Smile, honey! Why what I do with my face is none of your business

By Caitlin Kelly

No one tells him/her to smile!
No one tells him/her to smile!

Have you heard of “bitchy resting face”?

A piece in today’s New York Times has, so far, drawn 564 comments on the bizarre notion that a woman’s face is something total strangers can expect to make them feel happier:

RBF is now the topic of multiple “communities” on Facebook, dominated by women.

Plastic surgeons say they are fielding a growing number of requests from those who want to surgically correct their “permafrowns” (again, primarily from women).

The country star Kacey Musgraves recently helped Buzzfeed create a list of 17 more accurate names for RBF (among them, Resting “this wouldn’t bother you if I was a guy” face).

A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.

If you’re an American woman, the larger culture demands you be real friendly! all the damn time — and a woman who doesn’t walk through the world with a big fat reassuring smile plastered on her face is deemed angry, annoyed, frustrated and (wait for it), rude as a result.

FFS.

I grew up in Canada, a British-inflected nation (see: stiff upper lip, emotional reticence, subdued expressions of feelings) where no one — thank God — expects you to be chatty and charming to every single person you meet. It’s exhausting!

London -- where no one expects me to be all cheerful all the time
London — where no one expects me to be all cheerful all the time

I moved to the U.S. in 1989 and one of the biggest cultural adjustments I’ve made in the 25 years since then is the cultural norm of being genial to strangers. Why, exactly, is never made clear.

It’s just a cultural norm. I still don’t feel compelled to be “friendly” to anyone, and don’t feel compelled to apologize for not doing it. Civil, polite — of course!

Beyond that? I conserve my emotional energy for situations I think require it.

It was much worse in the 2.5 years (Merry damn Christmas, already!) I worked retail as a sales associate for The North Face, working in a suburban New York mall, serving customers who were often extremely wealthy and whose behavioral expectations were off the charts. Surrounded daily by minions they’d hired and could fire in a heartbeat — nannies, chauffeurs, au pairs, maids or their workplace employees — they were positively stunned when we dared to utter a one-syllable word to them.

No.

As in, “No, we don’t have that jacket in your size/color.”

The only way to soften the terrible blow of their delayed gratification was by offering an automatic huge smile and a heartfelt apology — all on low wages. (This is called emotional labor and it is, very much, a thing.)

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011

I wrote a book about that experience; the link is here.

I know I’ve got a severe case of BRF and I’ve even addressed it explicitly in job interviews because when I concentrate hard I don’t always keep eye contact (bad) let alone I fail to smile reassuringly (even worse) at the person trying to decide if I’m likeable enough to hire.

One reason I work freelance alone at home!

I have no doubt my lack of reflexive emotional appeasement helped tank some of my student evaluations this past year when I taught at a very expensive private college in Brooklyn. I don’t smile a lot. I don’t make an effort to ingratiate myself. I have a sense of humor and love to laugh, in the classroom and outside of it.

But sticking on a fake smile to soothe people for no apparent reason? No.

Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua. No smile? OMG!
Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua. No smile? OMG!

To me, learning is a serious business and those who feel cheated without fake bonhomie are a poor fit for my style.

So to tell women walking down the street, or buying groceries, or chairing a meeting or sitting on a park bench, “Smile, honey!” is a normal grotesquerie for many of us. Because, somehow, if we’re not making you feel better about yourself, we’re failing you.

It’s our face.

Have you been told you’re not perky enough?

How did you respond?

32 thoughts on “Smile, honey! Why what I do with my face is none of your business

  1. Growing up in the South, I was expected to be sunny ALL the time. I remember being focused during my gymnastics class because I was learning a new skill (I.e. a crazier back flip than normal) and my mom pulling me to the side to tell me I looked mopey and I needed to stop crossing my arms and smile more…seriously, this happened. I was trying to gain courage and focus before hurtling myself through the air, but also, I had to smile and be social while doing this, something guys would never be expected to do at, say, football practice. Great read. As a woman, “suffering,” from resting mopey face, I appreciate you pointing out the ridiculousness of women being required to put people socially at ease at all times. I won’t even get into my work stories involving highly patronizing men/remarks but suffice it to say I can relate to some of your experience in retail. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for this!

      OMG…the very notion of having to be perky while competing or learning athletically is insane. I was a nationally ranked saber fencer in my 30s and thank heaven for that metal mesh mask. I loved how it completely de-humanized me and my opponents so we could, and did, focus solely on doing our jobs.

      I find it so rude when men tell me what to do with my body. Ugh.

  2. Thx for writing about this topic (with no accompanying, consoling grin). I’ve had facial surgery for skin cancer that left my relaxed expression a bit lopsided and what appears to be a frown. Neither is necessarily a true reflection of how I’m feeling. Even one of my children once asked me if I was angry when all I was doing was concentrating. That whole people-pleasing thing for women is something we all need to take a look at and decide how much we want to buy into it. Of course there are people I want to please, to encourage, to smile at for no reason at all. But I’ll do the choosing, thank you very much!

    1. Good point…thanks for sharing this.

      It really does show how much women are expected to make everyone feel good all time time, regardless of how WE feel or our face is able to express. It’s crazy.

  3. Thanks for this. I have a brilliant daughter who is simultaneously completing two Ph Ds. Her resting expression is serious and people feel free to judge her negatively for it. Of course she looks serious! But she’s fun and blithe and delightful when it’s appropriate.

      1. She applied to do a Ph. D. In Economics and the university invited her to add the second one in Public Policy. It meant a few extra courses and her thesis must address both fields, but it’s a sweet deal.

  4. Jan Jasper

    Excellent post, and one that I can relate to. I’ve always been a fairly serious, thoughtful person. When I was younger, men I’d pass on the street would often say to me, “Hey, smile, baby!” Grrrr. One of the few good things about getting older is that I am free of this garbage.

  5. Or simple squinting in the sun! I had someone start screaming at me and name calling a couple years ago because I failed to smile at her, and consistently did not smile when passing her house on my walking route; I have to ask, following that encounter, who was the bitch? It makes me laugh now!! (Oh, the irony.)

      1. So it was. The community was not within the normal spectrum of Canadian politeness by any means! It is with tremendous relief and gratitude that I say we have since moved on, and I try to wear a hat now to look a little less squinty/scowly. Our lawyer at the time said one day we’d see this sort of drama as comedy, and he was correct. It is worrisome that so many of the indicating behavours for a mental illness cluster stand out as representative of American culture via the media conversations. It can’t be like that, really (?)… given the blogs I’ve read, I don’t think this sort of crazy can carry over and apply to all of the U.S.?

      2. Living in the States is weird….having said that, I’ve only lived in two of them, NH and NY, although I’ve spent time in NM, AZ, DC, MD and others.

        The overall culture is, to my mind, deeply confusing — 30% of Americans own a gun, but we’re all supposed to be REAL friendly to one another (maybe in case someone’s packing heat?); liberty is the Big Deal Myth — and income inequality insures that millions struggle in poverty, shackled by very real economic chains…

        Thank heaven for a Canadian passport. 🙂

  6. As I hit the age where many of my peers are Botoxing and filler-ing to the max, I have to say it’s not just the lines they’re trying to erase. It is the BRF, I think. And you’re right–it doesn’t bother most of us in males. We seem to think we should all look young and happy. One of the most beautiful things in the world was to see my mother’s rather stern face light up with a megawatt smile. It was real. And she only did it when she really felt it.

    1. Great point — as always…:-)

      When something is rare, we tend to appreciate it as precious. Maybe that’s another reason I so dislike false friendliness. It’s too cheap and easy for my taste.

      I’m far north of 45 but don’t worry (yet) about my lines and wrinkles. Some people still guess me a decade younger so fingers crossed.

  7. wow, i haven’t really thought about this, but you are certainly right. i’m hearing more and more about it lately. it is pretty extreme to expect someone else to make you happy by acting happy themselves. (especially when that’s not what they’re feeling). interesting to think that males who are not smiling all the time are considered, ‘thoughtful with his words, a deep thinker, a serious man with important things on his mind, etc.’, but a woman is considered, ‘bitchy, uptight, snotty and better than others.’ my age doesn’t bother me and i don’t think i see it as a future problem either, i truly consider my lines and wrinkles as evidence that i’ve lived.

    1. You’re lucky if you’ve never been told “Smile, honey!” — which seems very rude to me. As one friend pointed out, what if you’d just come a funeral or getting fired? Our feelings are no one’s business but our own.

  8. This post is great! Criticism of women for BRF seems like just another judgment about female bodies. Come on…give us a break!

    Your post also reminded me of linguistic research which has been carried out in corporate workplaces by academics such as Louise Mullany and Janet Holmes. These researchers have investigated extralinguistic features, such as humour, and Mullany found that the widespread assumption that women are lacking in workplace humour is simply not true. She has written a great book about gender, language and the workplace, entitled Gendered discourse in the professional workplace (2007).

    Mullany’s study in UK retail and manufacturing businesses found that women actually use more types of humour than men in workplace discourse. But she also found dominant masculine ideologies in the workplace, which reinforce the ‘glass ceiling’ and perpetuate negative views toward female identity.

    Frustratingly, it isn’t surprising that BRF is a thing!

    1. Thanks for this! Good to have some solid research here at Broadside…:-)

      I’m not at all surprised that women are funny, and esp. in retail and manufacturing — one of my co-workers at The North Face was (quietly) hilarious. I doubt I would have stayed nearly as long w/o her wicked sense of humor to make a crummy job more fun.

  9. Early 90s. I left the rest room of my then-church and was walking down the aisle to the pew, still futzing with my pants zipper. A man passed me, and said, “Smile!” I ignored him. Later, after the service, I went looking for him. “Why am I supposed to smile at you? I was zipping my zipper and I’m supposed to smile? Why?” He mumbled something inarticulate. I hope that exchange gave him pause before making inane remarks like that to other women.

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