Now, I’m sure a lot of us, especially in the US, have heard people put their two cents in on this topic, one way or the other, and I’m going to put mine in now, too. And, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s the idea that a person sees another person not smiling (for any number of reasons) and feels the need (again for multiple reasons) to say, “Smile”.
So, let’s look at a few scenarios, to examine why this might urk someone.
First of all, I think it’s a hugely contextual issue. No, I don’t think every person encouraging a person to cheer up is wrong, but I think a lot of it has to do with how it’s worded, who says it, and the body language involved. Additionally, having spoken with my husband on the topic, it became much more apparent to me that this isn’t a female-only issue. My husband has also had women say this same thing to him, to very similar effect.
Scenario A – Done as a Come-on or a Cat-call
I’m sure a lot of you have seen plenty of videos and parodies discussing the scenarios where, generally, a guy sees an attractive lady minding her own business and tells her to smile, because she’d look prettier if she smiled or something along similar lines.
Again, this does happen to both sexes and with different initiator situations involved. I’d like to debunk the stigma that only a woman can face behavior like this. Whether it is more commonly occurring to women or not is another issue, but a lack of respect and personal boundaries towards another person, sadly, is a trait that all sexes can share.
Anyway, when this happens to me, it makes me obviously uncomfortable, because I’ve been sexually harassed by men and women of all ages since I started puberty at nine. There is nothing creepier than a 40-50 year-old man (who I thought wanted to hire me) texting and IMing me randomly over the span of months with just “Hi” or “How are you” or the female co-worker who felt the need to constantly comment about the size of my breasts. No one should have to deal with having a former boss (and married, I’d add) ask you out on a date and make multiple comments about your appearance. No mother should have to glare at a truck driver who was literally honking, ogling, and making lustful eyes at her 13 year-old daughter on the freeway the way my mother has had to do. I can still recall how my high school had the unofficial “Slap A*s Friday” where girls and guys (but in my case, mainly girls) would attempt to touch me inappropriately, and so on and so on.
It’d be easy to go into a whole essay on sexual harassment, but the point remains, when a person (man or woman) looks at me with lustful eyes and says, “Smile more, you’d look pretty”. My first instinct isn’t to smile… It’s to cover my body in close and hide what makes me beautiful. It makes me feel like nothing more than an object of pleasure to this random stranger. So, please, don’t tell me “I’d be pretty if I smiled” like a compliment. Even if it is meant as one, it’s hard to see it that way after dealing with trauma after trauma due to someone else selfish sexual desires.
Scenario B – Done as an Attempt to Cheer Someone Up
Okay, let’s get the lustful pervs out of the way and address the other side I’ve encountered. I’ve had well-meaning people, who are obviously not attracted to me or trying to flirt, say something very similar (both men and women), and again, it doesn’t warrant the effect they want. Here’s, for me anyways, why.
I know you mean well. You see a person who either has a blank expression or looks sad, and you want to cheer them up in the most simplistic way you can think of, but may I suggest some other options: “Hey, how are you doing today?” or even just smile at me, yourself. I’m generally a very happy, optimistic person, so more likely than not, if you smile at me, I’ll smile back. However, more importantly, contrary to the whole “it takes more muscles to frown, than smile”, sometimes a resting face doesn’t naturally turn upwards. It’s just still and straight. Some people say this, assuming I’m sad or mad, and actuality, I’m just walking from point A to point B. I could be thinking about something and not even paying attention to you at the moment. I could be tired from work or a long day. Or, I could just be walking.
So, guess what is going to happen if someone out of nowhere says, “Smile!” to me? I will instantly feel an awkward, forced smile appear on my face for the second they are in vision, and then, once they are gone, I’ll resume with resting me face… The effect is not likely to make me ponder, ‘Do I look that sad? Do I look mad? Maybe, they are right. Maybe, I should look on the bright side, and smile more.’ No, my thought process is, ‘Oh, joy, I was doing just fine, and now, I’m annoyed that some random stranger thinks I’m a performing monkey… Anyway, back to what I was doing.’
Scenario C – A Person Saying this to A Christian
Okay, this probably sounds very specific and random, but I make no attempts to hide my faith from people whether they co-workers, classmates, etc. So, I’ve encountered this moment where, again, a well-meaning person (either a Christian or just a random acquaintance) says, “Hey, come on. You’re a Christian. Smile! God tells us to feel joy in His blessings!”
Again, I know where they are coming from. As a Christian, I do have a hope for tomorrow that can never be taken from me. No matter what I face, I have faith that God is always going to have me in the palm of His hand. Still, I cry and feel pain as much as any other person. I feel exhaustion and burn-out. God even acknowledges this in His Word. In one of my favorite verses, John 16:33 (NIV), it says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Now, you may be saying, but that says to take heart! In other words, perk up! Yes, it can be a very inspirational verse, because it shows that God already won the battle long before I was even a speck in His plan, but remember the part, “In this world you will have trouble”. Other translations use “suffering”, “tribulation” “distress”, and so on, but the point remains. Yes, we are not to lose hope in the suffering of this world, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t feel it. God guaranteed it in that verse, but we can hope in His future. So, to recap, yes, we can feel joy in what God has planned for us, but at the same time, Christians are going to hurt, too. We aren’t always going to have the energy to scream “Hallelujah”. Sometimes, it may be more of a “broken Hallelujah”, and I believe that’s okay. God loves me so much, and He feels my pain and struggles. So, I don’t picture Him up in Heaven feeling disappointed that little Sarah Macatrao (Ham) isn’t smiling every moment of the day.
So, I’d lovingly say to Christians and mentors the same. Maybe, reword it as, “I noticed that you seem down. Can I pray for you, or is there something I can do?” I can’t guarantee I’ll always open up, but I’m far more likely to be receptive to that than, “Smile, goshdarnit, you’re a Christian, so act like one!” (Exaggerating, of course, but we get the point.)
Scenario D – My Husband or a Close Loved One says, “There’s that smile… I prefer that.”
We see this trope in romantic novels and tv shows of the love interest, trying to cheer their loved one up with this at the end. Some might roll their eyes and boo it along with the other scenarios, but I disagree.
See, the difference is the person telling me this, I trust. I love this person, so when they say something like this. I know it’s in love, not in making me an object or shoving random advice down my throat. Can it come across as condescending? I’m sure there’s some situations where it could. If I’m trying to vent, and this was the response without any other context or addition, then, yes, I might take it differently.
However, a person I love telling me that they prefer to see me smile than cry, to me, shows that they care about me. They want to see me happy. It’s not about the actual smile; it’s about knowing I’m okay. Again, this is generally in response to me letting out all my tears and frustrations, them consoling me, and then, pointing out that I seem happier now. So, I take it differently than any of the other scenarios.
Body language, wording, and personal context can completely change a situation from making a person actually smile versus look at you with repulsion. I know not every person that has said this is thinking, ‘Oh, that girl’s hot! I want to tap that!’ But, if you present yourself in a way that suggests that’s what is on your mind, my reactions will likely match that assumption.
If you want to cheer me up or see if I’m doing alright, ask yourself if someone else doing the exact same thing to you would make you want to genuinely smile, too. If you question it at all, then maybe re-approach it. Communication can be a tricky part of life, especially between different sexes, cultures, environments, and so on, so try not to make assumptions on what another person is or isn’t comfortable with. I still grow in this day after day and have constantly had to catch myself saying something that was well-intent but didn’t translate that way to the other person. Grow, learn, and love one another. After all, I think that’s what a person with genuine pure intentions is trying to accomplish with this statement… They want to see an actual smile, for you to be happy and encouraged.