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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Things Best Left Unsaid, Part 2: Smile Pretty For Me Now

I'll admit that I take pleasure in reading advice columns. My regular reads are Dear Abby, Dear Margo, Carolyn Hax, Harriette Cole (whom I mostly laugh at for being heart-warming and cheesy), and Dear Prudence. I know it's a little bit lame to enjoy advice columns, and especially to be a dedicated reader of multiple columns, but I find them entertaining, and I suppose I also take a little bit of comfort in seeing that (1) a lot of other people have dealt with the same types of hardships I have complained about in my life, and (2) a lot of people have had to deal with stuff a lot worse than my problems. So that makes me feel pretty good on both counts.

Below are two clippings from advice columnist Dear Prudence, who was at the time a woman named Margo Howard (daughter of famed advice columnist Ann Landers, and now known as Dear Margo). Dear Prudence today is a woman of a different name, which I have managed not to learn since (1) her column comes out only once a week, and (2) she is reasonably new in the office of Prudence.

Anyway, these clippings below regard the same subject: Strangers who ask people to smile, and whether or not this behavior is rude. The first letter is from an older column, and the second is from a later column (regrettably I did not copy the dates from the archives), but interestingly, Prudence gives opposing advice from one letter to the next. Of course, the question is asked differently from one to the next, so perhaps that had an affect on the different opinions, but I think the underlying issue is the same, and I feel Prudie dropped the ball on the second letter. See what you think:

Dear Prudence,
How do you respond to someone (a total stranger) who, out of nowhere, tells you to smile—or remarks on the lack of a smile on your face? In the past month I've observed the following incidents. At the checkout line in my grocery store, there was a woman in front of me and a man in front of her. The man looked at the woman, who was not smiling, and said to her, "You must be having a bad day." She mumbled something in reply and gave an apologetic smile. After they left, I heard the two checkout clerks in the area speaking angrily to one another about what had just happened. One of them said indignantly, "What if her mother had just died?!" The other said, "I would have told him, 'My day was fine until you came along!'" And so on. In another instance, a young man next to me at a sandwich shop, while placing his order, said to the young girl behind the counter, "Smile!" She quickly looked down at her work, cringed, and said, "Oh, it's just been a long day, I guess." (That's the kind of response I probably would have made.) Then a few days ago, a male co-worker came into the office, annoyed, and said, "I hate it when people think I'm in a bad mood just because I'm not smiling. I'm not in a bad mood at all." Apparently someone (another total stranger) had said something to him while he was in the parking lot. When it's happened to me, I know I've felt offended. I don't want to be rude, but they're out of line, aren't they? I just would like to know how a person is supposed to respond to these people.

—Smiling When I Feel Like It

Dear Smile,
These commentators are strangers? What's up with that? Prudie thinks a proper response would be nonverbal communication. Something along the lines of knitting your eyebrows together, narrowing your eyes, and making the slightest sneer, all while cocking your head to a 45 degree angle.

Prudie, huffily

Dear Prudence,
Apparently my face seems to have a serious or sad demeanor. Not that I feel this way all the time, but I guess that's how it appears because men keep walking up to me saying things like, "Why are you so sad/serious?" So I say something like, "None of your business," or "I don't want to speak to you." People close to me say that I am being too blunt, but personally I think that they are rude and out of place. To me it's just a lame pickup line, and they just want one thing (most men do anyway). It's also insulting, and on my bad days, when I am really not in a good mood, it drives me close to cursing. If I were a man, I swear it would lead to a lot of fist fights. Am I wrong?

—Live and Let Live

Dear Liv,
You are not "wrong," exactly, but you sure are angry. There are clearly underlying feelings of discontent and distress manifesting themselves on your face. That you choose to interpret the concern of others as rude behavior or lame pickup lines validates, for Prudie, the dark cloud you are living under. (Some people might actually welcome the inquiry and, perhaps, the opportunity to vent a little.) You should bear in mind that most men do not select a girl who looks like she's on her way to a root canal as the ideal candidate to hit on. It is possible that you are antisocial, misanthropic, or in need of a good shrink. The crux of the matter is that the problem lies with you, not the people (men?) who are wondering why you look so sad or serious.

Prudie, analytically

What Prudie refers to as "the concern of others" in the second letter is what I would call "the bad manners of others". People who don't know you don't have a reason to be concerned about you. And if they don't know you, then they don't know how to read your face accurately, and therefore they don't know if your stoic demeanor is evidence of a bad mood or just a lack of upturned mouth corners, signifying nothing.

What I'm bothered by most is the underlying attitude behind the request that someone slap a smile on his or her face: the attitude that you need to be happy all the time. People aren't happy all the time. Sometimes they are sad, sometimes they are angry, and sometimes they are just indifferent. There are myriad emotions, some that play more openly on your face than others. Sometimes we try to hide our emotions, and sometimes we let them show, and sometimes we aren't quite aware enough of our emotions to realize what's happening on our faces. But the point is, it's very human to have a nice colorful rainbow of emotions. Of course we like to be happy, and we like it when other people are happy, but desiring that everyone be happy all the time is unrealistic and at odds with human nature.

What is it about strangers asking you to smile that feels so annoying? Maybe it is merely that the suggestion is unsolicited advice, and who wants that anyway? Why do I have to be happy FOR YOU to be happy? That's kind of the feeling that pops up in me when I'm faced with a request to smile. What business is it of yours anyway?

When I was in the middle of my undergrad studies, I would often walk down to the nearest coffee shop (which is about 20-30 minutes on foot) to start writing my papers. Getting out of the house, being free from distractions, and being surrounded by coffee was a helpful way to get my mental juices flowing so I could get a good start on a paper. Also, walking by myself gets me into a nice mental state where the wheels begin spinning and I can organize my thoughts, and even be more aware of what I'm thinking. It's introversion time. It's ME time.

So I was annoyed one day when I was walking down to the Roasting Company to write a paper and was affronted by someone along the way who felt that I really ought to be smiling, and since I wasn't, I must be upset about something (of course one could be upset about writing a paper, but I'm rather used to it and like writing, so all I was doing was outlining my paper in my head). This fellow was an employee for the Training Table (what exactly they're training people for, I've yet to divine, but it's definitely not on good manners), and he apparently was blessed enough to have the job of opening doors for patrons. He may or may not have been opening the door for a patron when I walked by, but in any case, he stuck his fat head out and yelled to me "Smile! It can't be THAT bad!" I responded by looking at him, face unchanging, and saying nothing. But I really wanted to throw something in his face, cause him physical harm, and then tell him to smile, 'cause it couldn't be that bad. Except that he would have been beaten up by a girl, and I guess a lot of people would think that is pretty bad, so maybe he would have had a good case for crying his little eyes right out. But fortunately for him, I'm an upstanding citizen, and so I let him get by with a warning glare.

I was later interested to hear that my old roommate Katie experienced this very same thing as she was walking by Training Table one day. And so apparently there is some douche bag working there who feels so bad about the fact that he opens doors for people for a living that he keeps telling himself to smile, and he thinks it's much easier to do so if everyone else is smiling too. What an idiot.

I think my default expression has always been rather serious looking. I remember once my 2nd grade teacher told me to smile. So even back then I was very serious looking, it seems. I obliged with one of those non-smile things where you just upturn the corners of your mouth, but really your face says 'fuck you, bitch'. (except it probably said something like 'back off, granny', cause I was an innocent little child who didn't use such adult language until at least 3 grades later).

So I look serious. So what? If you really know me, you know I'm wry and whimsical, with a front of seriousity. But what business is it of yours anyway? You do with your mouth what you want (as long as that does not involve your mouth mouthing off about how I should be smiling), and I do with my mouth what I want. Deal?

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