The last time it happened, and it’s happened too many times in my life to count, I was waiting in line for my coffee order to come out. I was in a hurry and thinking about all of the million things I had to do that day once I had my oh-so-needed caffeine hit. I was probably frowning in concentration over that one errand I was forgetting about. I was minding my own business.
I could feel him looking at me, so I turned.
“Smile,” he said, “It’s a beautiful day.”
He grinned like this was the most normal thing in the world to say. He grinned like I would think he was charming or friendly. He grinned like he didn’t have a clue that the words he just said made an army of creepy-crawlies march under my skin.
I’m a friendly person. I can talk to just about anyone, anywhere, about whatever. I was brought up with a steady stream of “just be polite” running through my brain. Just be polite, cross your legs when you sit, nod your head even if you don’t agree, say you’re sorry, order the salad, don’t be loud or bossy, be nice and agreeable, smile. These things weren’t always said to me out loud, but being that I am a female, they were constantly implied while I was growing up. I should be soft, pretty, feminine, and above all, happy.
Smile. Be what you are supposed to be.
And full disclosure: That morning I did. I felt grossed out and uncomfortable, and I smiled at him. It probably wasn’t very convincing, but sometimes years of conditioning are hard to overcome in a moment when you’re distracted and you haven’t even had your coffee yet. And as I think back to it, I only smiled to make him go away. I smiled to make my interaction with him as short as humanly possible.
Men who tell women to smile, do you realize that? We will smile just so we never have to speak to you. We smile so that hopefully you will go away, leave us the fuck alone, and stop creeping us out.
I feel like a man asking a woman to smile is a form of suit-and-tie catcalling — a way for guys in a coffee shop to demand something subtle from a woman that she doesn’t actually feel like giving away. I recently listened to a podcast where an Australian reporter, Eleanor Gordon-Smith, confronted catcallers to see what they were thinking while they yelled at women. Amazingly, the men, some of whom would even jump out and slap unsuspecting women on the ass, thought that the women would be flattered. That’s what they said. No. Just no. Wrong.
In a nod to fairness, the reporter took a quick poll of all the women on the street to see if she was the only one who ever felt afraid or victimized by men catcalling or telling women to do something they didn’t want to do, like “smile.” It turns out that, out of the interviews she did, 67% thought a man catcalling would escalate, 85% felt angry, 78% were annoyed, 80% felt nervous, and 72% were disgusted. The men who catcalled were shocked that women didn’t like it, so I can’t even imagine how confused they would feel when told we also hate it when they tell us to smile.
So, random men who think it’s okay to tell women to smile, please just stop. We don’t like it. We don’t think it’s cute. We are not flattered. We think it’s über-creepy and weird. We don’t want you, as a man, walking up to us and telling us to improve our mood so that you will approve of us. It feels icky to be told to do something you don’t want to do by anyone, let alone a complete stranger with no respect for personal boundaries.
And next time I’m in a coffee shop or Target or just walking down the street and a dude tells me to smile, I’m really going to try to push away those years of thinking I just need to be polite and say, “No, thanks.” And I might just give him the one-finger salute.