A few thoughts on forced cheer

“You really ought to smile,” he said. “A pretty girl like you would look so much prettier with a smile on!”

I responded with an icy stare.

You see, this is the nature of service. People in public service are expected to present rictus smiles at all times, or face demeaning and humiliating experiences like the one above, where one adult tells another adult how to behave, with a healthy dose of patriarchy thrown in. Customer service tips almost always include something along the lines of “smile smile smile!”

I was reading an interesting article in the Chronicle this morning about the “culture of cheer” which pervades the United States. The United States wasn’t always filled with glowing smiles and chipper salespeople, you know. There was a time back in the day when we had dour Puritan countenances, just like those frosty and unfriendly Europeans do today. (For further tutelage in the “European look,” I suggest a visit to Paris, as I have actually found Europeans to be more genuinely kind and loving than most Americans–they just don’t necessarily smile while being that way.)

I thought the article raised a few good points. Why should we be happy all the time? Even service people? Forced cheer is a great way to push emotions out of the way and ignore large issues in your life. As Vicki Haddock points out, a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude is hardly productive for an active, thoughtful life. No wonder some nations view Americans as developmentally backwards–we’re all grinning while our administration pisses the world away. Sometimes life just sucks, and you shouldn’t be pasting a smile to your face in order to please cultural norms.

I was thinking about the nature of smiling and food service last night at dinner. Our server, who also happens to be a friend of mine, is not having a great time in life right now. He’s got a lot on his plate and not all of it is good. Understandably, he doesn’t really feel up to smiling right now. But he still delivered impeccable service, he accommodated special requests at our table, checked to see how we were doing, and generally made our evening pleasurable. Even though some of us were a bit into their cups, and having a great time in the process. Yet he also did it without smiling. This is not to say that he was frowning, although I know in the United States if you aren’t smiling, you must be frowning. He had a pleasant demeanor, but accomplished it without forcing his lips up over his teeth in a facial expression which most animals view as threatening. And, in an odd way, I almost liked him more without the smile. Much like me, he’s not someone who smiles naturally. He was graceful and unobtrusive, and cared for us very well.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect service people to magically smile all the time. Certainly, there’s no reason to be surly with customers because you’ve had a bad day (or bad customers). But there’s no reason to throw a pall of cheer over an establishment. Let your service people be serious and attentive to your customers. Let the rare smile that might shimmer through be genuine, and pure–anyone who’s been in service can tell the difference between a fake smile and a real one. Why should airline staff need to smile all the time, even when they’ve been on their feet all day, dealing with the stress of flying just as you, the customer, do? Why should medical receptionists grin every time they see you?

I don’t smile readily, especially when I am forcing it, because I have a damaged nerve that drags the side of my mouth down. If I’m relaxed (and getting frequent massage), and truly happy, I smile. But when I try to create that “wow, serving you is so much fun!” look, I often end up with a strange twisted facial expression which is not very pleasant to look at. Especially when someone is calling me a “pretty girl,” I really struggle with looking pleasant. And why should I modify my facial expression to reflect a false mood? Some just said something pretty, so to speak, offensive to me. I see no reason to reward negative behaviour. I don’t need to frown in response, or launch into a feminist rant, but I can choose to respond with coolness. One can deliver cool, yet effective, service and still satisfy a customer. I know this concept is alien to the American mind. But I almost prefer being waited on or assisted by people who are being serious and attentive. I view grinning service staff with suspicion, because I know well the bitterness and inner misery behind those big fake Miss America smiles. Some of the best service I’ve ever had has been from focused staff, who are too busy working with me to fake a smile.

I just finished watching Gosford Park, one of my favourite movies, for the umpteenth time. I noticed that all the service staff in the film took pride in their work. Some of them were career maids and butlers and house servants. But they didn’t smile. They had neutral and patient expressions. Why? Because they were focused on their work, and they loved their work, and they didn’t need to fake it. Of course, the era in which the film is set was not a big one for smiles. But still. Were I in a position to have household staff, I would be outright creeped if they were grinning all the time. Wouldn’t you?

Sometimes, looking at the plastered grins of service people, I think of Little Black Sambo. When someone is waiting on you, there is an inherent power dynamic going on. Why should the servant smile for the master?