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Social Psychology

What Happens When Women Don’t Smile

"You should smile more" isn't just an annoying catcall; it's a social demand. If women fail to comply, the consequences can be brutal.

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“You are the most exquisite animal,” a stranger told me at work.

He had been staring at me through the window before he came in to deliver that line, leering over the counter as I pulled pints in a packed bar on a recent Sunday afternoon in lower Manhattan. Working in bars (and just living as a woman), it’s far from the worst thing I’ve heard. Customers have told me they were going to take me in the back room and rape me in the ass; they’ve made every possible remark on a woman’s body part you can imagine, some treating me like a vending machine with breasts. When the insult is sharp enough, I don’t hesitate to throw someone out, but for the subtler barbs or the jokes that make me uncomfortable—the “you’re too pretty to be funny” type of affront—my own reaction infuriates me: I smile.

Women are taught to smile from a young age, and men reinforce that expectation throughout our lives. The trope of men telling women to smile has become so ubiquitous that some women have even staged symbolic smile boycotts. The evidence for women smiling more than men exceeds the anecdotal, and numerous studies over the past few decades confirm the disparity. In my own informal social media poll, I asked women whether a man had ever told them to smile. Some 23 responses in the affirmative confirmed my suspicions: 35 percent answered “at least once” and 65 percent responded “all the damn time.” One woman described how men had felt compelled not only to tell her to smile but to tell her how to dress, and — perhaps unsurprisingly — a man commented that he was confused as to why asking women to smile was so bad in the first place.

The social science behind men demanding that women smile extends beyond a simple expression of objectification, and research dating back more than 60 years can begin to offer an alternative explanation. In the 1950s, sociologist Erving Goffman put forth the theory that all social life is performance, and that each person is an actor carrying out a role both for his benefit and for that of society. Goffman’s work, particularly in regards to non-verbal communication, would later be picked up by sociologists like Paul Ekman. A range of psychologists and social scientists, including Francine Deutsch and Marianne LaFrance, have added even more nuance to the data surrounding smiling, confirming not only that women smile more but that not smiling can come at a steep cost.

“Women are really disliked if they don’t play out this nurturing expectation, and I think smiling goes along with that,” Francine Deutsch, professor emerita of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College, told me. “If your facial expressions are more in line with power—not smiling—then you’re often considered cold. So women have this terrible double bind about how can you be a powerful person and not be seen as cold and unlikable?”

As soon as we enter a public space, we perform a version of ourselves that society expects, according to Goffman. Those who work in the service industry might don an added layer of politeness, while teachers or bosses might make concerted efforts to project their authority through changes in voice or posture. In the 21st century in the U.S., one societal expectation for women maintains that we must be “nice,” that we must be nurturing, and one way to show that we are nice and ready to nurture is to smile. Women can refuse this expectation, but it is not without consequences. Goffman found that transgression—even for something small like not keeping one’s appearance in order—could result in suspicion, hostility, and resulting isolation.

“Performance is a delicate, fragile thing that can be shattered by very minor mishaps,” he wrote in his 1956 book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. “The expressive coherence that is required in performances points out a crucial discrepancy between our all-too-human selves and our socialized selves. As human beings, we are presumably creatures of variable impulse with moods and energies that change from one moment to the next. As characters put on for an audience, however, we must not be subject to ups and downs.”

Frustrated by my own tendency to smile even when uncomfortable or angry, I staged an experiment of trying not to do so for 24 hours. During that experiment, I felt rude and profoundly uncomfortable, even when acting otherwise polite. I found myself compensating for my lack of smiling by lilting my voice up at the end of sentences or standing with a more open posture. While working a bar shift, the regulars treated me the same, and I felt a release of tension, a rest from a labor I hadn’t realized I was carrying out. Only the most aggressive men seemed ill at ease, and one of them left a $37 tip while loudly saying, “I’m leaving this because I want you to like me.” I can’t be sure if it was my unsmiling face, but by the end of the night I had made $100 more money in tips than on an average Sunday.

The results of my experiment might have something to do with the gendered relationship between power and emotionality. The pressure to smile in the U.S. exists on a spectrum and it extends to men to some degree, but the restrictions are far looser. Women of color, on the other hand, have to cope with the additional burdens of racism and a culture that promotes the archetype of the “angry Black woman.” Male politicians or corporate executives are not chastised for not smiling enough, whereas women in that same role are expected to be both warm and authoritative.

Men are in fact discouraged from smiling too much because it can be a sign of emotionality and therefore weakness, according to Marianne LaFrance, an experimental psychologist at Yale University and author of the book Why Smile? The Science Behind Facial Expressions. The book theorizes that these quotidian facial expressions are in fact “social acts with serious consequences.” In an interview with WIRED magazine she described how women are conversely encouraged to perform emotionality even when they aren’t experiencing great emotion, citing the example of teenage girls squealing over things that might not matter to them. “Women who are not very expressive are regarded with some suspicion. They seem cold, withholding, depressed. Acquiring the rules of how expressive one should be with their face is a very socialized process,” she said.

In the span of those 24 hours, I attempted to sit with the discomfort of appearing unlikable. When a man said something I disagreed with or found ignorant, instead of smiling as I disagreed (something I didn’t realize I had been doing until my experiment), I just disagreed. Instead of laughing nervously at a joke I didn’t find funny, I said nothing. I’m not sure if I came off as cold, but I reveled in the discomfort it created. My realization that I had been smiling while experiencing negative feelings is in line with the research of a friend and colleague of Goffman’s, Paul Ekman.

Ekman documented at least 17 different types of smiles in 1985, including “masking smiles” which are meant to conceal negative emotions. Embarrassment, submissiveness, and deceit can all elicit smiling, he found. There are so many varied social purposes for smiling that scientists have a name for a genuine smile, referred to as the Duchenne smile.

It’s now become an expectation that women’s baseline expression should be smiling, but that’s a relatively new phenomenon and one that is especially American. Smiling used to be considered too flirtatious or a sign of stupidity. A host of factors contributed to the prevalence of smiling women, including the rise of home photography. Early photographs show people with serious expressions, even after the technology had evolved to capture a smile in only a few moments. Christina Kotchemidova, a communications expert, suggested in a research paper that early photographic portraiture instead took its cues from painting, in which the subjects did not smile lest they appear undignified or even drunk. Kodak helped shift the idea of photography to something fun, at the same time that cheerful advertising exploded in the 20th century. Some studies have even suggested that the U.S.’ large and varied immigrant population caused an increase in smiling, as the smile allowed neighbors to communicate friendliness without speaking the same language. These cultural and historical factors show it to be a socially determined phenomenon rather than some proof of the antiquated idea that women are just nicer. As Goffman might say, the smile is part of the actor’s toolkit.

Goffman was writing at a time when guidelines surrounding social performance were much stricter. Certain expectations he described have eased, including women’s need to cover bare legs with hosiery or to separate day and evening wear. But the pressure of the societally normative smile, the resting female smile, remains a powerful one.

I continued to feel that pressure throughout my experiment. The task grew increasingly difficult throughout the day, as more people arrived at the bar toward whom I feel great warmth. There were the regulars who made me laugh when I felt tired, or the local musician who brought in apartment listings whenever he heard that someone’s rent got raised. Chatting with the neighbors I spend nearly every Sunday with, I cracked and grinned. At least it was a Duchenne smile.

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