Why Do Men Tell Women to Smile?

Who says you have to smile just because a man wants you to?. (Photo: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock)

If you're a woman, odds are that you've randomly been asked to smile by a man on the bus, a dude on the street or even a guy you might work with. It may have happened when you were out on a run or running errands, while you were deliberating paint colors at the hardware store or while waiting for your child outside the library. You've probably been prodded to produce a smile at times when you were thinking of other things, and almost certainly when you were on your own.

The fact that men ask or tell women to smile (often it comes out as the latter — "Hey, gimme a smile!") is generally understood as an annoying part of sexism. Sometimes it even happens at work, in jobs that have nothing to do with customer service (where both male and female employees might be asked to project a positive attitude). Take this Dear Prudence advice-column letter, for example:

"I’m a female lawyer on the brink of making partner at a midsize firm. When I asked what I needed to do to [make partner] I was told I needed to smile more..."

There's writer Adrienne Tam's simple and relatable story:

"As I was walking to work this week, a colleague passed by. I didn’t notice him because I was zombie-walking — daydreaming while placing one foot in front of the other. He waved his arms in front of my face as I moved past him. 'Smile!' he said."

This "smile more" thing affects us all: From high-profile women like athlete Serena Williams (at a press conference) and actress Kristen Stewart to ... every woman I know. I've been told by a man helping me at a store that he'd only answer my question/get me the product I was asking for if I smiled. That has happened often enough that the last time it happened, I hardly noticed. When I was younger, I usually tightly smiled while looking embarrassed and demeaned (that's how I felt), but now I just raise my eyebrows in a "really?" response. I don't get second requests.

I know how to deal with this obnoxiously common query from men, but something I still don't understand is: "Why?" It just seems so weird to demand something like a smile from someone you don't know — or even someone you only know a bit. It's basically asking someone to rearrange their face because you've asked them to. Can you imagine walking by someone and saying "Hey, let me see what your tongue looks like. Stick it out!"

It's very common to get the smile request from strangers on the street. Here, artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh explains her public art series, "Stop Telling Women to Smile," inspired by gender-based street harassment.

Why men ask (or tell)

What's behind men asking or expecting women to smile?

Tam thinks maybe men think they are doing a good thing by asking a woman to smile, assuming that it will cheer them up. But the opposite is true, she writes: "Most of the time, the men who ask women to smile think they’re helping the woman out in some way — if she smiles, it means she’s happy, right? And a happy woman is a pretty woman and a pretty woman makes the world look better, right? Wrong."

Manhattan-based relationships therapist Sherry Amatanstein says it's really about "... control — women are supposed to smile, be subservient, put a good face on things, not make waves."

Of those women I know who have been asked to smile by someone they barely know, exactly none of them have appreciated the demand. But because most women are raised not to make people angry (and to be careful not to anger men as they might hurt us), we will often do as instructed — so that smile that is maybe meant to be a positive thing is more likely to be a fear response than anything else.

At the very least, it's rude.

“Men tell women to smile because society conditions men to think we exist for the male gaze and for their pleasure. Men are socialised 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," writer and activist Bené Viera told Huffington Post.

This base-level disrespect for women reaches high up, too. Amatenstein points out that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was told repeatedly she didn't smile enough during her candidacy for president, while then-candidate Donald Trump also rarely smiled — and wasn't expected to, due to different expectations of women and men.

This is an easy one to solve: Men, don't ask women to smile. Women, if a man asks you to smile, feel free to raise your eyebrows and shoot him a dirty look (my tactic), or just say: "No." Or, consult this list of snarky comebacks, a fun option for those days when you need to strike back.

And for the last word on the subject, watch comedian/talk show host Chelsea Handler tackle the topic in this video. (Heads-up on her very colorful language.)