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.    Continue reading