February 27, 2007

Holy fucking shit.

Once in a while I find something on the internet that makes flashing lights and bells of recognition go off in my head. The one I've just found comes from a post at Pandagon about the relationship between smiling and the perception of social status. Essentially, the Pandagon post describes a study elsewhere which suggests that people with (or perceived to have) lower social status smile more than those with higher status, but not because they're happier. It's compared to the appeasement grin used by lower-status apes to signify that they're submitting to, or at least avoiding challenging, higher-status apes.

Primatology interests notwithstanding, it isn't the ape aspect that has me ringing alarm bells. It's the poster's comment about men who order women to smile: that, insincere protestations aside, that behavior is not about amiable social interaction. It's about controlling another person's actions, which I'm sure we all knew, and about making that person be ingratiating to you, which I at least hadn't thought of.

It's a form of bullshit that I get frequently; as a woman whose undeliberate facial expressions often fall in the range of distracted, purposeful, annoyed, or neutral, I seem to get told to smile, sunshine, or something else along those lines, at least once a month. It comes from all over the map, demographically speaking: older men, younger men, suits, hippies, white, black, whatever, but always men. Even one of my male housemates -- the same one, incidentally, who will ask me if I need help with some manual task and then "help" me anyway after I tell him no -- has done this to me at least once. It's a dirty trick, in my opinion. One, it implies, and is often explicitly paired with, a lefthanded compliment slash backhanded insult: you'd be prettier if you smiled. Two, it gives the person saying it an excuse -- just trying to be friendly, after all -- which is a complete lie but hard to argue with on the spur of the moment. And three, motherfucker, you're not being friendly, you're ordering me into line with what you think is appropriate feminine behavior because my failure to appear welcoming to you offends your ego. Unfortunately, your ego can go and fuck itself, which is how I always reply when I'm not too afraid of inciting retribution. That is to say, I've never said it yet but someday I will.

This may not sound like that much of a revelation, but it actually is. I've always known that there's something not quite right about this phenomenon, some reason that it made me want to scowl and walk away very fast. When I was a teenager I'd smile anyway and figure that my resentment was due to the flaws of my own contrary character. In the last few years I've obeyed less often and felt more sure of my right to be annoyed, but I've still had trouble putting my finger on why. It's the ingratiation aspect that clears it up for me: a smile that isn't spontaneous is sheepish and begs for forgiveness for some known or unknown transgression. I've never yet met the day when my preoccupation with my own thoughts required forgiveness from a random man who missed his ego stroking, but when that day comes I'll be sure to rearrange my facial expressions according to the whims of my social superiors.

Until then, if you're even thinking about it, you can of course fuck right off.

Posted by dianna at February 27, 2007 08:10 PM

Hey, you've totally hit it. That's exactly what I always feel and have been unable to articulate to myself. And now that I know that, next time it happens I'm going to feel more comfortable not smiling and/or telling the guy to fuck off, so thank you.

Posted by: didofoot at February 27, 2007 08:49 PM

Perhaps somewhat ironically, I'm glad to be of service.

Posted by: Dianna at February 27, 2007 09:21 PM

Big nod. I sometimes get instructed to smile by women, but the vibe is totally different from what you describe, probably because:

1. It's usually people I know.
2. We generally seem on equal social footing, and
3. The implicit message is not, "Look prettier", but rather, "Perhaps you don't realize you are scowling at everyone," and often, I don't.

Posted by: sean at February 27, 2007 09:54 PM

Oh, good. I'm glad to get a positive response from a guy on this post, because it seems to confirm that I did in fact convey "this specific behavior is a transparent power play" instead of "men are assholes". I sometimes wonder about my success on that front.

Posted by: Dianna at February 27, 2007 10:30 PM