Thursday, September 15, 2011

Don't tell me to smile

For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me to smile on a regular basis. Strangers walk up to me in the street and tell me that I look sad and should smile. Usually it is men telling me to smile, but not always (a really drunk woman stopped me and my partner at Pride right before the dyke march to tell me how sad I looked when I actually felt excited about the march). Casual acquaintances have often told me that I looked upset or have made comments about how good I look when I'm smiling, which I see as an attempt to make me smile more often (because, being female, of course I always want to look my best).

The thing is, I am rarely sad or upset. That is just my normal facial expression. I wonder if people would say the same thing if I were male - is it that being female, I am supposed to be pleasant? Although I think gender is a factor, I'm sure it happens to men as well, although probably not as often as comments from strangers.

And I am not talking about people who seem to be genuinely concerned and ask if I am ok - that doesn't bother me at all. I am talking about the guy that comes up to me in public and tells me to smile or the co-worker who tells me that I need to smile more often or the stranger who comes up to me on the street and asks why I am sad. The thing is, if I actually am sad for whatever reason, telling me to smile is not going to make me happy. It just makes me self-conscious about whether I look upset and annoyed that people feel they can comment on my appearance.

I have been reflecting on this today, and I'm really not sure why. It has been a few weeks since someone has told me to smile (possibly because I have barely left the house). But I made a connection today that I think should have been clear a long time ago. Maybe it is linked to having aspergers (I have a tentative diagnosis at this point). I have read that it is quite common for people with AS to look upset when they are contemplative, and I do tend to get lost in my own thoughts a lot. Smiling, even when I am happy, sometimes feels forced or strange. Sometimes I feel kind of like a robot (which is probably why I feel like I can relate to characters like Data or Seven of Nine from Star Trek or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory). When I am in a new environment and not in control of some of my self-calming behaviors (like rocking), even my partner can have trouble telling if I am coping, and that is understandable because I guess I can be hard to read... but she has never told me to smile or to cheer up.

If you are genuinely concerned about whether or not I am ok, or if I am crying or doing something that really suggests that I am actually distressed in some way, by all means, ask me if I am alright (like the person who, very respectfully, asked if he could get me some water or something when I was clearly freaking out about the noise and the number of people in the room at the biphobia survey launch party last weekend- thank you!). But if you do not know me or I am just staring off into space or something, it is probably best to leave me be... and DO NOT tell me to smile.


  1. People say that to me all the time too! Apparently my default facial expression is "pissed". But I'm not pissed! Well, sometimes I am.

    I just saw a scene in Curb your Enthusiasm where someone on the street told Larry to "smile" and he got all pissed off and yelled at her. Haha.

  2. Sweetie, I have AS (undiagnosed, but my son is diagnosed - and he's exactly like me as a child, but better.) Both my father (also undiagnosed, but if he doesn't have autism, I'm a frog) and myself have the issue with people asking us to smile or explain why we're sad.

    It's part of the social communication deficit that is the hallmark of Asperger's. Not everyone has it, but many, many do.

  3. I don't think I have Asperger's, and so far nobody has randomly told me to smile (which might be because I live in Germany and as far as I can tell Germans are more reluctant to talk to anyone on the street except in a friendly way or to complain - I have never been catcalled either or have someone else seen being catcalled), but a friend told me it freaked her out that I would stare at her and look very angry - except that I was not really looking at her but merely thinking and that my "default face position", meaning when my face muscles are relaxed, looks like I am frowning.
    So, yeah, I don't want to deny any mental reasons, but sometimes it's just that skin and muscles of your face are built that way ;)