The Tyranny of the Smile

Why does everyone expect women to smile all the time?

Women smiling.
Women smiling

Photos courtesy of Thinkstock

Back in April, Slate V contributor Taylor Orci created a PSA video about a dire condition afflicting a subset of women: Bitchy Resting Face.* “That’s just my face” is the cri de coeur of the BRF sufferer, who looks pissed even when she’s not judging your outfit or dreaming up schemes against unsuspecting colleagues. “We’ll face it together,” the commercial promises BRFers worldwide. Scan the actors’ visages and that invitation seems less than reassuring.

The video, of course, is a joke. And it is evenhanded enough to describe an equivalent male syndrome, Asshole Resting Face, occurring in certain well-intentioned men. Still, the gag recalls the commotion over a Publishers Weekly story in which an interviewer asked author Claire Messud whether she’d want to befriend her female antihero. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that,” Messud shot back. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus?” Messud was scorchingly indignant, and many felt she overreacted. But could she have been right to intuit something insidious in the question? We do inspect every last outward manifestation of a woman’s inner life—the characters she pens, the facial expressions she makes—for evidence of “niceness.”

Women have to be nice. “Show me a smile” is a staple of street harassment (the ur-creep of the genre being Heath Ledger’s Joker, a lank-haired greaseball leering, “Why so serious?”) And when they are not, when they are merely impassive or thoughtful, they can be held up for mockery and branded as rude.

To ask why is to step into the laser grid of unspoken rules governing the arrangement of male and female faces—the gendered ways we police social performance. (If you’re a woman who thinks this sort of policing doesn’t happen in real life, consider whether a friend has ever yanked you from an introspective haze by asking “Are you mad at me?” She probably meant: Why aren’t you smiling?) We’ve tangled up so many notions of gender in our smiles that the presence or absence of a grin has come to imply a distinction between male and female. In one study, babies dressed in green and yellow were paraded before a group of onlookers. When the infants cooed, gurgled and smiled, the observers tagged them as girls; fretters and criers were assumed to be boys. The effect persisted when a different group of participants was presented with images of cheerful or angry adult faces. People readily identified smiling women as female and wrathful men as male, but they took longer and stumbled more often when confronted with furious female countenances or beaming male ones.

In a raft of studies, women report smiling more than men (and men report smiling less than women). They speak of grinning on the job, with strangers, with relatives, in a dazzlingly diverse array of situations. An unscientific scan of high school yearbook photos, newspaper clippings, Facebook pics, and advertisements backs up those studies: Women flash their pearly whites far more frequently than men, at least when someone is taking their picture. And in simulated job interviews, female participants salt their speech with smiles, while male test subjects are more likely to adopt neutral (read: alluringly strong and stoic) expressions.

Here’s the thing, though: All this feminine smiling does not mean that women are happier. Back in the 19th century, the French physiologist G.B.A. Duchenne distinguished the spontaneous facial sunrise now known as the Duchenne smile (the “true” smile) from the imposters. While a performed or deliberate smile requires just the zygomaticus major, the muscle around the mouth, “real” smiles involve both the lips and the muscles ringing the eyes, the orbicularis oculi. Or as Duchenne put it, one type of grin “obeys the will, but the second is only put into play by the sweet emotions of the soul.” (Or as Tyra put it, “smile with your eyes.”)

Marianne LaFrance, a Yale psychology professor and today’s pre-eminent librarian of smiles, collects and studies them all. (Her wonderful new book, Why Smile? The Science Behind Facial Expressions, pointed me toward a lot of the studies mentioned here). In a phone interview, LaFrance explained that only about 20 percent of smiles are authentic Duchennes. Men and women unfurl these expressions with equal frequency. It’s in measuring the other type(s) of smile that researchers begin to see a difference between the sexes. Why?

One hypothesis, the warmth-affiliation account, says it’s because women are naturally more emotional, expressive, and empathetic. Autopsies, for instance, show that women tend to have larger zygomaticus majors. Less clear is whether women are born with superior smile equipment or whether they develop those muscles over a lifetime of practice.

Another explanation for the sex difference in smiling, the dominance-status hypothesis, hinges on power dynamics. It proposes that women are the sunnier sex because they are socially weaker—they must wear their compliance on their faces, telegraphing to any and all that they have no interest in upsetting the status quo. Support for this argument comes from the primate kingdom, in which silent bared teeth displays (SBT) communicate affable submission. Humans aren’t apes, and too much cross-species extrapolation can be reductive. Still, research suggests that people appear less powerful when they grin, and that a scarcity of smiles is associated with aggression. In one study, men whose saliva samples contained higher levels of testosterone proved more reluctant to flash their teeth on command.

Women are also more likely to work in the service sector, where effusive warmth is a professional requirement. As nurses, flight attendants, and primary school teachers, they broadcast their helpfulness with unquenchable smiles. A glowing grin may be feminine, but it’s not necessarily female: Stay-at-home dads beam just as brightly as stay-at-home moms, LaFrance and her colleague Elizabeth Paluck explain in a 2003 paper, and male receptionists radiate the same cheer as their female counterparts. Conversely, drop a woman into a high-power position and she will adopt the surly mannerisms of an alpha male (and get judged for it every step of the way.) 

“Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself,” sang James Taylor in 1977. Grins are contagious, leaping from mouth to mouth, tightening the weave of the social fabric. Social scientist Arlie Hochschild created a name for the annealing work they do: emotion labor. Elsewhere defined as the effort “to create and maintain positive feelings and alleviate and rectify negative ones in self or in others,” emotion labor involves managing your feelings to transmit a certain impression. Mostly it is done by women, whether they are following an explicit occupational script or something subtler. Starting from early childhood, girls learn to disguise unhappiness, defuse anger, and alleviate pain. By age 5, they are likelier than boys to smile when they receive a disappointing gift.  In other studies, as researchers ratcheted up artificial tension, women (but not men) turned up what LaFrance calls their “expressive wattage.” Out came the grins until the threat of conflict abated.

The association between smiling and keeping the peace is so sturdy that women often believe their failure to smile under certain circumstances will lead to social strain. LaFrance told me about a study at Yale where psychology students were asked to imagine a conversation in which a friend revealed good news—a promotion or an engagement. They were told to picture themselves keeping a straight face as they gushed verbally over the event. Female participants felt discomfited: They expected to cause hurt or anger. Male students assumed no one would notice their facial expressions.

Lucky them. True, women would not smile so often if they weren’t benefiting from it somehow, but on the other hand a simple curve of the lips would be less potent if we didn’t live under the tyranny of nice. Projecting a cheerfulness you don’t feel saps energy and effort. It is draining to constantly arrange your features like a bouquet for the male gaze. In Why Smile?, LaFrance discusses the psychological dissonance female flight attendants experience after hours of forced gaiety. They report feeling estranged from their emotions (the industry parlance for this state of numbness is “going robot”), falling into depression, losing sight of their true selves. And even if a smiler succeeds in dodging such traumas, she still has to contend with the judgments her expression invites, which are not always positive. A smile emanates charisma, sweetness, and generosity—unselfish people exhibit more Duchennes, and who doesn’t want to look unselfish?—but, as we’ve seen, it can also imply weakness. In the workplace, women who smile too little are shunned as bitchy, but women who overplay their kindness appear incompetent.

“The babe not long accustomed to this breathing world,” wrote Wordsworth in The Pastor, “hath barely learned to shape a smile.” He’s right: More often than not, smiling is a learned behavior, “a socially contingent display.” If that babe is female, chances are she’ll catch on quickly, showering friends, acquaintances and strangers in that luminous inverted horseshoe. Or maybe she’ll resist the tide and be a bitch. Either way, I’m not advocating that women go full Easter Island Moai statue, but perhaps we could experiment with smiling just when we feel like it. That would make me :).

Correction, June 18, 2013: This article originally misattributed the Bitchy Resting Face video to the humor website Funny or Die. It was created by Taylor Orci. (Return to the corrected sentence.)