“Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals” Simone Biles quipped to former Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron after he told her he was, “waiting for her to smile at some of the compliments” she had received from the judges on her performance. As someone who gets told to smile frequently, this type of interaction is all too familiar to me, albeit I do not think I have ever had quite as good of a comeback as Biles.
I can remember the first time I was ever told to smile. It was in my 8th-grade Civics class and the teacher asked me point-blank in front of the entire class while calling the role, “Blythe, why don’t you smile more? I’m not moving on until you smile.” As a fairly happy child who happened to suffer from social anxiety and extreme shyness, this deeply confused me. “Do people find me unapproachable? Do people think I’m weird?” I thought to myself as I plastered a smile on my face, relieved when he finally moved on to the next person. In the moment, having a superior call me out like this crushed me. I was a straight-A student, I volunteered after school, I did my best to be kind to everyone despite my shyness and yet it still wasn’t enough.
It took me the rest of middle school and well into high school to overcome this fear that people found me unapproachable. I had a sort of breakthrough around my sophomore year of high school that when people called me out on my supposed “RBF” (Resting B*tch Face) or lack of smile. It wasn’t a problem with me or even them necessarily, but rather society as a whole.
Related Article: The Sexism Behind Telling Women to Smile
In a study of 500 women, 98% stated that they have been told to smile before. 15% of them stated that it happened at least weekly or even more often. These 500 women represent the societal standard that women have often been expected to meet. To submit, to support, to encourage and to do it all with a big grin on your face. This expectation is not only one that has been long designated to female members of society, but is also inherently American.
In her fascinating essay An American Woman Stops Smiling, Lisa Ko explores how smiling is so ingrained in American society. She explores how smiling as a welcoming and safe facial expression in the United States can be linked to our history of immigration (smiling can connect people who do not share a common language) and our culture of assertiveness. Ko, like myself, has a passive and neutral resting expression that is commonly considered cold. Upon recognizing she often forced a smile to make others feel more comfortable, to the point where it was almost instinctual, Ko actively stopped smiling. I strongly encourage you to read her essay, but essentially she came to admire the “sincere connection” a smile can foster when she simply began smiling because she felt like it.
I don’t want to sound pessimistic. I think smiling is great. I do it all the time. I have, however, come to a point in my life where I will not actively change a part of myself to make other people more comfortable with how I exist and function both professionally and privately. I think that we could foster a more inclusive, compassionate workplace if we replace “hey let me see you smile” with “hey how are you doing.” A workplace in which 77% of U.S. professionals no longer experience burnout from constantly feeling as though they have to be “on.”
If a man tells you to smile in the workplace just remind yourself (and him if you feel so called) that women make 82 cents for every dollar a man does, and that you will smile when you want if you want to. Keep doing his job better than he does while rocking your “RBF,” collegiette.