My foolproof method of shutting down men who tell me to smile

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Photo Credit: Flickr user dotbenjamin

As a woman, I am told to smile a lot by men. When I was a mid-twenty-something living in New York City, I was probably told to smile 3-5 times a week. Now that I am the big 3-0, and living in a much smaller town in New Jersey, it’s less of an issue. But I’d still say it happens to me about once a month or so. For most of my life, I would respond to these requests by simply ignoring them, or offering a rueful grimace in return that screamed, “ISN’T THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?!”

I distinctly remember one instance, back in 2013, a few weeks after my mother died. I was walking through the city rocking my TBF (thinking bitch face) with my headphones on, working through some things in my mind; namely, how the hell am I going to get through this?!

“Smile, sweetheart!” A man standing on the corner barked at me, loud enough to hear through my over-ear headphones. I was incensed. How dare he tell me to smile when I was feeling such pain? Who did he think he was? I’m a human being, not a doll! I thought. Frustrated, I ignored him. But his words burned me for blocks. Why hadn’t I said something? Why was I letting him ruin my walk, which was already pretty dang sad in the first place? It was that night that I had a stroke of genius and decided to make a change. I would no longer ignore men telling me to smile, and I would certainly no longer fake it so they’d leave me alone. No, from now on they were going to feel the full force of my reality, whether they liked it or not.

The next day, when a man told me to smile, I fired back: “MY MOTHER JUST DIED!” The way he responded, apologizing and stuttering and stumbling over his words, you would have thought he was trying to justify starting a rescue puppy fighting ring. It was almost as though he was empathizing with me, and realizing for the first time that the women he yelled at on the streets might be actual humans and have — gasp — their own lives and legitimate reasons for not walking through life smiling blissfully. He obviously felt badly. And I was glad. I felt completely satisfied knowing that this experience might have made him think twice the next time he planned on telling a woman to smile. I’ve been responding this way ever since, and I’ve gotta tell you that my strategy has a 100% success rate; success being an apology, or at least a slink-away. It’s been two and a half years since my mother died, so at this point I’m admittedly stretching the truth a bit by saying it just happened, but I’m totally fine with that. Besides, sometimes it really does feel like just yesterday.

Now, you might be thinking, “But Chelsea, aren’t these men just trying to be nice and cheer you up?! Telling someone to smile isn’t exactly a crime against humanity!”

To that I would say this: Let’s set aside for a moment how sexist it is to tell women to smile, as though we are on earth merely for your adornment and entertainment. Ok ready for the truth? It’s just plain misguided and rude to tell anyone to smile (although, to that point, I’m still waiting to hear all of the stories of this happening to men). You are not the arbiter of someone else’s feelings and/or facial expressions. It would be grand if we all walked around in a cloud of happiness and positivity 24/7, but that’s simply not reality. We all have bad days, traumas, tragedies, illnesses, depression, arguments with loved ones, etc. We all have moments when we’re not “on.” We need to stop telling people to cheer up: feeling bad is natural, it’s healthy and it’s an important part of processing our experiences. Feeling bad is paramount to the human experience. We are not drones — we are messy, volatile and complex.

So, even if someone is sad, and you want to cheer them up, I can guarantee you that telling them to smile will not accomplish that end. In reality, it will likely make the other person feel worse. It’s extremely frustrating to be told what to feel and do. Nobody is going to be like, “oh, just smile?! You know, I never even considered that. You are a GENIUS of happiness and positivity. Have you thought about writing a self-help book? It’s a huge industry and I bet you could make millions! You could even do a speaking tour and just be like ‘here’s a novel idea: smile!’ and drop the mic. People would pay good money for that.” (Come to think of it… that might not be a bad way to respond. I’m going to file that in my arsenal in case saying that mom died ever gets old.)

Ladies, if you’re frustrated with men telling you to smile, and not sure how to handle it, I encourage you to try some form of this in your own lives. Of course, I’ll concede that it’s not your responsibility to respond to the orders of men, or to teach them why demanding that women smile is gross. But, if you want to really stick it to the smile-pushers, and teach them a valuable lesson: tell ’em why you’re upset!

“I just got my period and my insides feel like they’re about to explode, thanks.”

“I just broke off my engagement!”

“I just found out my best friend has cancer.”

You can keep it real with what you’re upset about in the moment, or pull from a particularly painful experience in your past. The major goal is to force the dude to examine his need to tell you, a human being with a complicated life and varying moods, to smile. Force him to see your humanity. I promise the results are satisfying and often hilarious.

How do you deal with someone telling you to smile?! Sound off in the comments!

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13 thoughts on “My foolproof method of shutting down men who tell me to smile

  1. I think you should lighten up a bit. Although it can be a bit annoying for men to tell women to smile it isn’t something to be bitter about. While I have myself given many men the resting bitch face some have gotten a smile from me. Not all guys are assholes. Some guys see a beautiful woman not just on the outside but also on the inside. You never know who’s looking at the awesomeness in you! We all have bad days but scaring people off by telling them all your life problems is creating a horrible image for yourself. There is always a positive reaction to give to a negative one. If you stopped giving so much energy to your problems you’d have more reason smile resulting in men not telling you to smile. For every action there’s a reaction. Why not let it be a positive one?😊

  2. I disagree with the previous commenter, and I think this is a genius strategy. Will definitely be using.

    IRT negativity v. positivity, I think the wrong way to go about this is to ignore it or be positive about it. I don’t believe that it’s anyone’s job to go out of their way to teach a stranger a lesson, but when that stranger approaches you with negativity (and a tad of sexism), it’s totally reasonable to give it back to them. Especially if it stops them from doing it again in the future.

  3. You asked for “all of the stories when this happens to men.” Well I don’t have all the stories, but I do have one:

    One time this real fly, sexy mama (YUGE TTs) looked my way and told me to smile. How flattering, I thought. I flashed her a real good smile and slipped a folded George Washington under her panty strap. She then moved on down the stage to dance for another man.

    Sigh… she was just exploiting me. So I guess you’re right. Even men shouldn’t smile when asked.

  4. First, I’m so sorry you lost your mom. Second, I have no idea who or what or why this phenomenon started. Yes, at it’s root it’s based in a sense of ownership over women, but the day to day commonality of it? I think many men say it just because it’s something to say to a woman and they have no concept of how intrusive and inappropriate it is. I think your response, that of brutal honesty, is brilliant. And I am willing to be that man never said it to another stranger afterwards. (also, I wrote a satirical piece about RDF- Resting D*ck Face. I love “Thinking Bitch Face” that’s so much more accurate for me 🙂 )

    And this, “I’m still waiting for all the stories of this happening to men.” Sigh. Because you talking about it as a thing that happens repeatedly is completely cancelled out by it happening that once to some guy some where. Double sigh. String of expletives…

  5. So, you looked sad and so someone reached ou to you. Ok, so he was clumsy, maybe inappropriate, but at least he acknowledged your sadness and tried. Well, you taught him a lesson, didn’t you? Hopefully, the next time he encounters someone distressed and gets thr urge to offer comfort, he just won’t bother. In fact, we’ll all steer clear of you and you can get on with being unhappy on your own.

    • Agree. I want to be “that”, not because it is my wish, but because he wanted to be nice to me and ask me to be “this”. Sounds like adulthood decision. That’s why feminism became just a man hatred movement. Nothing about right’s here!

  6. Okay, so I can’t really say this has happened to me, at least not enough to stand out in my memory. And frankly I’d probably never say it to someone else, male or female, as I find it inappropriate to get involved in a stranger’s business. But I will say this, if I’m out in public I do find a way to smile at people, whether I’m feeling grumpy or not. Not sure why, just something I do. And the feeling I get when someone responds, smiles back, I find very rewarding… as if I’ve made a tiny little difference. Perhaps that’s what these “guys” are trying to do? I don’t know…

  7. It’s okay guys. Terrika and Sally said it’s okay. If she didn’t want us to tell her to smile, she wouldn’t go outside wearing a frowny face like that.

  8. Personally it’s something I hate… During a difficult period in which i was considering the hypotesis of dropping my veins too, the most idiot, superficial and fake-interested comment you could receive is just something like that. The reasons are well explained into your speculative writing… In my country people use to encourage you to “think about being ‘good healthy'” and it sounds like the stupid refrain of my old Casio melody: something that should take the power of solving everything… the only strategy i found out has been to move away…

  9. You’re quite right. Women aren’t objects out to please men. I had same experience, but I usually give them a dirty look. I’m not out here for you [men]. Nor am I out for your entertainment [at men]. I’m serious. This is my serious face and I don’t have to smile or defend myself.

  10. I agree with thecutegirlwithabanjo, over there, in the corner.
    First of all, she’s right. It is no strangers business telling her to smile. Why not say, “you look a bit sad. I hope you feel better soon.” Or a genuine “Life will get better, I promise.” Non sexist comments are hard to come by though. It’s a natural reaction for many men. If a man chooses to never tell a woman to smile again because of the cute banjo girl. Then Good JOB!
    “We are strong and consistently proving men wrong. When in the midst of ashes, near end and chaos will we, women, rise to save us.”
    Me, another strong woman. No banjo included.

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