92. 88
    Elusis says:

    Schala, if you keep looking hard enough, I’m sure you can find a way that telling women to smile is actually evidence of discrimination against men.

  93. 89
    Schala says:

    Schala, if you keep looking hard enough, I’m sure you can find a way that telling women to smile is actually evidence of discrimination against men.

    Sort of like the draft, its discrimination against women. I’ve heard it before.

    I’m trying to rationalize the behavior of people who are not me, to understand where it comes from. Excuse me if I don’t share their bias in taking people by their membership birth groups and stereotyping them. I must have learned better when I was a kid, was heavily stereotyped myself, and where I knew it was a wrong stereotype – and no one cared (they thought the stereotype was right, and I was wrong).

  94. 90
    Ruchama says:

    Whereas the boy or man is likely to be told to man up and stop crying, the men around a woman or girl who cries are likely to feel they want her to stop, without telling her in a rude manner, and without really knowing how.

    In my experience, if I’m crying in public (or semi-public), the people who come up to me to try to talk to me and comfort me are almost always women. If I’m just not-smiling in public, the people who tell me to smile are almost always men.

  95. 91
    Schala says:

    Maybe I’m wrong I just think Occam’s razor vs conspiracy theory, one might be more probable.

    Occam’s razor: men care about women (more than they do about other men), and it makes them anxious/unhappy (and yes it’s selfish) to see a woman frowning or crying.

    Conspiracy theory: men have made an alliance together (without knowing about it) in order to control all women, and ordering them to smile is just a part of it

    In my experience, if I’m crying in public (or semi-public), the people who come up to me to try to talk to me and comfort me are almost always women.

    In my experience, men don’t know what to do when someone’s crying, besides going away if they can, or cringing til its over if they can’t. They’re not trained to deal with it, in fact they’re effectively trained to deny it’s happening. They know whatever they say is unlikely to change things, might make it worse (might explode at you for reasons unrelated to them) and hugs “aren’t manly”, so they pay a social price for them. With a woman stranger, offering a hug is 90% chance to be seen as a sexual come on, when from a man, on top.

    This is from Angelica @82:

    I read the posts that said attractive or young women were most often told to smile, and I think that’s because men most want to control women who might be sexually available to them, because it makes them less of a threat.

    This is what I call conspiracy theory.

    In a patriarchy, men are not threatened by women. Hence no DV shelters and no rape centers to deal with male victims of female perpetrators. Why would they want women to not be a threat? Patriarchy says women CAN’T be threatening at all.

  96. 92
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Schala – where are you reading the “crying or frowning” thing? Women have more than three facial expressions. Most of the time if I see a woman on the street or at work and she’s not smiling, she’s not crying or frowning either, she’s just going on about her business.

  97. 93
    Ampersand says:

    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.

  98. 94
    Ruchama says:

    In my experience, men don’t know what to do when someone’s crying, besides going away if they can, or cringing til its over if they can’t. They’re not trained to deal with it, in fact they’re effectively trained to deny it’s happening.

    So what makes you think that “men do nothing when a woman is crying” somehow implies whatever you’re trying to say about what men do when a woman has a neutral expression on her face? It’s two completely different situations.

  99. 95
    Schala says:

    Schala – where are you reading the “crying or frowning” thing? Women have more than three facial expressions. Most of the time if I see a woman on the street or at work and she’s not smiling, she’s not crying or frowning either, she’s just going on about her business.

    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.

    Reacting to someone frowning or crying I could understand. But just someone not smiling, nope. It’s like reacting to someone not dressed in rags, or naked…but just not up to the latest fashions “so last week”. Makes no sense to me.

  100. 96
    Grace Annam says:

    Schala, it does not require a conspiracy to suppose a very simple explanation: men are raised with a sense of entitlement concerning their surroundings. In comparison to women, men are socialized to be active, to do, to mold, to create, to control their environments. Women are relatively more socialized to be compliant, deferential, and decorative. Women are valued, much more than men, on how much they provide a pleasant environment, either by providing or by being viewed. And, to echo what Eytan said, it’s more pleasant when the people around you are smiling, and if you are attracted to women, particularly when the women are smiling.

    So, men have a sense of entitlement with regard to women which results in some men exhorting some women to become suddenly more attractive by smiling, and this is particularly true of men who are accustomed to receiving deference and women who are young, conventionally attractive, and perceived-to-be-potentially-available.

    It’s nothing personal. It’s just an unconscious impulse to control one’s environment and make it more suitable. Which is part of what makes it so infuriating, I’m sure, because no one likes to be regarded as a picture to be straightened.

    (I do not think that I ever in my presenting-as-male lifetime exhorted a stranger to smile. But, like Eytan, I have experienced male privilege in society, and I can easily imagine why someone would do such a thing, and mean nothing ill by it, and be completely astounded that someone would take offense. Yeah, I’ve been just about that clueless. Working on it, working on it.)