Why Men Tell Women to Smile
James A. Lindsay, @goddoesnt
Because we've grown utterly incapable of ignoring any potential outrage, we have enjoyed a week of a special vintage of the stuff as a result of the fact that Reince Priebus commented that Hillary Clinton should have smiled more during the National Security Forum. Outrage of this kind, of course, fuels the very fire it hopes to eliminate, but that's a digression from something identity politics-ish buried within the turmoil -- some men seem to tell women to smile, a lot, and women do not like it.
Some of the time, we see this behavior (or hear it being complained about) in the context of a strange man being creepy or domineering as he tells a woman he doesn't know to don a more cheerful disposition. This isn't the case with Priebus's tweet about Hillary Clinton, who represents something of a special case. Overbearing directives to tell our most probable future Commander in Chief to smile are one thing, and we'll come to that, but it's shockingly commonplace for some men to tell women to smile far more generally. How commonplace? Try Googling it. I'll wait.
Yeah. That commonplace. If you have the chance, guys who might be reading this (women already know), ask a few women in your life if they've experienced it, and see what they say. Be warned: you should probably prepare for some pretty intense reactions. (Because it's bullshit that they have to endure it.)
Back to your Google query! What you probably found is a search return completely filled with essays, blogs, forums, comment threads, and videos written by and on behalf of frustrated women who have been told by some random man to smile at least one (or about a thousand, more truthfully) too many times. Every one of those pieces asks "men"* to stop this annoying behavior. All of them.
*The problem isn't "men," it's some men, and the distinction matters. We'll identify which men before we're done here.
Spend some time glancing through the list you conjured. The diversity in who is sharing this message is fairly surprising. It isn't just Huffington Post, Jezebel, the salon-that-shall-not-be-named, and all the usual suspects on the far left. It's pretty much everyone. (Even some pick-up artist and very bro-styled sites are spreading this message!) No one likes being told to smile by a stranger, and everyone except the people doing it and the callously oblivious is completely unimpressed with the behavior.
That said, the message is pretty clear: the men who are demanding women to smile all the time should stop.
Even if the issue were settled by posting yet another essay on the Internet declaring it so (a surprisingly common Internet delusion), such a resolution doesn't answer the fundamental question at hand. Why does it happen? Why do some men rudely tell women, who they don't know and who don't want to hear it, that they should smile?
Sexism is a facile answer, and if you go back to your search results for an hour or so, you'll find a hundred arguments jumping to that conclusion. Facile answers are sometimes right, but they're usually not. Also, sexism is a brutal term that should be reserved for far more powerful circumstances than all of those to which it finds itself grotesquely and lazily applied. Still, facile doesn't make wrong, but the devil is often in the details.
So, is it sexism?
Maybe. Or, rather, kind of, probably, sometimes. It depends on what we mean by sexism, by the intentions of the individuals making the demand, and a number of other factors that are, under the brutish and presently unhelpful label of "sexism," all fairly boring. What's interesting is why any men might be moved to tell a female stranger to smile in the first place.
The psychology of why some men tell women they do not know to smile is a topic that, for all the trouble it causes, hasn't inspired enough curiosity to stimulate the pointed research it needs. This problem, of course -- believing we have the answer because we possess a facile one -- is why it's worth pointing out that laying the blame on sexism isn't worth the server space it requires to store another bad essay on the topic.
I'll leave the research to psychologists, as I'm only qualified to speculate here. Why we smile and why we respond to smiles in the first place will be the launching-off point for my speculations on why men might tell women to smile.
We need to know a few things about smiles.
The first thing we need to know about smiles is that there are a lot of ways to smile, or to fake a smile. Some researchers have identified at least eighteen different types of smile, and each conveys a different set of emotions, true or false. All of the quotations provided come from an essay by Eric Jaffe in the Observer for the Association for Psychological Science, titled "The Psychological Study of Smiling."
Landis was correct about smiles in one regard: not all of them are genuine expressions of happiness. In addition to the Duchenne smile, Ekman described seventeen other types of smiles in his 1985 book, Telling Lies. Herman Melville understood this, once calling a smile "the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities." People smile when they're frightened, are flirting, horrified, or mortified. An embarrassed smile reveals itself through an averted gaze, a facial touch, and a tilt of the head down and to the left. (bold added)
The second thing we need to know about smiles (and fake ones) is that we are very sensitive to them and their differences, able to detect and implement the differences between legitimate smiles (called Duchenne smiles) and other types by the time we're ten months old. If we're that sensitive to the different types of smiles out there, they probably convey a lot of information.
No surprise, then, that newborns can dispense and interpret facial expressions with great precision. At just 10 months, for instance, an infant will offer a false smile to an approaching stranger while reserving a genuine, Duchenne smile for its mother. Decades ago, Cohn observed how 3-month-olds reacted to changes in their mother's expression. When mothers feigned depression, infants threw up their tiny fists in distress, and after just 3 minutes of smile-free interaction they became withdrawn. (bold added)
The third thing we need to know about smiles is that smiling isn't only contingent upon emotions but also upon social context.
The presence of those around us can influence our smiles as well. An experiment led by Robert Kraut, published in a 1979 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reported that bowlers smiled more often when facing their friends in the pit than when facing the pins on the lane. Of course people do smile to themselves, but many believe that social context pulls more strongly at our lips than pure, isolated emotion. Alan Fridlund of University of California, Santa Barbara, has found that people smile more when they imagine others around them than when they're alone -- even when their overall levels of happiness remain the same. (bold added)
Women also smile more than men, and this behavioral difference between the sexes appears pretty early on, but other than by incident, I'm not sure if this fact is relevant to the hypothesis I'll suggest for why some men feel inclined to intrude upon an unknown woman's mental privacy to ask her to smile. That women smile more than men, together with the greater social acceptability of women smiling than men and greater attractiveness of women smiling (whereas the reverse is true for smiling men), may bear upon some aspects of why some men will be obnoxious enough to ask an unknown woman to smile, but there are more interesting facts to know about smiling that may run deeper.
For instance, another thing worth knowing about smiling is that it can predict our future, weakly.
Some researchers now believe that genuine smiles are not transient sparks of emotion but rather clear windows into a person's core disposition. University of California at Berkeley psychological scientists LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner used FACS to analyze the college yearbook photos of women, then matched up the smile ratings with personality data collected during a 30-year longitudinal study. Women who displayed true, Duchenne-worthy expressions of positive emotion in their 21-year-old photo had greater levels of general well-being and marital satisfaction at age 52. "People photograph each other with casual ease and remarkable frequency, usually unaware that each snapshot may capture as much about the future as it does the passing emotions of the moment," Harker and Keltner wrote in a 2001 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A related study, published in a 2009 issue of Motivation and Emotion, confirmed a correlation between low-intensity smiles in youth and divorce later in life.
In a more recent study, published this year in Psychological Science, Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger of Wayne State University extended this line of research from emotional outcomes to a biological one: longevity. Abel and Kruger rated the smiles of professional baseball players captured in a 1952 yearbook, then determined each player's age at death (46 players were still alive at the time of the study). The researchers found that smile intensity could explain 35 percent of the variability in survival; in fact, in any given year, players with Duchenne smiles in their yearbook photo were only half as likely to die as those who had not. (bold added)
But there's more. Smiling can tell us even more about who we are and who we are likely to be.
It stands to reason that if social settings influence our smiles, then smiles probably serve a social purpose. One such function, recent evidence suggests, may be to indicate altruism. To test this notion, a team of researchers led by British behavioral scientist Marc Mehu observed the smiles of test participants told to share some of the fee they received from the study with a friend. When people were engaged in this sharing activity they exhibited more Duchenne smiles than during a neutral scenario. Perhaps people issue genuine grins as a way to "reliably advertise altruistic intentions," Mehu and his collaborators concluded in a 2007 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior. (bold added)
These facts all combine to paint a pretty interesting picture, one that lets us make a guess about why some obstreperous men feel the need to tell women they don't know to smile for them. There's one more piece of information that really seals the argument compelling the hypothesis I want to float, though.
That Duchenne smiles would announce a cooperative nature makes sense. After all, one's level of commitment has obvious social value, and genuine smiles are difficult to feign. The ability to identify a truly group-minded person would be particularly useful to those prone to social exclusion. With this in mind, a group of researchers from Miami University of Ohio recently asked test participants to rate various smiles as genuine or fake. Before the task, some were primed for exclusion through an essay task that required them to write about a time they were rejected. Compared with a control group and others primed for inclusion, the excluded participants showed an enhanced ability to distinguish Duchenne smiles from false ones, the authors reported in Psychological Science in 2008.
Not only do people deduce useful information from smiles, they also use this knowledge to direct their own behavior. In a follow-up experiment, published in 2010 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the same researchers found that people primed for exclusion showed a greater preference to work with individuals displaying genuine Duchenne smiles than those bearing cheap grins. "Duchenne smiles are a signal of cooperation, altruisim," says Michael Bernstein, now at Penn State Abington, lead author of both papers. "Non-Duchenne smiling isn't necessarily bad - it doesn't mean you're nefarious -- but it's not a great signal. [Socially rejected people] should be looking for the best signal, and Duchenne smiles offer a better one." (bold added)
Time to summarize the facts into a hypothesis. First, the hypothesis:
One reason that some obnoxious men (specifically: low-fitness males) feel compelled to tell women whom they do not know to smile as a test of potential mating fitness. Not only that, if this test has high sensitivity, the urge to do so may run quite deeply in the psychology of males in whom this behavior has not been socialized out of.
What's the case for this claim, which I think partially accounts for the impulse? Well, humans derive a great deal of information from different types of smiles, true (Duchenne) smiles can tell us a great deal about the fitness of the person giving them and are hard to fake, and people who are sensitive to socially rejected people -- this being low-fitness males essentially by definition -- are extra sensitive to detecting and preferring them. Asking for a quick smile from a stranger, then, might convey a great deal of that information at a very low cost to the man making the request, which is therefore something you can bet he'd have interest in doing unless the apparent cost of doing so was somehow socially magnified for him. As we have good reasons to believe that the test possesses some degree of sensitivity (in that we are adept at detecting false smiles), this urge might have at least some explanation behind it that goes beyond the oversimplified and accusatory.
So... it is sexism! Or... maybe? Or, rather, kind of, probably, sometimes. Tests of mating fitness aren't exclusively to be categorized in the department of sexism, even if they are inherently gendered and related to the desire to engage in sex. A behavior can be gendered and annoying or even egregious and not really be sexist. (In fact, since males presenting with low mating fitness are the ones most likely to tell random women to smile, women can and do use hearing the directive as a gendered test of mating fitness without being sexist -- at least until they generalize the problem to all men.) The behavior at hand is certainly obnoxious and gendered, and it is probably sometimes overtly sexist, but sometimes it's likely just to be crude -- but that's the very kind of thing that's hardest to eradicate from the world by means of an impassioned blog post.
In this case, it's also worth remembering, assessing mating fitness isn't the stuff of feminist nightmares. People, like all beasts, assess mating fitness for a variety of reasons, and in many cases in humans those reasons aren't to establish the grounds for a quick fling. We have evolved to recognize that in many cases, choosing a mate involves making a bid for a long-term relationship that involves devoting a great deal of resources, time, and effort, not least to raising a child together, a burden on both sexes. Certainly, the social environment has changed considerably, and many creepy guys are just hoping for a quick fling, but evolution has shaped us over millennia, not decades.
A man is a lot less blameworthy for engaging in a simple test for a "true" woman with high levels of altruism, cooperativeness, longevity, and even attractiveness (which increases the willingness of others to help support her, plus indicates genetic fitness), if his goal is to determine whether she would be a good long-term mate and mother to his progeny. That kind of behavior, in fact, isn't exactly the kind we'd want to bury under accusations of sexism.
What differentiates the specific behavior at hand is its crudeness and unwelcome nature, given the realities of modern life. If we evolved to see mating fitness in quickly flashed smiles, we also evolved to see it in smiles of people not too distantly removed from ourselves because we evolved in small tribes, not large, anonymous cities with expectations of privacy, courtesy, and communal decency. (In tribes, incidentally, that would have punished us in most cases quite severely for going deadbeat on a mother of one of our children.) That makes ordering random women to smile in the present environment, even when it isn't sexist, pretty uncontroversially deplorable, ranking right up there with a great many tactless reminders that we're only a tiny bit genetically removed from chimpanzees.
Not all of our impulses should be indulged, and a good many are better socialized out of us (like our impulses to violence and many expressions of jealousy, for easy examples). Even in those cases, though, it ought to be worth our time to try to understand them, especially when they drive something like half the population absolutely crazy and seem surprisingly difficult to eradicate.
As for Hillary Clinton, the issue at hand is both different and a little more complicated because the circumstances themselves are completely different. As video did kill the radio star in our media age, our major political figures are public faces, and properly timed "winning smiles" are winning on them. She isn't a random woman on the street, and Reince Priebus isn't some goony catcaller down the block or overbearing paternalistic jerk butting into something that isn't his business. In fact, Clinton is a serious politician and statesperson, and Priebus is a savvy politician in his own right, well aware of how to play the dirtiest game in town extra dirty.
Where she was also matters. Clinton was being judged for failing to smile enough (this time) at a serious forum on National Security in which she was the only serious person on the stage. If you're keeping score with the painfully obvious, with double-word-score for things Priebus definitely knows, you'll want to notice that experts suggest that too much smiling shows, wait for it, bad leadership.
In the balance, Priebus's comment is hard to see for anything but being another disgusting and unnecessary power-play in a dirty game we're all tired of seeing played. It's yet another bullshit distraction from a bullshit bottom-dragging political strategy that enjoys far too much media vogue (and, frankly, probably always has).
Indeed, I'd agree that Priebus was more than likely doing little more than blowing a pathetic conservative dog-whistle to tar Clinton as the "wrong kind of woman." This worthless and ultimately sexist message, of course, would resonate with many voters who support Trump (a widely disproportionate number of whom, it is fair to assume, constitute the legitimately sexist bloc of the American electorate we'd all be better off without). Priebus, I think it's fair to say, wasn't trying to assess Clinton's mating fitness or to get any of his candidate's rabid base to do so either, but he was almost beyond question attempting to tap into the feature of the smile game by which uncultured men might try to brand a woman, whether to like her more or less.
This kind of politicking game is as predictable as it is debasing -- and whether Priebus himself is a sexist or not, he knows both his audience and how to play this game well. Abusing its power by means of playing it to a base with a strong sexist bent, it sticks Clinton in a bad spot for a stupid reason. Either she plays along and looks foolish (and weak, or too agreeable, or whatever else), or she doesn't and looks cold (or robotic, or mean, or calculating, or bitchy, or whatever else), and if she calls the game for what it is, she's "playing the woman card." Brutish politics is, well, brutish, but as Clinton noted: she's battling against an electorate, half of whom are accurately described as a "basket of deplorables." Priebus, then, may not be a goony catcaller down on the block, but he didn't show himself much better by telling his goony base that Clinton should have smiled.