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In Defense of NOT Smiling

by Amy on August 13, 2015


Real? Fake? You be the judge.

I was winding my way through a crowd of bodies lugging a huge suitcase towards a very long line. I had just waited half an hour to check in for my flight back home, only to be told I had to wait in another line to pay a travel fee. To make things worse, the airport in Costa Rica was HOT, like 90 degrees and 100% humidity HOT.

I wasn’t happy.

I must have had a frown on my face when a woman walking past made eye contact with me and said sweetly, “smile.”

In response, I obediently pulled together an awkward grimace. But as soon as I was out of her sight, I let my face do what it wanted to do. I wasn’t smiling, lets put it that way.

It was meant to be kind, I know…

But I got the same, “I’m doing something wrong,” feeling I get every time some well-meaning person publicly tells me to “smile.”

I must have frowned a lot as a kid.

Once in elementary school I was on the bus probably twirling my hair and looking out the window when the bus driver looked at me through her rear view window… “Smile!” she called out. She was looking right at me. I crouched down in my seat so she couldn’t see me.

I remember walking down the hall one day when a chipper school teacher yelled out, “Smile Amy, you look so sad!” “Oh. Sorry,” I looked around self-consciously to see if any of my friends were watching then re-arranged my face to suit his liking.

Heading to the lunch table once, I remember a classmate calling out, “Hey Amy Smile!” It startled me so badly I nearly dropped my tray.

I was actually a pretty sweet kid. I never glared, gave dirty looks or scowled at strangers on purpose. Nor do I as an adult. Not to strangers anyway 🙂

But clearly I have a serious looking face. And when I’m annoyed, bored, irritated, or just thinking, my serious face shows.

By the time high school rolled around I really wanted to be “popular.”

As usual, mom had some sage advice:

“Smile,” she told me, “even when you didn’t feel like it. And you’ll make friends.”

Ah! Fake it till you make it. I can do that!

She was right, as usual…

I smiled my way through high school and, in the process, accumulated many of the trappings of “popular”… Girl of the Year, Home Coming Queen, Student Body Vice President.

And, of course, there’s even research to back up mom’s advice that says one should smile, even when one doesn’t feel like it. Physically grinning, the research says — even when you don’t want to — changes your brain chemistry, “tricking” you into feeling happy.

(I just forced a smile for a few seconds. Sort of looks like I have gas. And that makes me laugh. So there you have it. )

Shiny, happy people do have an easier time making friends, it’s true.

But life isn’t a popularity contest. Or, at least, I don’t think it should be.

One of the peeps in “Being You Uncensored” had said it this way…

“One thing I do is … smile at everyone I meet. I’ve got to be happy. I’ve got to be in a good mood. If I’m upset or in a bad mood, I can’t let people see that. So one thing I’m practicing this week is not smiling at people when I don’t feel like it. And it feels pretty good. But another thing I’ve realized by not trying to smile all the time is I’m pretty cranky. Underneath all that trying to put on a happy face, I realize I’m pretty pissed off about a few things.”

Here’s the thing…

You don’t have to go around scowling at everyone. Please don’t. That’s rude. But please, drop the perma-grin, and tune in. There’s a person underneath that shiny, happy exterior with real needs. [TWEET THAT]

She might need to concentrate, she might need to pee, she might need to stick up for herself… or maybe she just needs some time to work it all out in her head.


I, Amy Pearson, give you, The Reader, permission NOT to smile if you don’t feel like it.

Don’t force yourself to do anything you don’t want to do… even smile.

(It isn’t a real smile anyway. It’s a facade of “likability.” Stop wasting your time with that. Your people can take the real you, smile or not.)

The next time some well meaning person reminds me to smile, I think I’m going to say something like…

“Oh thanks. You know, I really don’t feel like smiling right now. I’m super focused on this thing I’m doing. I do smile a lot when I feel like it though!”

Or maybe I won’t say anything at all.

And If I offend the smile police, so be it.


Your Turn:

Has anyone ever told you to smile? Or is it just me? How did it feel?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Hendrick August 13, 2015 at 1:35 pm

I get the opposite….My friend one time told me…I don’t think I’ve ever seen you not smile and not happy. She kept telling me I was always full of joy and was always smiling…I had to tell her the truth that I don’t always smile..


Amy August 26, 2015 at 7:21 pm



annamaria August 13, 2015 at 1:56 pm

I completely agree with not smiling while not bring rude.
It is not useful to mask our emotions, it IS useful to be real.
Growing up, if I was hurt physically or emotionally the message was to distract myself from my feelings, to get back to smiling as soon as possible. As a mother now I realize that the instruction to smile was only because the others didnt want to deal with or identify with any of their own pain reflected through me in those moments! When my daughter has her moments now we work through the pain together, we do not smile even if instructed to. What a liberating revelation. Thank you for posting.


Amy August 26, 2015 at 7:22 pm

Me too AnnaMaria. Trying to let my kids have their emotions. Especially my son who has very BIG emotions!


Michelle August 13, 2015 at 8:13 pm

You are not the only one, and I am so glad I am not either. I am frequently told to smile, and was as a child too. Now I just say – “this is my regular look” – lol. I think there may be a correlation with less smiling and introversion, we do smile, we do feel joy and get excited etc but it is less frequently and less energetic and it is what it is.
And yea I agree with annamaria – I couldn’t have said it better – that is exactly what happened I believe. Glad we can break the chain. My daughter is 5.


Amy August 26, 2015 at 7:23 pm

Interesting what you say about not smiling and introversion. I find that my face looks tense when I’m thinking, even when I”m not tense. And this makes some people uncomfortable.


Bonnie August 14, 2015 at 12:04 am

I really get pissed and dislike it when someone tells me to smile. I agree, I feel like I’m doing something wrong and being told to do something I don’t really want to do. Seems like I have to smile to make them happy and I’m just not feeling it then. I understand that smiling is good for the soul, but sometimes I can feel happy, calm and peaceful inside without smiling. ….Amy I like what you mentioned you could say the next time someone tells you to smile. I think I’ll try that and then smile inside because I did say something to their smile suggestion:)


Amy August 26, 2015 at 7:24 pm

Let me know how it goes. I also like what Michelle said above, “this is my regular look.” LOL I think I’ll try that.


Anne D. August 14, 2015 at 2:07 am

Men insisting that women “smile” is an insidious form of sexual harassment that infuriates me. Decades ago, a co-worker ordered me to smile. When I didn’t, he put his hands on my face to force the corners of my mouth upward! I swung both arms up between his and brought them down on his shoulders, hard. I then walked away without a word. If that happened today, I’d call the police first, then HR.


Amy August 26, 2015 at 7:25 pm

Face rape! But seriously I agree with you. I especially HATE it when men tell me to smile. Yuck. And I’m so sorry you had that experience.


terri August 17, 2015 at 2:33 am

thanks so much for this.i was told this also as a child. people also expect children to smile all the time and treat them like they are toys or property.
we really need to re think how we treat children, and each other as a society. shaming and making others wrong is a way people are taught to control each other and steal from others, that we learned from the people who raised us. we dont have to continue to do what was done to us. as michelle said, we can break the chain, and each generation comes to this world with so much love to do that.


Amy August 26, 2015 at 7:27 pm

It happens so much to children! Children need so much more resepct in this society. I really love Jolette Jai’s work on this. I’m working with Lisa Smith (smith.lisa@me.com) to learn to parent from a place of peace and respect as opposed to the command and control style that was the parenting style of the day (and unfortunately still is) when I was a kid.


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