The other day I was walking purposefully down the sidewalk thinking intensely about my forthcoming plate of Gado-Gado when a man loitering next to a convenience store called out to me.
“Smile!” he commanded, doing the same. I regarded him with skepticism and kept walking.
I repeatedly get told to smile. By people I've met in passing, by strangers on the street, by teachers when I was in grade school. This is something I’ve dealt with my entire life, until I went to Northern Europe anyway, where a smile from a stranger seems to be greeted with the same sort of fear and discomfort normally reserved for door-to-door knife salesmen and trips to the penitentiary.
The thing was, as I was walking down the road minding my own business (unlike somebody) I was already happy, even if the corners of my mouth weren’t pulled up.
I'm not a natural smiler. My face's resting position is somewhere between Mr. Ick and the girl from the Les Miserables poster. How am I supposed to spend my life grinning ecstatically at everyone when I don't even feel comfortable baring my teeth in photos? (I prefer instead a sort of uncomfortable half sneer.) Do people realize how much work that is for frowners like me? Moreover, do people honestly think this sort of command will brighten a person's day or truly lift their spirits? Or is it just a selfish desire on the demander’s part, a fetishistic urge to live in a world populated by maniacs beaming absently at everything around them?
I have very few social rules or boundaries but if I had to force everyone to obey just one it would be this: Do not ever tell someone to smile.
It might seem like a nice thing to say, after all people like to smile, right? But if you are the kind of person who is into this sort of thing, I would fight the urge. Remember: People like to have sex too, but it isn’t acceptable to shout the word “fuck” at passerby.
If you simply must put something out there, I recommend going with another happy word or—if the urge hits you particularly strong -- even a string of happy words, which don’t require action on the part of the person on the receiving end. “Tiramisu!” you could shout. "Helium!" “Snowflakes flipflops sparklers Arctic Fox cubs!”
Seriously, what do you do when a random stranger jolts you out of your mental grocery list and demands you look happy? I still haven’t figured it out.
On one particularly annoying occasion when someone on the street told me to smile I looked directly at them and told them my father had just died. Which was a total lie and naturally made the person feel like crap, which was exactly what I was going for. When that exchange was over there were two people not smiling, but one (me) who was extremely self-satisfied.
We have absolutely no clue what is happening in another person's life or head. And it isn't our business. A person should be able to walk down the street wearing whatever damn expression they want.
Next time someone orders me to look happy I’m going to say to them, “I have an idea Bucko, why don't you go over there and do something endearing? How about you feed an Arctic Fox cub some Tiramisu? Or your pinky finger?" Then I'd actually have something to smile about.