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Don’t Tell Me To Smile

When I first started at my job, I was extremely nervous. I did not want to screw up or make a customer upset. My coworker was training me on how to ring on the cash register and was teaching me what codes to page for certain situations. She also gave me tips on how to deal with customers. As a shy person, I do not talk much and tend to have a serious facial expression. I remember after ringing out a few customers, I had a guy come up to me and tell me to smile, he did not even ask me. So I smiled & laughed it off, even though it felt uncomfortable and awkward. After that, my coworker warned me not to laugh or smile when they ask me to because they may think I’m trying to flirt with them.

Throughout these past years, I’ve experienced the very same situation and many others multiple times over. I have had guys call me mami, sweetie, honey… I am wearing a name tag, please just call me by my name. I even had a guy whistle at me as I was walking down one of the store aisles. (I am not a dog; ever heard of excuse me?) Men have also asked what time I would be getting out of work when, frankly, it’s none of their business. One day, a younger guy reached out for a handshake so, trying to be polite, I shook his hand. Suddenly he began reaching over the counter; I backed up as quickly as possible. He walked away, laughing.

When I asked my friends to share a statement about their experience with men they had this to say:

Diondra: “It’s annoying, honestly. I used to go along with it and smile but now most of the time I continue to have the same face.”

Veronica: “I just smile and laugh and when they leave, roll my eyes. It’s annoying. ‘Cause like, I’ll smile when I want to. I just feel like you don’t know what I’m going through. Leave me alone. I don’t need to smile ’cause you want me to.”

As I was working on this article, I had a friend ask what I was writing about. I told her the topic and she replied saying that she didn’t see the big deal with a man asking a woman to smile. I then tried to explain that it’s the principle of the point, they don’t ask you smile to see you happy.  If you are not smiling, it’s because you don’t want to.  They want you to smile when they ask/tell you to for power, it’s all a game.  It’s about how uncomfortable a women gets when a man comes up to them and tells them to smile. It’s overbearing, invasive and quite frightening to have a stranger tell you to smile. I can’t help but to wonder if these same men that are commanding women to smile also tell other men to smile? Or do they just happen to only be concerned when it comes to women?

“Men tell women to smile because society conditions men to think we exist for the male gaze and for their pleasure. Men are socialized to believe they have control over women’s bodies. This [is the] result in them giving unsolicited instructions on how we should look, think, and act. Essentially what a man is saying when he tells a woman — one he doesn’t even know — to smile, is that his wants outweigh her own autonomy over how she exists in the world.” Bené Viera, writer and activist, explains her views on men telling women they don’t know to smile.

This is more serious than people tend to think. Asking a woman to smile is a selfish act and it’s rarely in a caring tone; it’s condescending and turns a simple gesture into something sexual.  In New Zealand, a man assaulted a woman after she smiled because according to him it is customary in Malaysia that “women who smile are inviting men to follow them.” This is not a rare occurrence that only happens in other countries in different cultures. Women are assaulted by men every single day. Some of those incidents are committed by strangers that use the “smile” tactic to start an unwanted conversation.

This. Is. Harassment.

It is unacceptable that there are men who would scold a woman into doing something that she isn’t comfortable doing. Just the other day, I had a customer who told me that he would not move out of the line until I smiled for him. I just stared at him. I am sick and tired of it. His friend had to move him along. A few weeks ago, I had a customer ask if he left his gloves on the counter. I simply replied no, that he hadn’t. He began to berate me, screaming that I “need to learn how to smile.” However as far as I am concerned, smiling is not part of customer service. As long as I am polite and respectful, nothing else should matter, especially my face.

Why does it seem as though some men can’t understand (or simply do not care) that certain behaviors to get a woman’s attention are not only uncomfortable but also invasive and overstep boundaries?

Dear stranger, stop telling me to smile. If I wanted to smile, I would be.

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Disclamer: Yes, I am generalizing in this article. However that does not mean that I am trying to say or that I believe that all men behave or think as such. I am sharing my personal thoughts and experiences. This can apply to both women and men, but I cannot speak on the experiences of others.

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