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?

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!”

Because….?

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?

Seriously.

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 Salon.com:

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?

The wearying, growing toll of “emotional labor”

emotion icon
emotion icon (Photo credit: Łukasz Strachanowski)

It’s a phrase some of you might not know, even as your every workday includes it:

Does your job require you to manage your emotions, or the way you express those emotions, to meet organizational expectations? This is called ’emotional labor.’ People in a service-oriented role – hotel workers, airline flight attendants, tour operators, coaches, counselors – often face the demands of emotional labor.

Arlie Hochschild created the term ’emotional labor’ in 1983 to describe the things that service workers do that goes beyond physical or mental duties. Showing a genuine concern for customers’ needs, smiling, and making positive eye contact are all critical to a customer’s perception of service quality. These types of activities, when they’re essential to worker performance, are emotional labor.

When you face angry clients, or people who are generally unpleasant, emotional labor can be particularly challenging. A large part of that challenge comes from the need to hide your real emotions, and continue to ‘smile and nod your head,’ even when receiving negative or critical feedback.

Companies often place a great deal of strategic importance on service orientation, not only to external customers but to colleagues and internal clients as well. While emotional labor is applicable to many areas of business, the consequences are probably greatest in traditional service roles. However, in an increasingly service-oriented marketplace, it’s important to understand how emotional labor affects workers, and what organizations can do to support and manage any issues.

People who serve others in customer-facing jobs — like waitress/er, bartender, nurse, flight attendant, public transit workers and retail staff, to name only a few — shoulder this significant burden with every shift.

When I took a part-time retail job, which I describe candidly in my 2011 memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, I didn’t really get how hard emotional labor is. Now I do!

Part of it is the assumption, if you work in a service job like retail — and a snotty assumption increasingly made in a time of growing income inequality — that the person serving you has never attended or graduated college or traveled or can speak foreign languages. (All of which our staff of 15 could or had.) We really didn’t need to be spoken to sloooooowly in words of one syllable, as we so often were.

And then there was the bad-customer behavior — which we were expected to ignore, or greet with indulgent smiles — The tantrums! The insults! The whining and finger-snapping and eye-rolling.

With a grateful sigh, I left retail work on December 18, 2009.

English: Managing emotions - Identifying feelings
English: Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But my writing business is pushing many of the same buttons.

A few recent examples from my freelance writing life:

— The young PR official from a company I’m profiling who Tweets my visit, (alerting all my staff and freelance competitors to my story), and then, (oh, irony), accused me hotly of “betraying” him by finding and interviewing sources he hadn’t pre-selected, approved and overseen. His naivete in tweeting leaves me shocked and furious, but in front of him, I pretend it’s not that big a deal because I really need to get this story finished.

–An editor assigned me five stories then told me she was leaving her position the following week. I felt a mix of confusion, annoyance and fear I might not get paid without her there; instead, I simply wished her well in her next project. (And, funny thing, the final two fell through, and cost me income I expected to earn. I did get paid, six weeks after invoicing.)

— A lawyer, a partner in a major D.C. firm, a story source, talks for 30 minutes — then tells me “this is all off the record.” In an email, he insists I print every word as he wrote it to me later, a promise I make but know I can’t keep because I don’t edit these stories. I’m now scared he’ll make my life hell, annoyed at his lack of understanding of how journalism works and sick to death of people threatening me!

Technically, I don’t have to do this for any employer (that would be me!), but I do…because maintaining my composure in the face of endless bullshit, no matter what I actually feel about it, is still just as essential to keeping sources cooperative, getting editors to answer/return my calls and emails and making sure I actually get paid.

Being self-employed offers no protection from emotional labor! We’re all in the service industry now, kids.

Do you perform emotional labor in your job?

How does it affect you?