Permission not to smile
By Audrey Schroder
“Try to smile more.” This is what my 8th grade gym teacher, Mr. Dengler wrote on my report card. I had Resting Bitch Face before it was A Thing. People often told me to smile. I didn’t realize other women experienced this until it became a hot topic within the last couple years. Artist and activist, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh uses art to speak out against the street harassment of women. Her art series “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” features her street art based on interviews with women about their experiences.
People pleaser + afflicted with Resting Bitch Face = forced smiles
I’ve known for a long time that it takes less muscles to frown than smile. (Actually while researching for this blog, I found there is no scientific proof this is true.) That’s why I make a point to at least try to make the ends of my mouth turn more up that down. When I was working on McDonald’s social media team, my colleagues were situated at square desks, so at any given time, there were at least two faces for my smile/frown to be seen. It was in this position that I began faking a half smile while I was working. I was worried my coworkers would think I was scowling and frowning all day long. The habit is so ingrained, I often smile when I’m about to fall into dreamland, or when I first wake up and don’t yet have my eyes open. I suddenly realize I don’t need to smile for anyone. It’s pretty bizarre.
Smiles = requests for cash
I’m from Grand Rapids, Michigan. (If we were in person, I’d instinctively point out its location on my right hand. It’s a Michigander thing.) People smile a lot at others there. When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t stop smiling. I taught myself to be careful about whom I would dole out smiles for. I learned that for some, people read my smile as “Hello stranger. I’m from out of town and have money.” Some people give that look that says, “You are so not cool, how on Earth would you think I’d give you one of my precious, hard to come by smiles?” I think most people simply aren’t paying much attention to others around them. I have learned that when people don’t smile back, to not take it personally. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t give them a funny look, and the best: they may not have even noticed! I do recall telling my parents “don’t smile at strangers, it means you will give them cash.” Half-joking. Half not. Chicago is still the Midwest after all. And we’re known to be a friendly bunch.
Smiling while running
I began running in the Spring of 2016. Living four minutes from Lake Michigan, I found my ideal spot is the Lakefront Trail. I naturally smiled at most people I made eye contact with. Some gave genuine smiles back, others had blank stares. I laughed to myself when some fellow runners or walkers were completely focused on their workout that they didn’t bother to look around and see me smiling. “How rude,” I thought to myself. “How do they not even notice other people out here?”
One day it hit me. “Not everyone out here is trying to please other people.” Mind. Blown. I realized that I can simply enjoy my runs for me. I am not required to make other people feel good. I can be in tune to myself, and focus on making my own soul smile. Wow. This acknowledgement was remarkable and even now, a year later, I chuckle when I think about how long it took me to register the concept.
Not everyone out here is trying to please other people.
Running a few days ago, I saw a woman also dressed in her purple 2017 Hot Chocolate 15k race fleece. My first instinct was to smile, I hesitated for a moment, and in that moment she smiled at me. That instantaneous bond felt... special. This must happen for runners often. There’s a sense of belonging and closeness when another runner is wearing your same race shirt. It’s cool. You share that.
In my moment of hesitation, I realized something else. Just because I don’t have to smile doesn’t mean that I can’t. As with many things in this life, there are gray areas. If I’m in my running zone, repeating my mantra, and paying attention to myself, I might be too focused to care about the people around me. When I’m listening to the birds, reveling in the sun shining through the trees, I might see others and give them a smile. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. “Just be present” is what I want to remind myself.
In January 2018, Psychology of Sport and Exercise published a study that aimed “to determine the effect of such attentional instructions on movement economy, physiological, and perceptual responses during running.” Researchers Noel E. Brick, Megan J. McElhinney, and Richard S. Metcalfe concluded “Periodic smiling may improve movement economy during vigorous intensity running. In contrast, frowning may increase both effort perception and activation. A conscious focus on relaxing was not more efficacious on any outcome. The findings have implications for applied practice to improve endurance performance.”
Clearly my goal of expressing personal feelings on smiling at strangers is vastly different than a study regarding running performance. I read several articles discussing smiling at strangers, smiling while running, and smiling versus frowning. The study I reference here is to me, the most interesting, relevant and timely.
I’m curious to know, what’s your position on smiling at strangers? Have you given it much thought before? Share your experience.
<3 from audrey with love
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