Service with a smile

NS June 9th, 2009

Smile, baby!

Why the long face, sugar pie?

It can’t be that bad, can it?

Let’s see a nice smile, love — go on!

You’d be so much prettier if you smiled.

Ooh, stay out of HER way, she looks mad!

If you’re a woman and have ever walked down the street deep in thought, in a foul mood or with worry creasing your brow, you will most likely have heard at least one of the above, if not all of them, from strange men passing by.

I don’t get it as much now that I always have children in tow (maybe because they think mothers don’t have much to smile about, or perhaps because until you’ve had a man’s children you are anyone’s to be had?) but before they came along I would get it on a regular basis. It irritated me — no, infuriated me — long before I even called myself a feminist with any enthusiasm. From the time I was old enough to be considered a sexual object (pretty much from adolescence), I’d been getting comments about my body, my face, my clothes, mood, emotions, mannerisms…you name it; if I was doing or speaking or wearing it, it would be remarked upon by men I didn’t know. I used to just find it slighly irritating and accepted that it was just “how men are.” But as I grew older and more weary of this phenomenon, so my anger grew alongside. What gave them the right to tell ME to smile, or that they liked my top (while leering at my chest) or that I’d be more pleasing to their eye and expectations if I just did x, y or z?

It all came to a head one day several years ago when I was walking back to my downtown apartment from the grocery store. I was a full time student and working 25-30 hours a week at a bar and restaurant. I was stressed out and pissed off about something and doing the 20 minute walk home, laden with bags of food in the oppressive summer heat, wasn’t doing me any favours. On my way there I’d been told to smile no less than two times, by different men — one in a suit and with a briefcase, the other a scrawny teenage redneck type. Already on the verge of exploding in anger, I knew that one more comment would be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Sure enough, on my way home another man passed by in the opposite direction — all swagger and trailing the telltale scent of midday boozing — imploring me to smile while giving me the once over. I didn’t manage a tight, thin smile or just ignoring him, as I usually do. This time I hardened my scowl and shot him a look that said I was going to do no such thing. Looking bemused, he turned and followed me, again calling out, “C’mon baby, it can’t be that bad. Whatsa matter? Smile for me and you’ll feel better.” I glanced over my shoulder and took in his cocky stance and patronising words. I turned to look him in the eye and said in an even, clear voice: “Fuck off.” I saw his expression turn from one of amusement to shock and anger. I walked away quickly, my heart pounding in my chest. I’d finally stood up to one of the bullies and it felt great!

My pride in myself was short-lived because suddenly, as I stood at the intersection waiting for the lights to change so I could cross, a voice like gravel growled into my ear, “Bitch!” and a pair of hands pushed me from behind, square in the back. I fell forward onto my knees, letting go of my grocery bags to break the fall. A car swerved to avoid hitting me and I watched as the tires whizzed by, inches from my face. My canned goods rolled out of the brown paper bags and onto the glittering asphalt, heat rising from it in visible waves that appeared to melt into the objects surrounding it. My rage bubbled to the surface and before I even had time to make a considered, conscious decision, I grabbed a tin of pastry dough that had landed beside me (those Pillsbury cinnamon rolls — American readers will know what I mean), stood up and spun around with it held aloft. I brought it down on the side of his forehead and the tin burst open with a satisfying THWACK! before the dough popped out and landed on the pavement between us. A comic moment, looking back, but not funny at all at the time.

A small gash opened up on his forehead and blood trickled out. Nothing life-threatening, for sure, but enough to daze him and knock him back a few steps. At that point a valet across the street came running to assist and my attacker turned and fled. I must’ve looked a sight: teeth bared, flashing eyes, mangled tin in my clenched fist as I let loose a string of expletives after him. I was terrified, exhilirated, vindicated and embarrassed all at once. I wasn’t proud that I’d reacted violently to the situation but reminded myself that he could’ve gotten me killed by pushing me into traffic.

In shock, I waved away the valet who offered to call the police, saying I just wanted to get out of there and forget about it. I went home and got ready for work, still running on adrenaline, but when I arrived late and my manager admonished me, I found my hands shaking and my eyes welling up with tears as I explained the reason for my tardiness. To this day I regret not going to the police but I figured they’d never catch the guy and was afraid that because I’d relatiated, I could get into trouble.

The reason I’m telling you all of this is to give you some background on why I feel so strongly about being told to smile. I knew that it was a jerkface thing for men to do but I hadn’t really put my finger on why it bothered me so much and what was sinister about it until today. This post on the community boards at Feministing put another spin on the whole being told to smile thing. An excerpt below:

(Note: I’m a customer and overhear this exchange while waiting in line.)

Barista: “Here’s your change… have a nice day.”

Customer: “You know, you haven’t smiled once.”

Barista: “Sorry.”

Customer: “I’m so sick of the attitude of people in the service industry! Is it so hard to give your customers a smile as you’re pouring water through beans? You all are so arrogant, it makes me sick!”

Barista: *eyes begin to well up*

Customer: “Why aren’t you smiling?!”

Barista: “…because my father died last night.”

How utterly horrid.

Upon reading this and remembering my own negative associations with being told to smile, I realised that the reason some people (and not just men) feel entitled to issue this order (usually to women) is because our moods and emotions have always been open for public scrutiny. I mean, we’re the “feeling” sex, right? We wear our hearts on our sleeves and what you see is what you get, no more. So if we don’t look happy, or friendly, or eager to please, we must be miserable bitches plotting someone’s death or the snatching, seasoning and eating of small children. Ahem.

The real issue though is that, to some assclowns, seeing an unhappy woman or one who isn’t laying herself at their feet in service and devotion is an affront to their sense of power, be it through gender privilege or class privilege or just plain obnoxiousness. We’re people pleasers, remember, or didn’t you get that memo? It’s a generalisation that is centuries old, certainly, one that hasn’t really abated even as we’ve progressed.

The scene in the coffee shop really ticks me off, and not just because it was a grieving woman being admonished for not dancing when someone said dance. In this instance, the customer obviously had ‘service’ and ‘subservience’ confused because her attitude towards the person making her coffee was nothing short of proprietal. With her asinine words, the customer displayed a sense of entitlement to “service with a smile” from the underlings catering to her whims and desires by providing goods and services. She’s one of those people who thinks that if she walks into a restaurant or a clothing store, the assistants and servers should come running, smiles plastered on, when she snaps her fingers, falling over themselves to please her. Her idea of good service is undoubtedly where the ‘servant’ is bending over backward in order to kiss her superior ass more thoroughly and reverently.

As we all know, service industries are often those with the least pay, status and rights. The working poor, part-timers with few rights or benefits and students fill the majority of those roles. This doesn’t include just retail and restaurant work though; even professional female-dominated fields that we might not typically count as services fall under this umbrella. Nursing, teaching, administration/clerical work, care in the community, PR, non-profit…all of these are services and all are full of women. What do they have in common, besides their propensity to be chockablock with the female of the species? They’re all areas in which the people (particularly women) are expected to cater to the customer or patient or boss, with — you guessed it — a smile.

No one wants a nurse who does her job thoroughly but doesn’t smile, do they? We expect her to be more caring, more sympathetic, more willing to deal with the shit (literally). But do we expect the same of a male doctor when he walks into the room? Sometimes we do, but often not. If they are brusque and impersonable we may be disappointed or put off but we aren’t usually angered or shocked by it. We’ve been conditioned to be used to the idea that if men are rude or unapproachable in the professional realm, it’s usually because they are too busy, too important, too cool or merely lacking in “people skills” to have the inclination to perform niceties. If you think about it, the only areas in which we don’t use niceness and customer ass-kissing as a prerequisite for measuring success and customer satisfaction are areas which are historically male-dominated: the upper echelons of business and finance, consultant/specialist medicine, law, science, engineering and professional sports, amongst others. In these areas, we just want someone knowledgable and skiled who can get shit done. We certainly don’t criticise them harshly if they aren’t bubbly and full of smiles. Efficiency, not affability, is the key to their success.

In the meantime, mirthless female baristas get told off for being arrogant, non-flirty and no-nonsense admin assistants don’t get promoted and women who tell strange men to leave them alone get pushed into traffic.

What part of this ridiculous double standard is there to smile about, exactly?

14 Responses to “Service with a smile”

  1. jen says:

    i get that “smile” shit a lot. and for me? it’s the sense of entitlement – that presumption that they have ANY say at all over what happens on my face, or in my thoughts. i can’t keep people from leering, catcalling, thinking lewd thoughts, etc…

    … but i will be DAMNED if i fucking *perform* for a stranger who thinks i should be grateful for his attention.

  2. jen says:

    “if i will perform” that should be…

  3. Nicola says:

    An incredibly thought provoking topic. When I was younger I did always try to have a smile on my face and, if there were times when I didn’t, would respond to all the inane comments, usually from men, with an embarrassed smile, as though somehow I was at fault. And people that I came across that were grumpy and scowled at me would provoke an internal response of ‘what is their problem?!’. And more often than not, ‘what did I do to upset them?’

    That all changed when my first child died. At that point there were days and days when I couldn’t raise a smile for anyone – irrespective of the comments or whether or not I knew I had offended them. It just wasn’t physically possible, I was so wrapped up in my own pain as I tried to go through the motions of a ‘normal’ day. To strangers maybe I appeared incredibly rude and morose. I didn’t care. I was too busy just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

    And it made me much more aware of how I had used people’s reaction to me as a reflection of their thoughts/feelings/impressions of me – I hadn’t given any consideration to what was going on in their life that was impacting their demeanor. Maybe nothing was going on in their life. Maybe they just didn’t feel like smiling. But I learnt that it wasn’t about ME. It is quite liberating to let go of the expectation of a pleasant response and a smile – and still find it hugely gratifying when you do have a shared smile or pleasantry with someone, with no expectation.

    I also remember a story from Seven Habits of Successful People in which Steven Covey relates how he was on a busy subway train, everyone quietly reading papers and ignoring each other. Then a father and 2 young boys get on. The boys run amok. Careen into passengers. Shout. Hit newspapers and generally cause disruption. Steven Covey could feel his, and everyone else’s, irritation increase. Why on earth was the father not doing anything to make the children behave? Eventually one of the passengers tells the man to ‘get his kids in check’ and the man looks up for the first time and says to the carraige in general, ‘I am sorry. We have just come from the hospital. My wife has just died. I just don’t know what to do.’ At which point irritation turns immediately to compassion and the behaviour is totally understandable and accepted.

    Anyway, I can’t believe the guy came back to hit you. That is so frightening. And I absolutely can’t believe you then bopped him on the head with a Pillsbury can – what a brave move (and quite funny to picture, I have to admit).

  4. I am awesome at bad inter-personal skills, I practice.

    Convention is a bitch, and I dislike the other side, the growing forced smile and ‘how are you doing’ attitude particularly in the customer service field.

  5. andrea says:

    Best post you’ve ever done.

  6. Becky says:

    I used to get that ‘smile’ thing too, and it used to make me uncomfortable, embarassed, and finally angry. That’s when I started saying ‘Fuck off’. Which would generate the response ‘Bitch’. Which would generate the response ‘Your point being…?’
    No one tried to push me under a car though, and I entirely applaud you fighting back.

  7. the bad aunt says:

    I agree with alot of what you say.
    Some people (especially men) feel the need to “fix” things, thinking that a mere comment like “Smile, honey, it’ll be alright” will make things better.

    You can look at it from a couple sides:
    At least they noticed and gave a lame attempt to possibly brighten your day, which may (or not) be better than to not notice at all. Sometimes a simple smile or jesture can brighten someone’s day.

    On the other hand, maybe we should all just ignore each other because there are a lot of jerks and weirdos out there and who really gives a crap about the stranger on the street.

    Or next time someone makes a comment-just start pouring your heart out (even if you make up stuff) and see how fast they run.

  8. Krista says:

    I’ve heard this stuff from people for years and years, because I tend to have a serious face unless I’m actually interacting with someone. I don’t think it’s always, or even mostly, an attempt to control or to judge or get us to fit into their pretty little boxes. I think, quite often, it’s simply an attempt to brighten someone’s day. To try to make a bit of contact. And maybe people don’t do it as smoothly as you or I might like, but I still think it’s often well-intentioned.

  9. Iota says:

    Wow, that’s given me a lot to think about.

    I’ve often thought the “it can’t be that bad” comment particularly stupid. Yes, it can. You are a stranger. You don’t know the details of my life. As the barista story shows.

  10. NS says:

    @Jen – Yep, pretty much how I feel about it too.

    @Nicola – Thank you for sharing your perspective on this, I found your comments very interesting. I can imagine how tiresome it must’ve been to feel like you had to brighten your face and mood for the benefit of others, when you were going through so much turmoil inside.

    @SingleParentDad – I can’t stand the forced niceness either. If someone wants to smile at me, great. If not, I’ll settle for polite and efficient. I hate that cheery cheery crap that some servers adopt. It’s so obvious when it’s being done as a ‘show.’

    @andrea – Wow, thanks!

    @Becky – Glad I’m not the only one dropping the F-bomb on people who do this. ;)

    @the bad aunt – I wouldn’t mind if someone was genuinely concerned about me and wanted to help, or just smiled at me to try to lift my mood, but just telling me to smile as they walk by doesn’t seem to be a real attempt to connect or make me feel better. It feels like an attempt to control my mood or emotions or to intimidate me into smiling, thereby giving them a reason to come talk to me or hit on me, or just to make *themselves* feel good.

    @Krista – I think it’s certainly possible that some people use comments like these to try to connect to another person and in some instances (with the right situation and in the right tone) it can be done tactfully and with genuine concern, but the majority of the ‘Smile!’ comments I got were from strange men who were either intimidating in their approach and stance as they said it, clearly enjoying making me uncomfortable or angry, or they seemed to say it very sexually, looking for an ‘invitation’ to come talk to me. It rarely felt like an honest attempt at conversation. If someone wanted to do that they would do better to stop and say “Hey, I noticed you look upset. Is there anything I can do to help?” not just command me to smile, as if that will make everything better.

    @Iota – I know, isn’t it stupid? As if the only reasons people ever look upset or angry or worried are superficial ones that will melt away with one smile. *rolls eyes*

  11. andrea says:

    i don’t think i have anything to add that hasn’t already been covered. i, too, get comments from the random smile police – always men and always irritating. yes, it’s nice to see someone walk down the street in a genuinely good mood, but no one should be forced to plaster on a fake smile just because we’re women and we’re “supposed” to be cheery and happy. great post.

  12. Strawberry says:

    I don’t often get it because I don’t usually have one of those serious faces. I did get it though as I was walking through town a few days after I found out the baby I was carrying inside me was dead. The admonishment was, “Cheer up, love! It can’t be that bad!” I hadn’t reached my threshold, so I just said, “Yes, it is” and walked on.

    I can understand that people want to do something to brighten the day of someone who looks like they could with a bit of brightness, but I actually don’t know how it can be done without causing offense.

  13. A Free Man says:

    This is a great post, NS. Especially this: “the customer obviously had ’service’ and ’subservience’ confused”. That brought the depression of my customer serviced days flying right back. God, I hated that work. But without a degree it was all I was qualified to do. And that’s why I want to take a slight issue with your thesis – it isn’t just women who have to take this kind of shit.

  14. NS says:

    @andrea – “the smile police”, I like that!

    @Strawberry – How awful, I’m sorry someone was so insensitive to you at such a sensitive time.

    @A Free Man – It brings back my customer service days too. Usually in a cold sweat! Some people are absolutely horrible to those in the service industry. I didn’t mean to say that only women experience this attitude, I include men in the service industries in this attitude too. I saw my male coworkers get just as many superior, pompous asses on a power trip as the females did. However, I still maintain that there is more of an expectation of women to present a bubbly and smiley (and, oftentimes, flirty) demeanour when performing that service. Men and women alike are treated like dirt by these power-tripping individuals but I’ve seen my male counterparts get great tips without ever cracking a smile. So long as they were providing fast, polite service it seemed they were usually okay, whereas us gals seemed to be expected to be more outwardly bubbly and were often specifically told to ‘smile’ if we wanted a tip. I could usually tell what type of person (usually a man or group of men) would tip better if they got the whole “performance” out of me, which including beaming smiles, giggles, eye contact, etc.. I once had a group of firefighters tell me specifically that they would tip me very well if I kept up the drinks and the flirting all night. I did it because I needed the money but it felt very…icky.