Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had a boyfriend who would catch sight of my pensive face and call out across a crowded room, “Hey, Nan!” (Note: I hate being called Nan.) “Hey, Nan! SMILE!” And I would obediently bare my teeth. “There,” he’d say, full of satisfaction. “See how pretty? You’re so pretty when you smile!” I was not old enough or self actualized enough to excavate the layers of entitled fucked-uppedness in these exchanges. I tried to convince myself that it was flattering and loving, though it made me feel neither of those things.
A man – in my experience it was always a man, although I don’t know, maybe women do this, too – would approach me from time to time and demand a smile. In a busy mall, a wild eyed stranger with greasy hair said, “Hey, beautiful, it’s not so bad. Give me a smile!” I stared at him, my pulse jumping, cheeks frozen in place. In a parking lot, a man slowed his pace to walk beside me. “Why are you so sad? Smile!” I was not sad. I was thinking about the exam I’d just taken. I clutched my textbooks close to my chest, flashed him a quick, insincere grin and took a circuitous route to my car, hoping he would not follow.
Not all my “hey, smile” experiences have been bad – I get that sometimes people are genuinely trying to be nice. But unless I’m posing for a picture, the order to smile has never worked on me. I can’t light up on command.
I’m a bit of an anxiety cat, so I am not prone to accosting others about their expressions, but if you really do want people to smile, maybe try these things instead:
1. Give him or her a nice, non-creepy, non-sexual compliment.
“I just wanted you to know you did a fantastic job on that project.”
“That color looks great on you.”
“Hey, cool t-shirt!”
“I love that book.”
One time in an IHOP, a guy spotted my Firefly t-shirt and said, “Are you a Browncoat?” We exchanged mutual nerdy grins.
2. Right-click-save this printable card. Print out as many copies as you like. Hand them out to people. You could probably tape a lollipop or a stick of gum to it.
3. Smile first.
How about that? You be the proactive smiler. Most times, people smile back.
4. Hand them a flower.
They may regard you with suspicion in case you turn out to be a Hare Krishna or something, but do not be dissuaded. Flowers are nice.
5. Leave them be.
The fact is, most of the time, our facial muscles are not pulled into a smile. This is not resting bitch face. This is FACE. If you are uncomfortable looking at a face that is just regular, pull out your phone and Google “smiling faces.” Many images of smiling people will grin back at you. You will be soothed and no longer feel the need to aggressively cheer the people around you. Perhaps you will make peace with your own resting facial muscles.