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Holly Swanson: Beware, the Smile Dictator

by on December 05, 2012 6:00 AM

True story: I was standing in the produce section of Giant picking out apples, deep in thought. An older man, whom I’ve never seen before, walked up to me.

“Smile,” he said. “It can’t be that bad.”

I’m sure he thought he was being helpful and friendly. I’ve been approached many times by strangers who feel the need to point out that I’m not smiling or that I look sad. It’s always a man who does it, unless I witness it happening to a child. In that case, both men and women take on the role of what I refer to as Smile Dictators.

They’re right, though. My natural facial expression falls somewhere between Charlie Brown and the current queen of England. I’m more of a Jan from "The Brady Bunch", the low-key middle sister, compared to Marcia, the perky cheerleader. And I’m happy with that, even though you may not be able to tell it by looking at me.

You know who does smile a lot? Will Farrell in Elf. Tom Cruise when he’s on "Oprah." Ted Bundy when he was looking for a victim. Basically, crazy people. But because I have an admittedly gloomy expression, people feel the need to get involved. As if being reminded to smile will suddenly take away all my problems.

Look around your grocery store — most people look, well, normal — which equates to not really smiling. There is a time for laughter, and if something strikes me as funny while I’m in Giant, I’ll laugh out loud. But for the most part, like all the other shoppers, we’re in a rush and are focused on the task at hand. Handing out random smiles on demand for strangers isn’t high on our to-do list.

There is a lot of online speculation that this type of thing is sexist in nature. There may be something to it, since my father, who has not smiled publicly since the TV show "Newhart" went off the air in 1990, has never had a stranger request a smile from him. I’ve done an informal poll of friends and family, and only one male had been told to smile by a stranger, but he was young when it happened. Every woman I asked said that it has happened to her multiple times.

I hesitate to criticize a person who clearly means no harm. They truly think they are being helpful. But here’s the thing. Telling a person who is not smiling that they should smile more is rude. Period.

Because maybe that person with the sad face just found out that her husband has cancer, or that her grandmother died, or that she just had a miscarriage. And maybe that person is doing her absolute best to pick up a few groceries so she can feed her family and try to deal with whatever problems they face. Maybe that person is just barely holding on.

Maybe that person has clinical depression.

And, maybe, none of that is your business.

A young child, who is very dear to me, has dealt with more heartache in his short life than most adults have. He is joyful in the safe confines of his home and school when he is surrounded by people who love and accept him. In public, he is nervous and distrustful of strangers. He is melancholic at times and very private. He has also been picked on for being this way by both adults and children who did not take the time to know him. In one restaurant, I’ve watched two different waiters tell him to “smile,” “cheer up,” “don’t be so sad,” which only served to make him more withdrawn.

There are many things that flash through my mind when a “smile, honey” comment comes my way. I’d like to have a snappy comeback ready that will let the Smile Dictator know that it’s not appropriate for them to request this of me or anyone else, so maybe they will think twice before butting into someone else’s private space. But because I also realize that the Smile Dictator is well-intentioned and usually older, telling them to “screw off” doesn’t seem appropriate. Instead, I usually give them my she’s-smiling-but-she’s-really-mad smile, which they don’t recognize as being sarcastic. Then I walk away.

But one of these days, I’ll be ready with a quick reply, and it’s not going to be pretty.

Recent columns:

Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at [email protected]
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