When I was in law school, I competed on a Products Liability moot court team. Our team consisted of three women, and we found ourselves in Cincinnati for the national competition. After winning our first two rounds, we were feeling pretty invincible, and on the third round we argued in front of a new panel of judges who were, in fact, local attorneys and members of the judiciary. They were all men. It was the best arguing we’d done; we were totally “on,” snapping questions from the air and crafting answers that belied our shattered nerves and sweaty palms. The hypothetical case involved a small child killed because faulty parking brakes had released in her family’s driveway and allowed the car to roll backwards and kill her. Whether we were arguing fiercely in favor of the dead child’s family and the fact that auto makers should use higher standards than those required by NHTSA, or switching sides to militate in favor of the fact that “accidents happen” and that cars should not be made so safe that they are not affordable, we were bringing our “A” game.
After the arguments, we were shocked to learn that we had lost the round to a rather lackluster team from Kentucky. One of the reasons, explained by the three judges, was that we “hadn’t smiled enough.” I have wondered for the past 20 years exactly at what point in discussing a dead child and her horrific death we would have managed to fit in a winning grin, or even a collegial and confident raising of the outer corners of our mouths. I could attribute the whole ridiculousness to the fact that our judges were Southern, and male, and that they just thought girls should ought to smile at them, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Smiling is (for smilers, anyway) easy social currency; do it and you’re “in,” you’re okay, you’ve given the green light to the world around you. You have “turned the world on with your smile.” Apparently, we were just not giving those men the clear “thumbs up.” (Although I will note, without comment, that the all-male team that beat us did not smile any more than we did, and argued considerably less well).
The fact that someone is not smiling ought not to be accepted as tacit proof of unfriendliness, hostility or danger, particularly in a professional setting. You may have to work a little harder to find out what’s inside of a non-smiler, and I know that it’s harder without that automatic signal waving you in and reassuring you that it’s safe to proceed. If you think about it, though, some, if not all of the best things in life take a little work; we would have no lightbulbs, successfully raised children or shelled walnuts if people quit everything that required them to make an effort and persist when the going got tough.
I have never been a smiler, and although I am more apt to smile these days, it still feels strange unless I am communicating with a small child, an animal, or someone with whom I am extremely comfortable. I have no little crinkles at the outer corners of my eyes, and (I am told that) people often think I am snobby, angry or unhappy until they get to know me. As a child, I did not smile in school pictures, and on at least one occasion my parents’ received a note from an elementary teacher indicating that I “seemed sad,” and asking if “there was a problem at home.” There was no problem at home unless you count the existence of my little brother, and I was not, in fact, sad. I was a happy, well-adjusted child with friends and a loving family who had simply failed to pick up the habit of smiling at appropriate moments. What seems to me to be a personality quirk is apparently seen by the larger community as an indicator of an Affective Disorder worthy of re-orientation therapy. Strangers, from checkout clerks to hospital orderlies feel perfectly comfortable telling me that I should “smile” because “it can’t be that bad,” and although my failure to smile generally doesn’t stem from hostility, that kind of remark turns the tide in the direction of serious ticked-offedness. It is not the business of anyone else whether or not I smile, and for all they know, there is something “that bad,” and I have a damned fine reason for looking grim.
Here’s what I know about smiling. I have always felt sort of glaringly ridiculous and self-conscious when I smile, rather as if I am trying on an entirely other personality and everyone looking at me can see that it’s a bad fit, like someone else’s clothes or a bad dye job. If it comes naturally, as it often does when I am flirting with a baby in the checkout line at the grocery store, it feels natural, and I get in the groove of feeding off the return smile, and smiling even harder. When it’s forced (because I do understand the social cues that should prompt a smile) it takes so much mental effort that I find myself without the ability to speak normally, or think rationally. I honestly think that my inability to smile has historically made it harder for me to make friends, attract men, and do some of the work I have done in my life, although I have managed to get married and make and keep wonderful friends. Not everyone, however, is going to stick around and work to get the sparkling geode of dry wit and loyal friendship out of what appears to be a gray and impenetrable ball of stone. I get that.
I have even read that a study at De Pauw University found that the less people smiled in yearbook photos, the more likely they were to be divorced later in life. It mattered not only that one smiled, but that one smiled “intensely.” Irrationally, my first thought on reading this was to be glad that I had, in fact, smiled for my high school yearbook picture, because the photographer insisted on it. Then I began to wonder if it was intense enough to save my marriage, and whether a fake-y smile was any better than no smile. I needn’t have wasted time on that inquiry; I read on to learn that the “smiling effect” was proven to be valid based on non-yearbook photos, childhood and adult, candid and posed. Failure to smile in all of those other contexts was still linked to the likelihood of divorce, in which case, I’m totally screwed.
I have also read forever that smiling, particularly in women, is viewed by soc-psych types to be part of a pattern of docility and assent in the traditionally dependent “weaker sex,” and that a woman’s refusal to smile, particularly at men, is perceived by them as threatening and as a silent assertion of power. I can guarantee you that at no time during my pathetically dateless high school and college life was I holding back my natural exuberance in order to avoid being dominated by the male of the species. I just really didn’t know how to do it, when to do it, or how to look coy, amused or flirty instead of broadcasting the rictus of death. I know that I was smiled at often, from the time I was born, and I’m thinking that the smiling in our lives must start when we recognize that facial gesture, and that it comes often from the people dearest to our tiny hearts. We must learn to imitate it, to give it back to those we see often, and, eventually, to use it as a way to signal friendliness, affection, openness…all good things. Books are judged by their covers, for better or worse, and, at some point, my book cover apparently changed from “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” to “Bleak House.”
My final observation is that relaxing seems, in my case, to be a predicate to the ability to smile genuinely. As I grow older, more comfortable with myself, and surer of my place in the world, I smile more. I still don’t smile in pictures (for which reason I am braced for the inevitable dissolution of my marriage), and I continue to be incapable of smiling “on command” in any context. I find myself smiling naturally and broadly, though, at children I love, Christmas pageants, all babies, funny stories, friends and sometimes, even, a beloved voice on the phone. I cannot, yet, smile back at strangers in public places; I know that they are “in the right,” socially speaking, but it is as strange to me that they walk around smiling at nothing as it probably is to them that I walk around looking somewhat dyspeptic.
I think my whole life might have been a little easier had I been a smiler. I can’t claim that unsmilingness is one of my immutable characteristics like being short or having brown eyes, and I could probably have changed it if I had really tried. It hasn’t served me all that well, I won’t fight to defend it, and for me, anyway, it is not a political statement, feminist or otherwise, or a reflection of some personally nihilistic worldview. It’s just the way I turned out.