Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My, Your, Our Bitchy Resting Face

My friend A complained today from work that she "has already been told to smile by two men today. STOP TELLING WOMEN TO SMILE." That set off a mild storm of discussion, including one man and his wife, both cutely using the same account, who accused A of stereotyping all men.

A added as a comment: "Would they ask a man doing the same job to smile? Probably not." I mentioned that it isn't only women who are told to smile.  I have often been told to smile, usually by women.  Those of us who have what is becoming known as a Bitchy Resting Face -- a face that looks grim when it's at rest, not because we are angry or upset, just because that's how our faces are arranged.  I'm most likely to be told to smile when I'm busy, concentrating on a task, so my expression is intense, not angry.  Ditto for A, who reports that she replied, "No, I"m busy" when one of the men asked her if she was having a bad day.  But the fact that this kind of face has been gendered female and called "bitchy" instead of serious says a lot about attitudes toward women, don't you think?

There are evidently a lot of people of both sexes who feel compelled or entitled to police other people's facial expressions.  They aren't necessarily evil, but they are rude.  I've been told more than once that my BRF intimidates some people, and that does concern me: I only want to intimidate some people, and I want to know when I'm doing it.  But maybe they need to learn to read facial expressions better?  If you mistake a serious person concentrating on a task as bitchy, arrogant, intimidating, maybe part of the fault lies with you.  And, of course, many women who are ordered to smile by men are just walking down the street on business of their own: they're not obligated to smile at anyone if they don't want to, and men who demand sunshine from a random woman they don't know are almost certainly sexist porkers.

Those who order other people to smile -- and it is an order, generally accompanied by a vacuous grin -- may have a point when they're addressing someone who's interacting with strangers (aka "the public") at the moment, as part of their job.  When I've done such work I make an extra effort to look pleasant, but I know I don't always succeed.  I also know from my own experience that it's no fun walking up to a service person who looks at you as though you're interrupting them at something more important, when their job is to interact with you.  Still, most of my thirty-seven years in university dining halls was spent in the back of the kitchen, washing dishes, not serving the public directly, and I preferred it that way.

One of A's friends and commenters protested, "Smiling makes the world a better place." I agreed, but added that being told to smile makes the world a worse place.  Suppose that I'm looking grim because I am in a bad mood: being told that it can't be that bad doesn't improve my mood, especially if it is that bad, if something is wrong.  (It's like telling me to "chill," one of the surest ways to get on my bad side.)

The writer of the Atlantic piece I linked earlier suggests that the tyranny of the smile may be peculiarly American:
Outside the United States (and certainly outside the South), the tyranny of the smile is considerably weaker. In France, even women with the most naturally perky of faces seem to purposely cultivate BRF to enhance their je ne sais quoi. I live in Hong Kong, one of the densest cities on earth, where turning your face into a blank mask is simply a tool of urban survival. If I walked along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui with a grin on my face, people would think I was psychotic. 
One of her commenters agreed, speculating that her own BRF
was the unconscious influence of my very beautiful Italian mother -- from a culture in which inane public grinning is considered undignified. I'll never forget watching the Miss America pageant with her as a child (the only time we ever did so) -- she observed for awhile, obviously becoming increasingly exasperated. "Why" she finally asked, perplexed, "are they smiling like that?!?  Like hyenas?"
I first remember being told to smile when I was barely out of my teens, by some of the typists and clerks at my first job in the mailroom of a commercial office.  I realized that people who looked serious, even grim, most of the time, really lit up when they did smile.  One elderly lady in the office was the best example I knew.  It's not for me to say whether that's true of me.  I came up with various answers to that order over the years -- most recently, I would just say "Bah, humbug!" -- but it was that knowledge that stayed with me.  I don't go around telling people who always smile that things can't be all that great, the world is a serious place.  (After all, many people look like they're smiling because that's their resting face.) But I remember that the people who make the world a better place, for me at least, are those whose expressions mean something, and aren't just a mask they wear regardless of what's going on in their heads.