No, I don’t want to “Smile, honey!”

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a powerful essay from The New York Times about one mother’s ferocious, non-smiley 10-year-old daughter, Birdy.

A few excerpts:

I am a radical, card-carrying feminist, and still I put out smiles indiscriminately, hoping to please not only friends and family but also my son’s orthodontist, the barista who rolls his eyes while I fumble apologetically through my wallet, and the ex-boyfriend who cheated on me. If I had all that energy back — all the hours and neurochemicals and facial musculature I have expended in my wanton pursuit of likedness — I could propel myself to Mars and back. Or, at the very least, write the book “Mars and Back: Gendered Constraints and Wasted Smiling.”…

Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.

I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice.

Girls and women often hear this order — mostly from men, and often while walking in public, lost in our own thoughts: “Smile, honey!”


It’s our job to respond to you?

It’s our job to be cheerful at all times?

It’s our job to immediately re-arrange our facial features at your command?

It’s our job to reassure you that you’re every bit as attractive and charming as you think you are?

It’s our job to put you at ease — no matter what our true mood is in that moment?


Smile Like You Mean It
Smile Like You Mean It (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In high school, I was badly bullied every day, loudly, for about three years by a small group of boys. My nickname was Doglin and they’d bark at me in the hallways, their taunts echoing off all the metal lockers and the long terrazzo hallways.

It didn’t matter what I wore or how I reacted or how smart I was or how many friends I had — the daily public humiliation continued.

It’s not our job to make you feel better about yourself by making our face, body or behavior more appealing!

Smile 2
Smile 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I also like this post, about why women don’t need to be pretty either (h/t to Small Dog Syndrome):

You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T be pretty if you want to. (You don’t owe UN-prettiness to feminism, in other words.) Pretty is pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you. But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze.

And here’s an excerpt from a recent, powerful essay on the issue from

Yesterday, I missed a train and I was frustrated, hot and tired. A man standing in the station decided it was a good time to pass his hand along my arm as I ran by and whisper, “You’d be even prettier if you smiled.”  Here’s the thing about “Smile, baby,” the more commonly uttered variant of the same sentiment: No woman wants to hear it.  And every woman wonders, no matter how briefly, about what could happen if she doesn’t smile.  I was in a crowded place and perfectly safe, but that is actually, in the end, irrelevant.  I have, in the past, been followed by men like him.

Without exception, this phrase means a man is entirely comfortable telling a woman, probably one he doesn’t even know, what he wants her to do with her body to please him.  This suggests a lack of respect for other people’s bodily integrity and autonomy.  The phrase, and others more sexually explicit, are verbal expressions of male entitlement.  The touching would reinforce that suggestion. Two “inconsequential” little words.  A small thing, until you consider street harassment as the normalization of male dominance.

Gentlemen, do you care if a woman doesn’t smile at you?

Do you care, ladies, if men think you’re angry or ugly when you fail to acknowledge their gaze?

60 thoughts on “No, I don’t want to “Smile, honey!”

  1. Do I care if a woman doesn’t smile? No more so than if a man doesn’t smile. Smiles belong to each person separately and should be doled out as each person can afford or chooses. Honestly, too-smiley worries me, saying “My content doesn’t matter. Please look only at my style.”

    Smiles make me happy, though, from whomever they come. It’s nobody’s job to smile at me.

  2. While I appreciate the perspective, it’s not just men who have this expectation of women – other women do as well. Some faces, well, we’re not prone to smiling, often lost in contemplation or focused.
    I have smiled to put others at ease – I think this is more a human construct, than a societal one. I don’t feel like my expression is “owed” to anyone, though. I do make eye contact, though and establish alpha dog status in public – it has entirely eliminated unsolicited comments about my facial expressions or being.

    1. Bummer. I think you’re right, though.

      I have a tough time with my face when I concentrate — I tend to look angry when all I am doing is focusing. It can really confuse or put people off, which is not my goal. Oh well.

  3. And this is, I suppose, why a “neutral expression” on me translates into a look resembling this: “Right after this, I am going to go out and find your dog and then I’m going to torture it to death. And if you don’t have a dog, then I will find your hamster or your gerbil or your little girl or whatever it is that you care about most and torture that instead.” Loads of practice at not just failing to smile, but appearing actively hostile, perhaps even dangerous.

    But I actually do smile a lot. I’m not thinking about how anyone is going to feel about me, but smiling cheers me up. When I’m in one of those rotten moods where nothing seems to be going right or when my class is driving me absolutely nuts, I smile, and I feel better. If nothing else, I don’t get my nasty, cranky mood reflected right back at me by those around me, which I otherwise would.

    No, I don’t think I owe anyone a smile. But smiling makes me happy, and it seems to cheer other people up too. I feel like it sends out this message: the world is a nice place, it’s a safe place, and you’re going to like it–if not now, then soon. Good things will happen to you, and people are going to like you. And given how screwed up the world is, I think it’s a message someone else nearby probably needs to see.

    I’ve been told, among other things, “It can’t be that bad,” by a stranger on the street in just the way that you mention. But it is that bad. My smiling–or not smiling–is not about anyone else’s right to control my behavior. It’s my choice. And I think that’s the bottom line. Like looking pretty (or not), having kids (or not), having a career (or not), it’s about having the right to make our own choices. And everyone who says you have to smile is trying to take that away.

    1. Autonomy. What a concept!

      I do agree that a smile is a lovely thing to share…and when I am happy or the mood to be social, fine. But Americans, especially, have a high expectation of people being “real friendly” which drives me nuts. That’s not my job! Many of us are more introverted and/or come from a more reserved culture — or don’t feel like potentially inviting a hassle or sexual come-on. So a grim face forestalls that. Sadly.

  4. I actually found out in Sociology class yesterday that smiling evolved from primates displaying all their teeth in a manner that portrayed us as non-threatening. It kind of stuck, because the smile made many parties feel at ease. However, faking a smile is difficult and holding it up hurts the face, because the muscles that create smiles are more recently evolved and aren’t as under our conscious control as other muscles in the face.

  5. Great topic. And no, I don’t freak out about a/the male gaze. Maybe that’s because I’m not a straight woman, and men don’t figure in my world as current or potential intimate partners, so I don’t approach them as such and I don’t interact with them as such. Doesn’t mean I’m not still subject to certain types of male gazes–there are power structures and “old boy”/”young boy” networks that I have to deal with, but from my observations, men interact with me differently than they do with straight women. More on that in a minute.

    The men in my life (gay, trans, and straight) are close friends and relatives, and we like each other as people. Straight cismen I don’t know tend to ignore me unless I address them directly. Perhaps it’s because I tend to look a little androgynous (which is probably why straight men interact with me differently). I do get mistaken for a dude at least a couple times a month, mostly by women (which is interesting), though men do it, too.

    I’ll throw age into the mix, now. Seems to me that men (presumably straight cismen) who tell women to smile stop doing it when a woman hits a “certain age.” I’m guessing when she hits her late 30s/40s? I think there are a few reasons for this. Maybe a woman feels more secure in her own body and she exudes that kind of security and self-power. The kind of power that says: “I like myself and I don’t need you telling me what to do. If I want something, I’ll freaking ask for it.” And maybe men feel weird telling a women that age to “smile” because it’s like telling their supervisors or moms to smile or something. Or maybe it’s because women that age are no longer “nubile sexual objects” (or something) so much. Maybe it’s a combination of all that. Or maybe I’m totally off base.

    All that said, I smile because I like how it feels. I’m generally a pretty upbeat person. I have my shit days, but hey. That’s part of the human condition. I give myself room to have those days and to not feel like smiling. I’m thinking about it, now, and I think the only times a man has told me to smile was for school pictures back in the day. Huh. If it happens in the future, I’m totally going to email you about it! 😀

    1. Interesting!

      I still get smiled at/acknowledged by men in public, which, when flattering, is pleasant. I sometimes wonder where men get this notion that women are there to be decorative…and why it’s OK to dismiss us when we are not.

      In general, I agree that smiling is pleasant and makes the world a happier place, as long as you are making that decision for yourself.

  6. Changing our moods to fake it…is a part of our society. A massive part, though to be honest I do notice when I see a very visibly unhappy person (women show more emotion on our faces than men do I believe). Or if in customer service the attendant hates their life. I notice that too…most people do!

    I have had a man stop me and creep me out and say “You look so much nicer when you smile!” as I bought something from a convenience store) yes he followed me, and yes I scowled at him directly on the bus before heading to the convenience store for gazing at me in a suggestive way. I wanted to slap him in the face, instead I just stared directly at him as if to say “Go to hell slime ball”.

    That’s molester/rapist/peeping tom behaviour. To look at a woman in lust in a very public space, and to have no shame and verbally let her know you’re watching her.


  7. First something to make you laugh on the subject.

    I suffer from Bitchy Resting Face. I look intense and scarey when deep in thought. I have perfected my “get to work you little peons”. And have been reprimanded by bosses (non-teaching), women, when i didn’t smile adequately or enough.

    If someone tells me to smile now…I refrain from punching them in the face. Nothing cuts to the core more than this comment…well maybe the “c” word, that gets me going too. But really? Why should I smile just because you asked. Most people will say I am a positive and joyous person who loves to laugh. But when I am thinking, no smile.

    Now, if someone ever says anything like “smile, honey” I respond with “Wouldn’t a ‘how are you doing today’ be a better way to engage me in conversation?” Because after all, I could have just won the lottery and be intensely thinking about all the things I’m now going to spend my money on, both charitable and otherwise. 🙂

    1. Good to know I am not alone…I’ve even addressed this in job interviews, because I look like I’m scowling if I’m thinking hard. I’m just not a smile-y person for the most part — I love to laugh loud and often but much of the time I’m deep in thought and don’t want to be disturbed.

      I think telling anyone to smile is extremely rude — you might also have just been fired or discovered your partner is unfaithful or gotten a horrible medical diagnosis. My expression is none of your business!

  8. I could apologise all day for men like the sleazeballs who touch and follow women. I could apologise for the role men have given women in the past-and maybe the present- because women are people in their own right and as such have all the rights of anyone else. But, however rude the man was that touched the arm of the lady passing him at the station, he may really have been trying to brighten her day and pay her a compliment- backhanded as it was.
    As for the man walking with his wife and says ‘Smile Honey’, I hear no context in the words. Had I found my wife in another world and perhaps without her customary smile, I may well have uttered those or similar words in an effort to bring her back an let me know she was happy. I know if she wasn’t that it would give her opportunity to tell me so and why, so that maybe I could help, or let me know if I were the cause. The ‘Smile Honey’ wouldn’t have been an instruction, but more an invitation.
    Smiling is difficult when concentrating but though no-one owes the world a smile no-one can deny it brightens the world. People usually respond to a smile with a smile even if not directed at them. No-one should walk round with a fake smile plastered on for his purpose though.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx ( Which is my signature and not an affront to women anywhere who don’t like to be touched).

    1. I hear you…

      But to me it’s very simple. If you want someone to smile at you, smile at them; if they respond in kind, lovely. If not, too bad. Telling someone — esp. a stranger — what to do or how to behave is really disrespectful.

  9. I struggle with the first example, with my son. I’m told he doesn’t get social cues all that well, so I’m continually instructing him about what he needs to do with his face, or to look up, so that others will like him, or he will get better service at stores, etc….and it just feels so odd to tell him he needs to manufacture emotions to others. He asks “why” and it’s because of some silly cultural norm we have to follow. As for me? Sometimes I get responses like this in town, or at the school, where someone might say–hey what’s the rush? or, you look tired! Or, smile! And honestly, I don’t mind it too much because it means I probably do need to relax a bit and break from whatever problem I have mulling around in my head. I do get stuck there sometimes, I don’t think I have ever heard this in a sleazy way though, maybe I’d feel differently if I felt the guy was creepy.

    1. That’s an interesting challenge — as kids “on the spectrum” don’t handle or process emotion well necessarily. I have a friend with a son who is quite autistic and she just warned me before I met him that he won’t smile or be social or chatty. I do think this is also somewhat cultural — Americans can get REALLY offended if you’re not “friendly” when many other cultures don’t demand or require it — try that in France, for example! It’s exhausting to spend all that energy interacting with people, especially for introverts.

      I agree that one can get frazzled and a kind reminder might be welcome. I might react differently if said by a woman and said gently.

  10. I adore Catherine Newman, the writer from your first excerpt. She received a lot of negative comments from that article but I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly. My daughter has a very similar personality to Birdy and I can’t wait to see her grow up and kick ass wherever she goes.
    I think that I get more accomplished in the office where 80% of the staff are men by being happy and friendly but that’s my deliberate choice. Nothing pisses me off more than when someone orders me to cheer up or smile if I’m having a bad day.

  11. It doesn’t matter to me if a woman I don’t know doesn’t smile at me. It’s different if it’s someone I know well. I often feel like something is wrong in a face to face conversation if I smile and the other person does not.

    I understand how a stranger telling a woman to smile could be rude and creepy. And touching a stranger in the manner described is not right. But if it’s someone who cares about you, like a friend or family member, isn’t that different? The “you’d be prettier if…” comments are still weird, though. Perhaps men think the phrase is acceptable or even charming because of it’s use in pop music, movies, etc. To me it sounds cheesy and ridiculous. I never thought about how it might sound to a woman, but I still have the sense to know that saying it to a stranger would sound weird and awkward at best.

    Smiles are also commonly used as a tool of manipulation. I experience this daily, especially from women. Is it a conscious decision on their part? I don’t know. It doesn’t bother me. Sometimes it’s comical. There is an old saying that goes something like “you get more with honey than with vinegar.” Smiling is one way it is put into action.

    1. All true…

      I think smiling certainly puts people at ease, and when I worked retail I found that expectation sometimes really onerous and downright unrealistic. One day, when working the holidays with long lineups of super-demanding customers, a woman snapped at me “Smile! It’s the holidays!” — as if I didn’t need to pee/drink some water/blow my nose/rest — none of which we were allowed to do. It’s a nasty attitude that others have to pretend all the time. No one in a customer-facing job should be scowling or rude, but we’re not monkeys either.

      I bet some of the women who smile at you are genuine and some — as Rami pointed out — are just trying to keep the peace and pre-placate. Women do it a lot.

  12. Thank you for explaining why I feel “touched by dirty” when total strangers, usually men, tell me to smile as I walk by them. They are invading my boundaries, I knew that, but I never realized why it made me feel so yechy and even guilty when I don’t respond with a smile. It’s because I have been given the smile command since I was an abused little girl living in Hell. I didn’t smile for a picture (after I was a year old) until I was in my 30’s. I am also so tired of hearing, “you are so pretty when you smile.” Thank you for sharing. Jeanne Marie

    1. And while I’m talking about inappropriate behavior from strangers, how about this first response from a blog I followed.
      “Thank you for the follow. I love women who think too much, so long as they are willing to kiss me too.” I was offended, right or wrong?

  13. Do you think there is a lot of cultural history involved as well? I am a smiler if I am wandering aimlessly, I also whistle terribly when thinking. But if It’s something knotty then I tend to be scowling.

    The outside view of America is the “Have a nice day” service with service on top thing, has this spilt over into life expectations of how we should behave to others?

    I do agree that walking up to a stranger and commenting on their demeanor is very odd. In the UK any sort of social interaction like this is frowned on in general (I am sure it does happen anyway) The British are a dour nation anyway, and if told to cheer up we are likely to enter a rant of why we shouldn’t and the weather.

    Smiling is supposed to have positive effects for everyone, but so does privacy and personal expression as well. I think challenging the behaviour is how to change it. Let someone know, and or be embarrassed by what they do and be responsible for their actions.

    I don’t think I’ll stop random smiling myself though, just kind of slips out as I stroll along enjoying the walk.


  14. Dorli

    I have never thought of this kind of command as gender-related; this is an interesting discussion. No, I don’t like it when men (or women) tell me to smile. It seems to be a particularly American expectation (says the American who has lived in Europe for quite a while). What about the wink, though? That to me is worse: it’s a pact, some kind of creepy complicity, you never entered into in the first place.

    1. Hmmmm. I don’t get a lot of winks but that would creep me out.

      Americans just seem to expect a LOT of social interaction (far more than some other cultures) and it’s wearying and intrusive at times.

  15. I think you’re missing a perspective here. It’s not that the opressive patriarchy or whatever (I’ll admit, I may have skimmed this a bit) is forcing you to conform, it’s more like society wants you to conform, and I see where you’re coming from there, I hate it when people tell me to smile. Happens a lot, and I’m male. E.g., you’re assuming that everything that happens to you because you’re female, which is not necessarily accurate.

    1. But how many times in your life — anywhere, ever — has a woman, and a complete stranger in public, commanded you to “smile, honey”? I would bet very very very few. It IS gendered. Women are far less likely to do this to a man than vice versa.

      1. Well, I’ve honestly never heard a stranger say that to another stranger, regardless of gender. Maybe I live in either less friendly or less creepy places, depending on how you look at it.

  16. There’s a big difference between the creeper “Smile baby.” and encouraging a kid to smile. We should encourage all of our children, both male and female, to smile as much as possible. Smiling is one of those things that improves not only our own day, but the days of those around us as well. There’s too much negativity in the world already, so let’s raise our children to be positive individuals and not dissect every suggestion to smile as a sexist comment. Your post makes the assumption that any male encouraging a female to smile is sexist because he’s saying it’s her job to be a bubbly stereotype and because her smile makes him feel better about himself. Hogwash! I encourage my wife to smile because I know that when she has a scowl on her face she’s ripping herself to pieces with thoughts of how awful she thinks she is. I encourage my niece to smile because she brings so much joy to me that I want her to be as happy as she makes me, smiling or not. I encourage my son to smile because he’s creatively eccentric and horribly bullied and he often needs reminded to be happy. Not all men are creepers. I stand behind a lot of what feminists want to accomplish, but I will never support their stereotyping of males. We’re not all monsters and whore-mongers and rapists. The creepers are the ones to watch out for, not the father encouraging his daughter to be positive because he loves her and wants her to be happy. Even with that scowl, she’s the brightest part in his day. He just wants to make sure she’s a bright spot in her own day.

    1. I appreciate your perspective but disagree.

      What if your children simply feel like managing their own facial expressions and emotions? Why should that bother you?

      As a few others here have said, our faces in repose (i.e. not SMILING) — merely thinking or being — can be (mis)read by others as angry or upset. We are merely in our own worlds and actually don’t want to be yanked into someone else’s chipper expectations of/for us.

      This post, and the links, do not suggest what you say we do…it is a very clear protest against a sort of domination no woman is interested in. Our faces are ours to arrange in whatever shape or expression feels right to us.

      To us.

  17. No, I don’t care. My opinion of someone who worries about what other people (strangers) may or may not be thinking is that their egos are too big and for some reason seem to encompass others around them. Do I love it when women smile at me in passing? Yes, even though it usually makes me wonder if I have a piece of spinach in my teeth, or a tatter or toilet paper trailing behind my shoe.

  18. Well, wow, another interesting post and comment string.

    It’s never really occurred to me that men want women to smile, though it’s undoubtedly true because it RINGS true. Do women want men to smile more often? Or do we just like it when PEOPLE in public smile more often? And the ‘in public’ is interesting too. Perhaps we don’t want people to show their true feelings when out and about, so smiling is a polite and almost neutral thing to do.

    Then again, I’m not a straight man or woman, so really have no idea about these things.

    All I know is that someone who is being themselves in public is attractive, particularly if they’re looking the way they feel comfortable, and feeling confident about that. But it’s not all about confidence – there’s nothing more attractive than someone who trips over accidentally, just a little stumble, nothing more serious, then laughs at themselves, and carries on. That should happen more often!

    You see, I really have no idea about these things.

  19. A few days late. I have missed reading your blog! It’s interesting when we smile and when we don’t. For me, I think the general rule is if I make eye contact with someone, I tend to smile or at least acknowledge the other person in some way. But I try not to make eye contact with everyone. 🙂 In my neighborhood (Hollywood), some people are crazy and looking/smiling at them just encourages the crazy.

    I also have been told by strangers(always men) to “Smile!” or “Smile, beautiful!” and find it highly annoying, even though they usually mean well. It feels like an invasion of privacy, like here I am daydreaming, eating, reading, or occupied with something, and you just made a judgment that I’m not happy, or not feeling good about myself, because I’m not smiling, when really I might just be preoccupied in my own thoughts. I’ll smile when I want to! Not when you want me to.

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