Sunday, January 3, 2010

Down With Smiles

I'd like to introduce you to a little something I like to call The Cityface. I invented it when I moved to The City in order to deal with a phenomenon which I will outline for you forthwith:

I am cruising down the sidewalk, squeezing melons in a grocery store, wending my way through a crowd of Pabst-drinking hipsters wearing ironic and medically unnecessary eyewear, or wandering despondently through the labyrinthine hallways of my office complex, when suddenly, I lock eyes with a total stranger. Like a deer caught in headlights, I do the thing which comes naturally to nice people: I freaking smile. But does this stranger smile back? Oh no. S/he does not smile. S/he looks directly into those dreamy windows to my soul, sees the ineffable beauty that resides there, and glowers.

Despite what mid-century television shows set in small towns would have you believe, this is not a phenomenon limited to The City. It does, however, happen a great deal more often in The City, due to there being significantly less elbow room. Every time this happens, it makes me feel embarrassed: I extended myself in the name of friendliness to a stranger, only to be rejected on the most basic of levels. They have taken the social power away from me, for no other reason than they can. Stupid meanie heads! Thus, I give you The Cityface:

Some call it The Bitchface or The Cuntface, but whatever nomenclature is used, its purpose is to stop smile-rejection in its tracks. I invented it to keep myself from proffering wanton undeserved smiles, and protect myself from power-theft. I wear it in public pretty much all the time these days, and avoid eye contact to fend off smile-temptation.

Given my essentially neurotic nature, imagine my surprise when I discovered that I am not the only one to have given extensive thought to the power dynamics of facial expressions: Shulamith Firestone, in "The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution" has this to say on the subject:

"The smile is the child/woman equivalent of the shuffle; it indicates acquiescence of the victim to his own oppression. In my own case, I had to train myself out of that phony smile, which is like a nervous tic on every teenage girl. ... My 'dream' action for the women's liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their "pleasing" smiles, henceforth only smiling when something pleased them."

I had pretty much fallen in love with Firestone's giant brain previous to coming upon this passage, but this was the clincher. I, for one, plan to personally take this 'dream' action and make it a reality. I know I said my New Year's resolution was to 'take more pictures,' but I think 'smile less,' or at least 'smile falsely less' will be a more instructive one.

Next up, I will be training myself to not only not smile, but to not smile at people who first smile at me. Take that, jerkfaces! Don't worry, though: My "sitting on the kitchen floor at 3 a.m. after too many G&Ts" face will remain quintessentially the same.


  1. Hi Sarah. Late response to this post (via I Blame The Patriarchy):

    A friend of mine who lives in Toronto reports that one morning as she was waiting for her latte at the coffee shop, a woman ahead of her finished adding cream, etc, and turned to leave, coming into very close proximity with my friend as she did.

    My friend smiled at her a little, and the woman snarled back, "I don't know you".

    Nice, huh? When people almost run into each other, but don't, and both of them are either adequately caffeinated, or about to become so, and when the parties are reasonably sure that one is not making an unwelcome drunken pass at the other, a smile or a nod seems appropriate. It's like a nod to physics and how two objects can't be in the same place at once (I think that's physics), an acknowledgment that even if either of you is armed, neither will be deploying the weapons, and a shared experience of "OMG, coffee".

    It would suck to be someone who's automatic reaction is to snarl. But City Face is a good default tactic.

  2. I developed the innovative Cityface tactic as a response to the Snarlers of the world, although I suspect overuse of Cityface could be a slippery slope, resulting in me actually joining the ranks of the Snarlers. At times I feel as if the reduction in embarrassment is hardly worth the happiness hit I take by forcing myself to actively frown -- it's true what they say about smiling making you feel happy, even if you've no reason to be.

    I've been working on some Cityface guidelines which could use some refinement. In a sentence, they involve performing a quick arrogance assessment of the approaching Snarler to determine how receptive they might be to a smile. It's flawed, but better than nothing.

  3. Please don't stop smiling back at people who smile at you.

  4. Methinks I'll be the one to decide when to smile back at smilers and when not to, thankyouverymuch. Mostly I'm a misanthrope so it shouldn't be too hard.

  5. Aha! I have come across the same situation. After living in Los Angeles for over a year I thought it was physically impossible for me to smile at strangers (or to be a courteous driver). My return to Oregon required weeks of extensive public friendliness sessions. I had to force myself to chat with my bus driver or smile at people on the street. To this day I still need to be vigilant of regression to the City Face.

  6. My problem is exactly the opposite -- I need to be constantly en garde for reversion to the CountryFace. If I'm not careful, I'll start grinning like a bumpkin at everyone I meet, and try to start friendly conversations with strangers, only to be rudely rebuffed. I've had to learn about the glories of cutting people off as a viable method of changing lanes (suppressing my instinct to politely signal and wait for a kind soul to let me in), and I am getting pretty good at squaring my shoulders and bracing myself when passing strangers in narrow spaces to avoid getting knocked over.

  7. It took me YEARS to ditch CountryBumpkinface, and I only managed that after finding myself in some less than savory situations involving middle-aged drunk men in bars. Cityface, though, isn't confined just to particular city limits. It has a few close cousins, such as ForeignTravelerface (Cityface with slightly widened, confused eyes), DrugDealerface (Cityface with a lip curl and dead eyes), and Deflectorface, which is exactly what it sounds like. I've mastered Deflectorface.
    The problem with being a smiley country kid is that all the people too stupid or crazy or progressive (or all three) to adopt some sort of public mask think they've found a) a like-minded friend, or b) a victim.
    Rock the Cityface (but tip the waitress).

  8. Is the Drugdealerface for drug dealers, or drug dealees? I must know! For no reason! Ahem.

    Anyway, another side effect of the bumpkinface I experienced was that when I got to college, I found that my overzealous friendliness, rather than being seen as an endearing result of where and how I had been raised, was interpreted as "fake."

    I tell ya, moving from Marin County to Josephine County to Ashland to Portland has been an adventure akin to being drawn and quartered, personality-wise.

  9. Smiling even when not reciprocated is important.. You may meet 99 people in an average day that will reject even the most basic forms of friendship, but what about that 100th person whose having a crappy day, and thinks the whole world is against them???

    One smile from you could change their outlook..

    Don't go with the flow of mankind.. fight against the evil people.. Smile.. together we can change humanity. okay if that doesn't work... just move home.. we still smile here..

  10. Most of the time, I feel like that 100th person. And you are totally the friendly face making the world nicer.

    Related: I tried out my not-smiling-back on a guy in the grocery store, and now I feel ridiculously guilty. :(

  11. I've thought about this too... I think it's better to smile if that is what you want to do... if that is who you are. I'm one of those people that believe "How are you?" can be a question OR a greeting (depending on how well the person asking knows you. It is an unfortunate ambiguity of our language, mostly made unfortunate by the people who don't understand). This leads me to want to conduct myself as I want to conduct myself regardless of environment. I've lived in Portland for over 5 years now (and several other big cities besides) and I'm still smiling. I understand about the snarlers and the grumpy faces, I've met my share. If someone responses poorly, well, to me, that says a lot about them. They are not the people that I would want to choose my outward appearance, they aren't doing such a bang up job for themselves.

    I hope the country faces (or as I prefer Incessant Smilers) make all the snarlers and grumpy faces miserable trying to figure out why we are smiling:)

  12. @David If I were less sensitive, I would continue to smile even if I only expected a .01 percent rate of return. But it's simply not the case -- when folks don't smile back, it breaks my heart, and all that sadness just isn't worth the 2-3 people per year who ever actually return the smiles.

    I do my best to try to determine before I smile whether or not the recipient is likely to return the grin, but my judgment is often off. If I ruled the world, I'd make genuine smiling mandatory instead of the rote "How are you?", thereby killing two birds with one stone.

  13. I found this via RMJ's blog, and I really like it. On the one hand, I support the people who advocate smiling when smiled at; on the other hand I think that IS part of deciding when it's okay to smile for you. If you're having a rough day, you don't like the attitude or implication of the person smiling at you, etc -- you don't HAVE to smile.

    I've found myself smiling tightly an awful lot at people who are making me completely uncomfortable (eg, that dude getting totally plastered at the gas station I pass to get home, who yelled something incoherent at me, or the guys who hit on me at bus stops) and I'm starting to realize it's a placation device: "Hi, I see you, this is me not talking to you, I'm also not going to be a bitch to you, please don't hurt or harrass me, I'm nice, see?"

    It needs to stop. :| I need to stop doing it, and I need to stop feeling like it's necessary so that guys don't yell at me or enter my space.

    Although I too employ cityface, especially now that I've got a fauxhawk and a leather jacket, haha.

    Basically, smiling is totally default for me - more than that, since I work retail and am paid to smile, really - and I think it has its place, but it needs to be, well, consensual and uncoerced. Like sex.

  14. Thanks for stopping by! I think that your take is pretty reasonable and measured. But don’t blame yourself for feeling like you need to smile to placate crazy people -- I think sometimes you actually do. It's not your fault for feeling that way, it's theirs for making you feel uncomfortable in the first place! I used to smile for safety's sake a lot when I worked at a bar frequently populated by seriously disturbed or drunk humans, and I don't know that I'd do it differently now if faced with someone twice my size fueled by the power of 'nam flashbacks and Jim Beam.

    Still, the fauxhawk and leather jacket should definitely help. I feel like I got harassed a lot less when I had facial piercings and pink hair, and wore a lot of eyeliner and combat boots. Or, OK, maybe not LESS, but I got a different kind of harassment. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.

  15. I grew up not in The City, but 2 hours away from it. My standard face is Cityface. I'm also very private and introverted, so while I may be in public my mind is 1000 miles away not paying attention to anyone else. (One time I ordered 6 donuts and didn't notice that the guy behind the counter, in an attempt to flirt, put in 12 and only charged me for 6. I discovered it much later when I wen tot eat one of my donuts.)

    I moved to Ohio a couple years ago and suddenly people were doing things like smiling at me, and saying 'Good morning' as I walked past them on the street. It was very confusing and disturbing at first. Others have visited me from my hometown and had the same reaction.

    "Why are these people looking at me? Why are they talking to me? What do they want from me?"

    I make a point not to look at and judge the people around me, I consider it a sign of respect. When I go to the grocery store I am there to buy the food I require to sustain my life, not to be looked over by others. It feels like an invasion of privacy.

    Most of the people who smile at me I probably don't even notice due to lack of mindfulness to my surrounding. Most of the smiles I do notice now I will give some sort of smile or nod in return, however I make it very cursory, cold, and short because I do not want to be engaged. Every once in awhile though someone will give me a completely genuine smile where they just exude friendliness and I can tell they don't want anything from me. In that case, I will smile back full-heartedly and it does make my day.

  16. I grok you on the making your responses cursory because you don't want to be engaged thin. Oftentimes I'll feel rude when I don't smile back, so if I feel obligated for some reason (say, I'm at a social event and not just at the grocery store) I'll smile back in this manner, which gets me off the politeness hook but doesn't leave any room for an annoying approach. Samesies with grocery stores - it's why I prefer to shop at odd hours, not Sunday afternoons when the masses are out in force. On an unrelated note, I want free donuts too! Yum. Where is this fabled shop of double-your-money comestibles?

  17. Sadly it's closed now. It was the Tim Hortons attached to the original Wendy's in Columbus Ohio. I can't believe they actually closed the first Wendy's. Place was pretty creepy though, like a museum. It had mannequins of Wendy, old black and white pictures, and little trinkets or pictures representing each ad campaign.

  18. I got tired of people telling me to smile. I noticed it was mostly men and it began to piss me off somewhere in my 20's that these men thought they had the right to dictate even my facial expressions. So I began to do as I felt. I even had one security guard get really pissy about it one day. "What you can't speak or smile." My response, "I can I have just chosen not to. What are you a child who needs every single person's attention?" These days I mostly say, "This is my happy face." But it irks the shit out of me that there are people who need to reach as far as someone else's facial expressions. Don't get me wrong, I'm very kind. But if I don't feel like smiling why should I? Chances are the person who says that to me doesn't know me, they don't truly care about how I feel or what has happened in my day to place me in a more melancholy state, they just want me subject to the same social standards they are because it makes them feel better. I'm sorry but I just don't think I have any responsibility for making you feel better. I also don't like this expression of the tyranny of the extroverts. I'm not and dealing with the extroverts wears me out. Back off and realize not everyone has to approach the world like an extrovert does.

    Just so you know (because I have deemed it a cute coincidence) the little word verification thing I have to do to post this is "chicism." Lol.

  19. I may be a snarler. Live in London which suits me perfectly.
    I am an introvert with social anxiety & depression, so don't like to engage with strangers. If I'm feeling bad, it literally hurts me to. I'm not outright rude, as in I don't literally snarl, but I am pretty curt. Meh. Interesting.

  20. Jenni - The "What, you can't speak or smile?" comment is irksome and takes many forms. It's as if people think that if you don't smile directly at them while looking them right in the eye (and then immediately demurely, submissively lowering your gaze) you're some kind of stuck-up (bad word that means woman). Pffft. And I have never, not once in my entire life, had a female say "smile baby" to me.

  21. Butterflywings: Snarl away, then! Is London a particularly good place for introverts, do you suppose?

  22. This post might be second saddest thing i read this year.
    The first was that poor guy on who checked out somewhere between brainwashed POW and tortured soul and then this where smiles are powerlessness and only scowling gives one power.
    No wonder my depressions are coming back.



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