Mar 10, 2014, 07:05AM

Don't Tell Me to Smile

I let my cheery bravado relax for just a moment.

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One night in Edinburgh I met a German man with blond eyelashes who told me to smile; he was a friend of a friend and we often ran into each other. Every time he saw me he’d lean in, trace his two pale index fingers across his lips and up onto his cheeks and say, “Smile. Smile, Rebecca.” Due to his tendency to punch people in pubs or his unnerving icy eyes, I never wanted to smile around anyone less. The best he ever got out of me was an uncomfortable grimace.

I now sit behind a desk from 8:30 to 5:00. I answer the phone with a happy inflection in my voice and greet people with a smile. When the man from Crystal Springs comes in with water jugs I ask how his day is going. I crumple my face in interested and patient concern when a stranger walks in with a problem. I’m a sounding board for people to talk to about the weather and time. “Is it wet enough out there for you?” “Could it get any colder?” “I can’t believe it’s March already! It absolutely can’t be March. Where has the time gone?” (I can believe it’s March because I stare at a calendar every day.)

I listen, smile, and engage—mostly because it’s my job as a receptionist, but also because I’m a human with a mostly decent heart. At times when I need a break from the constant grinning and stimulating weather banter, I’ll walk to the copier (which blessedly faces a wall) and copy senseless documents so I can let my face relax and my brain wander to places more captivating than this one.

On Christmas Eve I spent the day at work humming along to “Jingle Bells” and thinking about the ham with curried fruit I was going to eat later. As residents and family members filed in and out of the building I smiled and said, “Merry Christmas!” I was giddy and drunk off of all the poinsettias and glittering Santa decorations. I swore I could smell a rich fir tree scent coming off the fake tree in the corner. I felt like a young Kris Kringle. And then 3:45 hit. I was anxious to get out and see my family. Reaching for my water bottle I let my cheery bravado relax for just a moment. “Smile, honey,” said a man leaning onto my desk. “C’mon, smile, it can’t be that bad.” I swallowed the water in my mouth and gave him a tiny and irritated close-lipped smile. I wanted him off my desk. He was leeching out all of my holiday euphoria. “Ready?” his wife said appearing at his side. They left and I answered the ringing phone.

A smile given freely is a simple thing. Smiles on babies, the elderly, a dog when you scratch its tummy in just the right spot, a serious person who gets an unexpected crack in their composure, a sister crossing her knees and trying not to pee her pants as her grinning face tips up to the ceiling in silent, shaking laughter. It’s all beautiful.

So maybe it’s the fact that that it’s always a man who pleads for a smile (on the street, at a bar, or at work) or that I’m just stubborn and the moment you tell me to do something is when I become defiant—but there’s nothing in the world that is less likely to produce a genuine, caring, happy, satisfied smile than a command for it. So, stop it.


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