Some Politics of the Smile, Part I
“Smile! It can’t be that bad.”
“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
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.
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.