“Are you okay? You look tired.”
Let me tell you about my week last week. I: edited a PhD thesis for an astrophysicist, helped an old friend cope with a dying family member, drove to San Francisco and back (where I got to meet up with Daisy and Kate!), dealt with some personal stuff including a job offer (sorry, haters, not leaving xoJane!), made travel plans, stayed up until one in the morning for a conference call where everyone else was in a different time zone, and conducted several interviews. As you might imagine, these things didn't leave much time for sleep, and I was pretty haggard by the time I returned home.
I spent most of Saturday sleeping and began to feel vaguely like a human being again, but the fact is that I also just kind of have a tired face. I don't have great vision so I often squinch my eyes like a mole, I have perennial bags under my eyes that I don't cover with concealer like the hip xoJane crew do because I don't wear makeup, and my eyes often look red and irritated Because Allergies. What I'm saying here, people, is that people often look at me and say I look tired.
They're often right, but that's beside the point. I pretty much have zero interest in hearing what people have to say about my personal appearance unless it's directly solicited. (And when it is, it's usually along the lines of “Hey Marianne, do I have toilet paper on my shoe?”)
Unfortunately, being told you look tired/should smile more/aren't satisfying whatever the current standard in what people-who-look-like-women are supposed to look like is a perennial facet of my existence, and it is for most women and people who are read socially as women. Which means that we need to arm ourselves with something to say, since apparently my default frosty stare/“eat a bowl of dicks” combo is frowned upon in polite circles.
This thread on reddit draws together an interesting compendium of responses to the question.
I'm tempted to say that the stock response should, as always, be a Miss Manners “Pardon me?” It's a great response to most social faux paus (faux pauses?) such as commenting on another person's appearance, depositing vomit on someone's shoes, stealing someone else's boyfriend, or taking the last box of Cheerios at the grocery store. It's crisp, to the point, impeccably polite, and serves to put the speaker on notice that she has, perhaps, misstepped gravely.
There's always the alternative: “Why yes, I am tired, are you offering to help out?” I find this one immensely useful for clearing the room in three seconds flat, although sometimes people actually do volunteer a vague form of assistance, like offering to let me take the guest bed instead of the couch. (I can't in good conscience let a six foot man sleep on the couch, so, you know, I ended up on the couch anyway.)
Something about saying “Yes, I am tired” or “You're right” can be empowering in a situation where, uh, you actually are and the person asking is in a position to do something about it. Self-care can be hard, especially in work and family environments where people demand a lot of your time and energy. Admitting that you're tired and need a break or more support can be the first step in getting a better system going, like demanding that you not be stuck with work projects at the last minute, forcing you to complete them in limited time and with minimal sleep.
There's a tendency to expect people to do it all, which is just ridiculous and unreasonable. People need sleep. Fatigue is a thing. Fatigue-induced errors are a real issue, especially in sensitive environments. Personally, I'd rather have people comfortable admitting they're tired and need rest than have a work environment where people try to push through it, sometimes with disastrous results.
Some of the respondents stick with “Well, I feel fine” as a polite rejoinder to a rather intrusive comment -- or, perhaps, as a polite response to genuine concern, depending on how you read it. I personally think that telling someone her face isn't acceptable is rude, even when it's done out of “concern,” but others disagree.
There's also the good old fashioned “Well, this is just my face,” which I suppose I could use since people seem to think I look tired and pissed a lot. For some people, constant fatigue is also a way of life; people with chronic illnesses, for example, are often tired. Their faces tend to express that. Shockingly, they kind of get tired (heyo!) of hearing about it, especially since “You look tired” is often code for “You look bad.”
No one really likes to hear over and over again that she looks bad. It's really demoralizing and depressing, especially on top of a chronic illness that's draining and frustrating to deal with. And there are only so many times you can crack jokes about disability before it gets really annoying, and you get tired (haha) of having to explain things to the same people over and over again. Yup, still tired. Nope, don't see a point in the future when you won't be tired. Yup, it sucks.
The discussion about what to say in response to questions like this illustrates the social minefield people have to walk; men are rarely informed that their faces don't pass muster and when they do it tends to come with at least a modicum of respect. Women, on the other hand, need to be constantly on with their gamefaces, and if they're not, it's a recipe for getting hassled about it. Those who dare to suggest that it's kinda rude to make intrusive comments about someone's face tend to get labeled difficult or bitchy, instead of being respected for wanting some damn space.
Sometimes people look tired. Sometimes it's because they are tired. Either way, they're definitely aware of the fact that they're tired and probably look that way, and they'd probably love to get some rest instead of being hassled with concerntrolling comments about how their faces are unacceptable.
Those kinds of comments are reserved for close friends and loved ones -- the people who actually care, and matter.