Last year, when I was on vacation in Mexico, an older woman snuck up behind me and clamped onto my shoulder.
“I just had to tell you,” she gushed tipsily as I made panicked, defensive motions toward my margarita. “I saw your smile from across the bar, and it is gorgeous.”
“Um,” I said, waffling between flattered and bemused as my friends cracked up. Finally, I defaulted to shooting the smile in question up at her. “Thank you!”
“So gorgeous,” she repeated, cupping my face in one hand before she went back to her own dollar-daiquiris.
At the bar in question. In fairness, I WAS smiling like a doof.
This tends to happen me a lot. Yes, usually from dudes on the street, but also from women in their 60s (often in airport bathrooms, for reasons I cannot explain), fellow commuters and drunken best friends who decide that it’s Compliment Hour. I’m not complaining, exactly; it’s definitely nice to hear that my face makes people comfortable. At the same time, though, I wonder how much of my default expression is due to actually being happy.
Until people started telling me they liked my smile in my late teens, I’d never really thought of it as a tool for social situations. Part of this is definitely because I didn’t have a shred of self-awareness until I got out of high school. But I also think it’s because most adults -- at least in coastal states, where I’ve spent pretty much the entirety of my life -- are surprised to see another person strolling along grinning at people.
This is not, it should be said, because I’m a particularly happy person. I mean, I’m usually pretty cheerful and shit, but I also spend long periods of time wrapped in a proverbial anxiety-blanket while reciting Dar Williams lyrics like a mantra to get through the afternoon. If I’m smiling with all my teeth for no discernable reason in public, it’s either because I’m listening to gay erotica on my iPod or because I deeply fear the disapproval of everyone around me. Sometimes it’s both.
Recently, researchers at the University of California, San Diego reported that we tend to only smile at people we perceive as powerful, particularly in the professional sector. The study in question indicated that as soon as our bosses (or people we'd equate with our bosses) poke their heads over our cubicles, we go from pre-caffeinated Tuesday morning drool to Miss America. As soon as we feel socially powerful, however, we revert straight back to surly faces.
Though the research in question largely deals with body language mimicry, I’d guess that this compulsion is also rooted in looking “attractive” as a means of professional success, particularly for women. Like s.e. has written in the past, men often tell women to smile because of some mysterious bullshit “prettiness” obligation. Now that smiles apparently also code “I recognize your inherent power,” I’m not particularly surprised that so many strangers feel compelled to demand it from others in an effort to feel like Don Draper in a scotch Jacuzzi.
This actually makes me feel kind of bad about my natural tendency to grin at strangers. Ninety percent of the time, after all, I’m not doing it because I dig the person’s Bambi sweater or because I’d make out with them given half the chance. I’m doing it because I possess a constant, thrumming need to be liked, even by people I’ll never see again. I’ve just apparently decided that subconsciously signaling that they’re the dominant ones on the sidewalk is the best way to do it.
PLEASE LOVE ME SHARK
It’s also occasionally a matter of survival. In a neighborhood like mine, where there is a relatively high rate of violent crime, I’ve developed a support network of neighbors who've gotten to know me as the friendly weirdo who always grins at them as she walks by. Are some of them homophobic dickwads? Yes. I still feel compelled, though, to offer them my go-to grin as an olive branch, just in case they decide someday that they’d rather not live next to a houseful of queermos.
Even when it comes to random dickheads yelling at me on the street, it’s a real struggle not to respond with a smile rather than the more appropriate, “Choke on a kale leaf and die, asswipe.”
When I was a barista in college, I used to play a game with myself where I deliberately wouldn’t fawn and apologize for things that weren’t my fault. You know, “Sorry, we don’t take $100 bills,” that sort of thing. It always lasted about five minutes, tops. I’m just too much of a knee-jerk people-pleaser, even though I know that’s not the way to make lasting relationships for the long term.
I do like my smile. It helps me start conversations pretty easily, and I didn’t inherit the rest of my family’s curse of looking like they’re thinking about the presidential debates in photographs. But this tendency of mine to deploy it 24/7, even though I’m usually not doing it on purpose, makes me feel a bit inauthentic.
I secretly envy people like Jessica and s.e., whose “default faces” are often perceived as bitchy. When I meet people like that, I want to work to make them like me, to smile at me, to be impressed by me.
Like the UCSD study reports, humans tend to think of non-smiley people as being more powerful. Maybe that makes them more perceptibly dangerous, too, or at higher risk for confrontation. But as far as I’m concerned, not smiling is something to take pride in. Too bad it’s a skill I’ll probably never acquire.