Some Politics of the Smile, Part I

“Smile! It can’t be that bad.”
"Cheer up!"
“You’d look so much prettier if you smiled.”
 “Turn that frown upside down!”

You’ve heard one or more of these phrases before. They’re a call to lighten the atmosphere, to cheer someone up.

To police their face.

I know, I know: Most people who utter these phrases aren’t trying to deny the emotional
richness of another individual. They’re not trying to invalidate or disrespect. I imagine they think of themselves as happiness fairies, sprinkling light-heartedness, giggle dust, and platitudes to random passers-by. However, they’re also imparting a powerful social message: You owe me happiness, or at least some kind of performance of it.

On a pure, Goffman-esque level, I get that the social sphere is a collection of rituals, performances, and fragile, interactive dances. As Goffman would point out, we are super invested in maintaining the smooth flow of social interactions; otherwise, we’d experience a social breakdown. Anomie! Chaos! Awkwardness! Oh, noes! To do this, we cover for one another’s missteps, gently brush them back into place, and help one another save face.

Yeah, but.

Trying to force someone else into a smile, while perhaps stemming in part from a genuine desire to evoke their happiness, tells them three main things: 1. Your lack of overt cheerfulness is not acceptable, 2. You’re making me uncomfortable with your failure to enact socially expected behavior, and 3. Your face is at least in part public property, which means I feel comfortable controlling its public interface.

I get numbers one and two. Unsmiling people make me uncomfy, too. I never know quite what to do with someone who doesn’t, like me, treat social situations as endless waves we need to surf without falling into deeper waters. Or, using another kinda-metaphor, for this nerdy introvert, casual social situations are landmines of awkward silences and canned laughter. I’m much happier when we make our casual or public engagements brief, lighthearted, cheerful… and did I mention brief? Given all that, yeah, I’d really prefer if the other participants used their smiles as oil in the giant machinery of social engagement. If you’re not my peep, I’d prefer to interact with you as a small variable in what is otherwise a routine enactment of social conventions. The smoother, the better.

When others don’t smile, we feel itchy. Having to acknowledge the other person’s humanity can be frustrating, even maddening. Now we have to think through the implications of our actions rather than just doing them. We might even have to empathize with the other person. That’s a lot of emotional involvement in what should be a casual social engagement, amiright?

But, as much as others’ smilelessness makes me twitchy, and as much as I’d prefer they honor the social contract of making interactions as smooth and mindless as possible, I don’t own these folks. Their smiles might make my experience easier, but they don’t owe it to me.

In every single social situation, approximately 32 tons of social pressure press down on us, urging us to make each social performance a smooth and carefully scripted one. These rituals involve a careful, mincing dance involving action, reaction, response, and so on. One misstep, and we stumble. But we sometimes forget it is individuals, not just actors, who are enacting the dance. Not all of us can or even want to participate ideally and constantly. As uncomfy as that makes the other participants, I just don’t think we have the right to punish them for our discomfort.


  1. I effing HATE your page. It randomly deletes the posts I try to leave, and this one was a damned good one.

    In a nutshell, what I said was that this post reminds me of the strip club project and how men used those "single serving," interpersonal interactions to reify their role as supervisors and dominators of women's body performances. I also said how amazing to me it is that people don't understand how every single interaction, no matter how small, serves to propagate the cultural norms in which we're drowned.

    1. Sorry my page sucks, LJ. I have some problems with Blogspot, too. :(

      Good analogy! I think you're gonna like part 2 of this discussion, which focuses on -- what else? -- gender. :)


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