The Obligation to Smile

I just taught a class on cat-calling in my ethics course, focused in part on this famous viral video on the subject just below. A number of issues came up about cat-calling as such, but for reasons that are obvious to anyone who’s seen the video, a secondary issue came up as well: whether anyone ever has an obligation to smile.

I had always assumed that the answer had to be “no”: you have no free-standing obligation to smile, and certainly no obligation to smile on command. Properly conceived, smiling is the epitome of a spontaneous expression of one’s inner states: you smile when you’re genuinely in a good mood. To fake a smile is to wreck it: you fake a smile when you want other people to think (or even pretend to think) that you’re in a smiley mood when you aren’t. But there’s no good reason to do that, and lots of good reasons to avoid it. Fake smiling distorts your relationship with others, and distorts your relationship with your own inner states. It demands that you literally present a face to the world that in some sense isn’t yours, then do your best to believe that it is.   

Even apart from commands of the sort that appear in the video, there are contexts in which convention “demands” that we smile: customer service, job interviews, picture-taking. But I think the supposed obligation to smile is excessive, even in these contexts: customer service reps and job candidates need to be pleasant, but they need not smile, and a stance of pleasant neutrality seems good enough for any picture where a smile doesn’t spontaneously emerge. So even in these contexts, I’ve always thought it wrong (in fact, very wrong) to demand that anyone smile on command. In general, I’d have said: smile if you want to, when appropriate; but if you don’t want to smile, you have no obligation to fake a smile you don’t feel like having, and you can permissibly resist anyone’s demand that you do so.

I was somewhat stopped short today by a student who insisted that we have an obligation to reciprocate the smiling of others, or at least to make an effort to reciprocate the pleasantries of others in a way that is tantamount to smiling at them, or at least maintaining an outward demeanor of pleasant neutrality that approximates a smile. As it happens, this student works in the functional equivalent of a customer service job: she’s a “greeter” for the university, i.e., a student employed to greet visitors (often prospective students and their parents) to the university. So she was obliged by her job to smile at people, and was annoyed at the “resting bitch face” response she got from so many of the people she smiled at. As she told it (and I have no reason to disbelieve her), she would smile at them and try her best to be pleasant; they would return her smiles and pleasantness with dead expressions that, if verbalized, would have amounted to the suggestion that she go fuck herself. I’ve seen that happen, encountered it myself, know how it feels, and know what she means. It seems unfair.

It’s not that I hadn’t thought of this general type of example before, but hadn’t encountered it in quite this fashion. In other words, I’d  wondered about the obligation to smile at people who smile at you, full stop and out of the blue, but not whether you have an obligation to smile at someone who’s been ordered to smile at you. That said, the specificity of the example induced me to re-think the whole category, so that I’m now inclined to think differently than I did about both cases (that is, the obligation to reciprocate a smile in cases where the smile-initiator has a prior order to smile, and where she doesn’t).

My initial response was to think that the disjunctive nature of the obligation doesn’t really amount to an obligation to smile. It involves

an obligation to (a) reciprocate the smiling of others, (b) or to make an effort to reciprocate the pleasantries of others in a way that is tantamount to smiling at them, or (c) at to maintain an outward demeanor of pleasant neutrality that approximates a smile.

I think someone could legitimately say that (b) and (c) involve an obligation half-related to smiling, but not quite an obligation to smile. As for (b), “reciprocating the pleasantries of others” neither is nor requires smiling. And as for (c), “maintaining an outward demeanor of pleasant neutrality” neither is nor requires smiling, nor really “approximates” smiling in any literal sense. (A skeptic might go on to say that there’s no such thing as an “approximate smile”–an interesting and debatable issue of its own.)

I suppose I agree with that, but interpret (b) and (c) as part of a long-term strategy of “character-change” to induce smiling in the relevant contexts. In other words, (a), (b), and (c) involve a lexical ordering: ideally, you perform (a); if you can’t, you perform (b); if you can’t, you perform (c). But (b) and (c) aim, teleologically, at the agent’s realizing the ideal implicit in (a): you enact (b) or (c) with a view to becoming the sort of person who spontaneously enacts (a).

Bracketing the illegitimacy of the demand that someone smile, I suppose that a case could be made that if X smiles at you, and the smile is basically appropriate, you have an obligation either to smile back, or to reciprocate the pleasantry in a way that approximates a smile (where you do the latter so as eventually to become the kind of person who smiles, tout court). But in a case where the person has been ordered to smile, ceteris paribus, your obligation to reciprocate is heightened: if they’ve been ordered to smile, and do smile, and there is no way to escape the artificiality of the whole situation, then you too should try to smile. (Of course, a better way of dealing with things might be to deconstruct the whole situation and put it on a less artificial footing. But that isn’t always feasible or possible.)

I don’t think one can get out of this by saying that smiles can’t be forced. I think it’s obvious that moral and emotional costs aside, smiles can be forced, and one can in any case gradually make oneself the kind of person who smiles on occasions of this kind.

Granted, the reciprocal obligation to smile is highly contextual and highly defeasible. It probably doesn’t come up all that often (or so I’d like to think), and it has to be distinguished from contexts that resemble it without exemplifying it. You don’t have an obligation to smile at the person who’s been ordered to smile but is cheating or bullshitting you or wasting your time (e.g., in commercial contexts), or to the prison guard who wants to make your time in jail or under interrogation seem like an instance of customer service when it obviously isn’t. And so on; I’m sure there are many other contexts in which false demands to smile are made, and in which they might be made by exploiting a norm of reciprocity, but without specifying them all, I’ll just say I mean to exclude “all of those.” God knows that the positive psychologists have manufactured enough of those contexts, and I regard that as no smiling matter.

I’m making a more modest claim. All I mean to say is that there are contexts such that, if someone smiles at you, and their smiling is appropriate, you should either try to smile, or try to do something that, iterated over time, induces you to smile in the relevant situations. How exactly to specify the relevant context is a tough matter, and might even make a nice paper. Some day. But not right now: I have to teach critical thinking in an hour, and that’s wiped the smile right off my face.

Otherwise, though, it seems to me that this young lady has the right response to the person who demands a smile of her (at 0:30):

Like so many things in life, smiles have to be earned.

2 thoughts on “The Obligation to Smile

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

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