Monday, October 01, 2012

With age, the freedom to frown

Today I have: sat next to the smelliest person ever to sit in the NJ Transit quiet car; heard a slender female passerby of a certain age telling her male companion, "I feel like I weigh 300 pounds"; seen a homeless man in a "Team Goldman Sachs" t-shirt; bought groceries at the Greenmarket as if I live plausibly near Union Square (but at least the late-season basil may cancel out the smell should I get the same seatmate as during the morning rush).

What hasn't happened today - but used to happen all the time - is the following: "Smile, honey!" That strange men on the street or, worse, on public transportation no longer ask me to smile has to be the best thing about getting older.  Autumn links to a post complaining about this very phenomenon. What's so off-putting about "smile"? Maybe that it's a catcall disguised as a first-world-problem or whambulence accusation. It's unlikely that someone sobbing, or with an expression suggesting genuine woes, would get a "smile" - just someone stressed about upcoming midterms. (There is some class specificity here - more than other catcalls, I found, this tends to be the lowest-socioeconomic-status men harassing higher-socioeconomic women. But I have not formally studied it, folks.) So there's this element of, is this a catcall or is this someone telling me to get over myself? Because who among us shouldn't get over herself? Or maybe just that it's a catcall that's a criticism - "neg" avant la lettre. Or maybe this is entirely subjective, and because "smile" is the one I got constantly, it's the one I found the most irritating.

Whatever the case, if you're going to holler something at a young woman, "looking good" is probably preferable to "change your facial expression to suit my preferences."

10 comments:

Britta said...

I imagine the men saying it assume they're hitting on someone in a non-creepy, uplifting way, instead of just in an annoying way. The first person who ever told me to smile was my 7th grade music teacher, which at the time just confused me but in retrospect I realize is really creepy.

Andrew Stevens said...

I have to say that this particular thing is not gendered. I used to get this constantly from women, both older, same age, and younger. I must confess that it never occurred to me that they all were trying to flirt with me (since so many of them were much older). When I originally started writing this comment, I was going to disagree with you about whether this was necessarily even a flirting strategy at all. However, I discussed it with my wife first and she is of the opinion that all these women were, in fact, probably trying to flirt with me. So all I'm pointing out now is that this tactic is hardly unique to men. In fact, I used to think that it was only women who cared if other people were smiling or not.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, I'd never really thought of it, but I can't recall having gotten it in the last five years (but that also coincides with a significant withdrawal from dealing with a large number of strangers). And, yes, it's quite a relief since I found it very annoying and off-putting.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

I think "hitting on" may be too broad a category, encompassing what are actually a range of really different motivations. There's on the one hand men trying to start romantic involvements with attractive-to-them/available-seeming women who are strangers to them. There is, on the other, men finding that certain women - often quite young, often, well, girls - seem like they'd be easy to get a rise out of. They seem, in other words, either naive or at that age when you really, really care what other people - including strangers on the street - think about you. Telling a sullen or exhausted 15-year-old girl to smile isn't necessarily expressing romantic interest in, or even aesthetic appreciation of, the girl in question. It's about power, not lust.

Andrew,

That something doesn't happen exclusively to one sex or the other doesn't make it "not gendered." (See also: weight-think.) I have not, as I mentioned, studied this in depth, but I would be beyond shocked if men a) get this as much as women, or b) are as unnerved by it on the rare occasions it occurs. This isn't to say you didn't find it odd when women did this.

PG said...

I think the smile command also can come up with a kind of power motivation when used toward someone in a service or public-facing position. People giving the command might even think they are dispensing useful advice. (And maybe they are; I have certainly overheard older people complain about a service person having a "bad attitude" if she failed to be smiley, even if she was perfectly courteous.) I've never had a job interacting face-to-face with dozens of people a day, but I have had one over the phone, and I certainly endeavored to use a "smiley" tone of voice.

What does seem absolutely bizarre, and mostly about male control over females, is telling a complete stranger with whom you have no reason to engage that she should smile. Maybe a customer or client can expect/ demand the appearance of happiness, but that someone who passes you on the street or sits next to you on the bus does is an insane level of sociability and fakery even by American standards. (Which of course are not international standards -- I loved the story about Wal-Mart having to retool its cheery customer service standards for Germany because the locals were creeped out by greeters.)

Britta said...

Meh. When it's followed with a "you look prettier when you smile" and then isn't just a one-off but a repeated command over the course of days then I think that crosses a line for a 45 year old to tell a 12 year old.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"that someone who passes you on the street or sits next to you on the bus does is an insane level of sociability and fakery even by American standards"

Which was exactly my reaction in the 2005 post. It would be so weird to smile on a NYC bus, sitting there by yourself. Which is why maybe it's a demand that you smile *at them*, thus the creepiness factor.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

What you're describing could be creepy, or it could be that cringe-inducing way that certain adults address children. I mean, it's assumed that little girls want to look pretty, so a way to get a little girl to do something normative (if you're a certain brand of imbecile) would be to use this as the reward. But I kind of think in this day and age, a teacher who did that, if this were known, might well be fired for it.

Andrew Stevens said...

I was certainly never unnerved by it, for the obvious reason that I'm bigger and stronger than the people saying it and hardly in any fear of my safety. I just found it really annoying. To be honest, I've always assumed that I have an unnaturally dour expression when my face is neutral or I've assumed that everybody gets it on occasion. I used to get it from women on public transportation, from women who were shopping in the same store, even (once) from a woman who worked for me (then it was expressed as "how come you never smile?").

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

I do think baseline expressions vary. Mine is definitely more frown than smile, likely because I began taking public transportation alone in NYC at age 10.