The problem with smiling more

Emily Morris, WXOU News Director

“Just give me a little smile.”

This seems like an innocent statement — after all, what harm can a smile do? But there seems to be a miscommunication between this request and a smile’s positive qualities.

I whisked my way over to the section of tables located next to the bar top with my arms decked with porcelain plates of food for my customers. For me, this is a fairly routine action, but my stomach began to form a knot once I turned and began to walk back to the kitchen.

“Hey, give me a little smile,” a man at the bar said.

He was dressed nicely and had one companion with him, presumably his wife. He only cracked a small smile as I passed by. However, neither of these people were my customers, so I assumed the odd request was summed up until I returned to drop a check off at the table I had visited before.

“Hey, you, smile at me,” the man said again.

He seemed a bit disheartened this time around. My mouth moved into a faint smile before I walked away again. Then I asked a colleague to retrieve the check from my table for me.

Of course, a smile can be a beautiful interaction between people, but this can only happen under the right circumstances. Dr. Valerie Palmer-Mehta, Oakland University professor and doctor of communication with a specialization in feminist rhetorical studies, explained that power dynamics can make this a “sexist” situation.

“If it is a beloved family member or a close friend trying to console or cheer you, it could be perceived as a gesture of love and kindness,” she said. “If it occurs in the workplace or between people who don’t know each other well, it could be perceived as a power play.”

I just introduced one situation where a stranger thought I owed them a smile, though. Actually, 98% of women have experienced similar requests at work and in public. To put that into perspective, a woman has a greater chance of being told to smile by a stranger than Michigan having a snowy Christmas this year — which has a 90% chance.

The most common results attached to women being asked to smile are feeling demeaned, annoyed, offended, angered or stressed. Requesting a smile is much more than a piece of dialogue.

“The most absurd part is the idea that someone else feels entitled to your smile, feels entitled to impose that request on a stranger’s body,” said Dr. Rebecca Mercado Jones, an OU professor who specializes in communication and women and gender studies. “It’s just so baffling. I can’t imagine … having the audacity to ask you to smile for me.”

Even Captain Marvel, one of the universe’s strongest heroes, has experienced smile ridicule. Some Marvel fans took exception to a scene that unintentionally portrayed this idea and were disappointed in the amount of times actress Brie Larson was smiling during the moments before the movie’s release.

“It’s an experience I think other people in the room, especially men, didn’t know or didn’t have,” Executive Producer Jonathan Schwartz said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “A whole controversy sprung up about Brie’s countenance and how she wasn’t smiling in the marketing materials, so it sort of dovetailed into something like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is something that women really do encounter and deal with.’”

Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was also critiqued regarding her smile. She was told by NBC’s Joe Scarbough to smile because of her success in the 2016 primary election. However, Clinton was familiar with being told to smile and the discrepancy in the demand with her male counterparts.

“And I’ve seen a lot of male candidates who don’t smile very much and who talk pretty loud,” Clinton said. “So I guess I’ll just leave it at that.”

Clinton is not the only female politician who’s been asked to be happier, though — Carly Fiorina, Maria Cantwell, Sarah Palin and Patty Murray are just a few more who have been in similar situations.

“Because our culture demands agreeableness more from women than men, which is obviously a sexist notion,” Palmer-Mehta said. “There is more of an expectation that women smile … If someone truly cares about you, they will try to cheer you up by changing your circumstances, not by demanding that you ‘perform’ happiness.”

If all women are just as susceptible to someone forgetting their smile is a choice — a personal choice — there does not seem to be a clear solution. The people who still feel this form of entitlement is justified will not realize overnight that insisting a smile from a woman is unreasonable.

Until respectful communication is universal, Mercado Jones recommends one response when someone expects you to smile: “I don’t owe you shit.”