Featured, Society & People

The Cult of Smiling

Last summer I worked at a taco stand in an amusement park, and I can’t count the number of times that somebody (customer, manager, co-worker even) commented on my apparent misery. I greeted customers with a hello and took their orders as politely as I could manage. I handled voids with grace and was generous with toppings. In most regards, I was the perfect employee. But a missing smile was just enough to undermine my cool efficiency. “THANK YOU,” customers would bark back all too loudly. It was as if they caught me licking cheese sauce out of my armpit. As if I had lectured them on the psychological damage of putting their toddlers on leashes. Fail to curl your lips the right way and you might as well write Drug Fund on your tip jar.

rock smile

Now, I don’t have a very expressive face, so I do tend to look somewhat less cheery than your typical youth. But that’s not to say I feel any less cheery! Or that strangers can go ahead and comment on how uncheery I clearly must be.

“Smile, kid,” fathers would tell me with crafty little smirks of their own, “It can’t be that bad.” Well, my job really was that bad, but I certainly wasn’t trying to give this impression off to my customers. I did my job well, if minimally, and expected this would be enough. And it’s not like my male co-workers were smiling their heads off for any old Soccer Mom. In fact, most of them were downright rude. They’d grunt and sneer and dole out incorrect change. But were they ever chastised for their steely-faced customer interactions? No, duh, because boys are somehow exempt from the smile-or-die mentality.

“You’re like… a girl Beck,” a customer told me one day for no apparent reason. Before he walked up to the counter, I actually was smiling (I know, hells bells), laughing with another employee about how much the frozen beef crumbles looked like Dippin’ Dots. “I’ll take that,” I responded in my best deadpan, dropping all emotion from my face. The man, taken off guard, furrowed his brow and walked away. My response was fitting with my sense of humor, but as with Not Smiling, anything but giggly banter is often misinterpreted as misanthropy. What Aubrey Plaza gets away with both on-screen and in real life is actually pretty hard to pull off – most people, I’ve found, respond to deadpan with confusion and hostility.

“Jill, you look so sad over there,” said co-worker Alexa as she passed me on her way to the walk-in fridge, “Why don’t you smile?” I was standing in the corner of an overheated amusement park kitchen assembling plastic souvenir cups. I had been assembling plastic souvenir cups for the past three hours. Why the F would I be smiling to myself? Alexa was the type of worker that customers loved. She called little girls Princess, complimented mothers on their purses, and laughed at Dad Jokes. She recommended everything on the menu and probably smiled in her sleep. I imagine that she’s the type who’s so into those Importance of Smiling quotes you’ll find all over Tumblr:

“Smile like you’ve never been hurt.”

“Use your smile to change the world. Don’t let the world change your smile.”

“Smile every minute of the day – you never know who’s falling in love with it.”

I’m all about happiness and everything, but is there really any merit in plastering a smile over a shitty mood to coerce yourself and others into thinking that everything is okay? If I’m having a bad day at work, the last thing I want to be worrying about is my facial expression falling short of a stranger’s arbitrary expectations. And if I’m having a good day, I shouldn’t have to worry about my smile being the ideal physical manifestation of my mood. Feeling pressure to smile is one of those subversive issues that, for me, hits very close to home. I know no one’s asking me to get all Toddlers and Tiaras all over the place, but it still bothers me that my assumed disposition/WORKER REPUTATION hinges on the forced contortion of my facial muscles.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *