Men Tell Us: Why Men Keep Telling Women To “Smile”

men tell women to smile

Raise your hand if you hate it when strange men on the street tell you to smile. Everyone, yes? All our hands are raised? Perhaps because it’s always distracting to be interrupted when you’re thinking seriously about something (and hence, not smiling). Perhaps it’s because it’s rude to demand that a total stranger do anything for you (though I frequently go up to men and say “do the Charleston! Now a two-step! It makes you look prettier to me!”).  Perhaps because it immediately makes you feel guilty for not walking around lighting the world up with your smile, because, again, you were thinking about serious stuff.

And surely men know that women don’t like this, right? No one likes the smile police! But it happens all the time. So why do men keep doing it? I turned the question over to our man-panel:

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    • KAtie

      All these dudes assume that they guy is trying to hit on the girl. I feel like that is often not the case. Most of the time it’s dudes way older than me who I don’t think would ever try and hit on me that tell me to smile. I’ve had a few guys in their twenties say it, but mostly it’s guys between 30 and dead.

      Also, whenever they do this they are normally greeted with the following facial expressions. 1 alarm, because why the hell are you talking to me strange man? 2. Confusion, because I still don’t understand why you are talking to me. 3. Weird, awkward face mangling smile as I comprehend what is said. 4. Glaring, as I realize that some random man just commanded me to smile.

      • Jennifer Wright

        Kind of a personal question, but how old are you?

      • alma

        “between 30 and dead” I just died laughing right now…

        But seriously it’s always older men and the occasional odd 20yr old. You summed this up perfectly.

      • Jennifer Wright

        But providing you’re not a teenager… is it really surprising that men in their 30′s or 40′s would try to hit on you?

      • alma

        But its usually just a passing comment, as you pass said man on the street, I’ve never seen it as if they were hitting someone, just being annoying as hell.

      • Katie

        I’m 24 now. But this has been happening since I was younger. And no, guys in their early thirties might be hitting on me. I guess I just assume the older ones aren’t.

      • Sarah!

        I agree 100%! These guys all said, “Um, hello, he is hitting on you.” But I would say this happened to me the most often when I worked retail, and it was always people old enough to be my father. My resting face is somewhat scowly and they would always say things like “Smile! It’s not so bad!”

        One also once told me I look like my dog just died, which I feel is a dangerous thing to say because what if that were true? It is like asking someone who is dressed nicely, “Who died?” because aren’t you going to feel bad if they say, “Oh, a friend of mine from high schoo.”

      • Tania

        Judging by the comments my step-grandfather (who is in his late 60s) makes whenever a young woman is POLITE to him (not flirting, polite), yes. They are hitting on you.

        I’m sorry to tell you this.

      • Katie

        So what I’m gathering from all this info is ‘smile!’ Is the old man version of ‘damn, dat ass!’

        I just don’t want to believe it.

    • len132

      I think I hate Frank.

      • B

        I am frankly surprised you could even talk to anyone as awful and condescending as Frank.

    • Renee

      Frank, I have a question for you: Has any stranger in your adult life ever walked up to you and requested that you emote something that you aren’t feeling? Because if this hasn’t happened to you, then maybe you need a new perspective for looking at this issue. It is fucking weird to do this to someone. Especially because women have all learned from an early age, that a strange man approaching may not be nice. He may in fact be thinking of assaulting her in some fashion. So not only has he put her in the position of being wary (because people can’t seem to learn how to not rape and assault each other), but he is also making a request that he has no grounds to make. It is a baffling thing to try to do, and it is not “nice”. Seriously, if men were constantly living with the fear of being raped and assaulted, and you were then approached by a strange woman who requested that you perform a happy facial expression for her, would you still think it was ‘nice’?

      • Renee

        If they were really being nice, they would ask why someone isn’t smiling. “You look upset, are you okay”. This would never offend someone! Showing concern is a kind gesture. Randomly commanding a woman to perform is not.

        I’m sort of tired of this whole “pretend you are happy when you are not” thing as well. It doesn’t just affect women, but I think women are more strongly pressured to act like everything is okay. Have you seen the world? Things are not okay. And if you are happy, awesome, keep it up. But don’t request that other people put on a mask for you.

      • Frank

        “Seriously, if men were constantly living with the fear of being raped and assaulted”

        Wait, you live in constant fear of being raped and assaulted?

      • Sabrina

        Frank, I can’t tell if that was a saucy question, or if it was a legit question, but I will answer either way in the spirit of education.

        Yes, women live in constant fear of being raped and assaulted. One in four women in their life times will be sexually assaulted. In surveys, being raped is women’s biggest, number one fear. Death is second.

      • Frank

        I don’t mean to nitpick with you here, but I don’t think it’s fair to assert the equivalency of:

        1) A survey says that a sample of women cite being raped as their BIGGEST fear.


        2) All women exist in a state of CONSTANT fear of rape.

        To say that all women live in constant fear of rape, or anything for that matter, is to generalize about women in a way that should make women uncomfortable. Hell, your generalizing about women makes me uncomfortable just as someone who likes logic.

      • EB

        Frank –

        Yes. Yes, being a woman means being afraid every time you go out alone late at night. If you do a poll, you’ll find more women are afraid of that than men, because women live in fear of being assaulted, because they are much more likely to be assaulted.

    • Fabel

      “Frown, bitch. Things are fucked.” I can’t help it, I like this. Nice one, Dan.

      Otherwise yeah, I hate being told to smile. I hate it. But my obedient streak (opposite of a rebellious streak…?) often causes me to reflexively smile when anybody says this to me.

    • Jess

      All this does is bring out a “fuck off” reflex, though I’m considering throwing in a “I just found out my father has cancer” for good measure.

    • Andrea

      More often than not this happens to me with homeless guys I pass on the street

      • Nancy

        That happened to my friend, too! lol she burst out laughing, though, she was so suprised

    • Nancy

      This has happened to me a lot, too, always by men and never in a hitting on me kind of way. Ditto at least one of my friends, that I know of.
      When I was a kid, my Dad told me to smile ALL THE TIME, he told me (and drilled it into my head) that people like me better when I smile. My dad’s is amazing, but that is actually the main problem I ever had with him (he’d also get really mad if Mom or I didn’t act totally happy). FYI this has resulted in me smiling when nervous, especially interviews, but it’s not the worse nervous habit to have.

    • T-Lex

      This makes me sad. The only people I can remember saying this to me are my family members, dance teachers, and people who are 40+ years older then me. Generally the older types who do it, I honestly believe are trying to snap you out of a bad mood. On the positive side I now have a snappy response if someone skeezy pulls this.

    • jenniwren

      “Saying “hey smile” opens the conversation, and it easy to talk to anyone about. It’s like when you’re in the elevator and you’re like “crazy weather, huh?” just to say something.”

      Sigh. No, “Bob,” it’s not like that at all. One is an invitation to express an opinion. The other is a demand to perform a physical function we probably, now, don’t feel like making.

      Why is this distinction so difficult for people to grasp?

    • Em

      Okay, here we go: Fuck Dan, marry Carl, kill Frank.

      And make friends with Ed, Greg, Al and maybe Henry, though I think he’d make me feel mean about being generally cynical. So, you know, be friends with Henry, but only when I’m feeling positive and generous.

      Also, next time this happens, I’m coming right back at the dude with “Do the Charleston!”

    • Em

      Oh no! Just read the models one, and now I want to fuck Greg and marry Ed. Still kill Frank though. Sorry Frank.

      On another note—no, actually, it’s the exact same note—you guys should do another FMK. That way I might stop trying to subvert actual discussions about deeply rooted sexist practices into a drinking game.

      • Frank

        It’s ok! No need to apologize!

    • Tania

      I had a woman tell me to smile on the street when I was walking home from school a couple of days after my grandmother had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

      I also had some old men, *at my cousin’s funeral*, the one he had because he killed himself at all of 19, tell me to smile. Like, wtf, they are at a wake for my dead cousin. Are they planning on telling his mother and his brothers to smile, too? “Cheer up, he only killed himself!”


    • Lo

      ‘I don’t think some dude telling a girl on the street to smile feels “entitled” at all. He feels sad. Lonely. Unable to communicate. If he felt entitled, powerful, he’d actually be talking with the girl.’

      Said dude feels sad, lonely, unable to communicate, *but* entitled to communication. Saying “Smile!” shows the difference between talking at (entitled) and talking with (not entitled).

      Greg, Aidan always freaked me out but I could never pinpoint why. You’ve got it.

    • Sabrina

      In my experience, it has never been a “shy” guy telling me to smile. It has been the same pervy old men or players who will tell you to smile. The men who tell me to smile are also the ones who will follow up with “damn girl your ass is fat” or some other great one liner. This is total street harassment. Maybe some shy guys are doing it, but that actually doesn’t make any sense at all, why would a shy guy talk to a stranger on the street?

      Also, it might not have been in this panel, but I’ve talked to guy friends before about it and the collective response is usually “you shouldn’t care about it so much, I would like it.” This is the ultimate entitlement. Here I am, a woman, telling men that we don’t like this thing that you won’t stop doing and instead of saying “you don’t like that? oh ok, we’ll stop” it ends up being “stop being so serious, it’s no big deal” and continue with the behavior. Wow, thanks for listening.

      Of course, this is not all men, and I’m using that term just in reference to those who do this behavior. I get street harassed multiple times a week, can you tell I’m sick of it?!

    • Kate

      My mom had a man a decade or so older than she is PULL HIS CAR OVER IN A HOSPITAL PARKING LOT to tell her, “Smile- it’s not that bad!” A hospital parking lot! Besides the inherent douchery in that statement, it very well could be “that bad” if you’re leaving a hospital! She was furious for days.

      • Ashley Cardiff

        This astounds me.

    • Sarah

      Ugh this happens to me all the time, like since I was capable of making facial expressions. My default expression is set on glowersome, and try as I might, it’s not changin’. I usually try to say something as awkward/horrible as possible to discourage the dude from ever soliciting smiles ever again.

    • Sonsy

      In New York City, in my experience it’s usually guys who don’t seem to bright. Or maybe that’s the kinda guy I attract.

      • Sonsy

        Let’s try that again with grammar and punctuation this time:

        In NYC, in my experience, it’s usually guys who don’t seem too bright. Yadda yadda yadda.

    • Wren

      It’s worse when they think they can touch your face ,like the way people touch someones face in a movie when they’re comforting someone.
      Seriously don’t do it unless you want to get punched in the throat.

    • ape

      I personally can’t think of anything more gratifying than baring my teeth for a stranger, but that’s just me.

    • Amy

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who found Aiden controlling. He always bugged me. Big was an a-hole but Aiden was passive aggressive and emotionally manipulative.

      Telling women to smile is, likewise, passive aggressive. It’s an implied put down – “smile – because your current expression is ugly/unacceptable/isn’t pleasing enough for me and I’m the one that matters, not you or your feelings.’ It’s happened to me quite a bit and it’s always been from men, never women. It’s a weird thing but now I just ignore it, I don’t even respond because no response is better than acknowledging what is actually an insult.

      • Nancy

        Yes, thank you! That’s exactly what I feel like they mean when they say it!

    • Maggie

      This happened to me several times working retail, mostly from men well into their twilight years, but the only time a younger guy said it to me, I nearly snapped. I had played a rugby game the day before and got a concussion, so not only was I completely miserable while working, but when I told this particular doucher his total, he says “Well I’m not paying until I see a smile, blondie.” SO MUCH CONDESCENSION. So I replied “I have a brain injury that prevents me from smiling.” Not necessarily a lie, but ohhh the look on his face was priceless.

      • Jennifer Wright

        My first reaction this was “oh, God, we should all get brain injuries so there’s something to say!” and then I realized… no.

    • Kayleigh

      It happens to me all the time here in Brooklyn. One time I was walking to school and a guy asked me why I wasn’t smiling and that I had everything going for me and then I informed him that my grandmother had just been taken off of life support so I wasn’t entirely in a smiling mood. The guy didn’t even have the balls to look shameful.

    • E

      Okay, good. I’m not the only one who has a negative reaction to this. I actually can no longer show my face at a certain coffee shop because when the barista told me to smile I told him saying that me was rude. And yes, then I felt guilty. The whole thing feels like a no-win situation. You either smile and submit to their command or don’t and get labeled a you know what.

    • Char

      This happened to me in a club, not only did I get told to smile, but the guy (a complete stranger) squished my cheeks up into a smile, and then disappeared into the crowd. That was when I realised I was in shuch a bad mood that I was bringing down people who didn’t even know me.

      • JP

        No, that was complete harassment. You are entitled to feel however you like. I wish you could see that the problem is that HE had a problem with you. That’s messed up.

      • Mklein

        Another realization might be that some random creep just put his dirty mitts all over your face for no reason.

      • ktree

        That happened to me only it was a woman. (the wife of the drummer who was playing atm.) I guess she was trying to drum up excitement and dancing and head-nodding or something but all she got was my going to the restroom to wash my face after my friends laughed, shocked, and said “Did a STRANGER just touch your face?!” I wasn’t in a bad mood before that.

    • ZB

      Dan and Frank can fuck right off.

    • S

      If someone tells me to “Smile” , I always tell them “Make me” .
      Because really…Why not give a person a reason to smile instead of demanding it from them.
      Maybe my puppy just died or worse, then what? Should I not be allowed to be sad and frown in public? Guess how you could help? By being funny, polite and charming instead of ordering me to SMILE! like a damn puppet.
      “Smile puppet, smile!!”

      It is incredibly rude because it says women and girls aren’t allowed to just BE.
      And it’s not about the woman or girl, it’s all about the MEN how HE wants YOU to smile for HIM to brighten HIS day.
      Ding, ding, ding?? Get it?! No? I give up.

    • Erica

      Finally! I’m so glad I’m not the only one this happens to. It is so rude and I hate it when men tell me to smile. They don’t know me or what I could possibly be going through. I don’t owe them anything; not my time or a change in my facial expression.

    • Wialamerenk

      i think he is good actor. he was handle nice character of joker .now he is my favourite villain in hollywood .

    • beatabeatrix

      Can someone tell Frank what Greg said?

    • Mklein

      Al, Ed, Greg, and Henry (in no particular order): great job. The rest of these dudes need to check their privilege; it is definitely showing.

    • ktree

      Thanks for addressing this, it’s something that has always really peeved me off but anytime you say anything about it you get called a bitch. I always just say I’m not a performing monkey. It’s the worst when I’m serving or bartending; I ALWAYS smile when I greet people and interact with customers but there is no quicker way to piss me off, just because I don’t stand there grinning at nothing like a damn clown while I pour a beer.

    • Subterfuge

      If a woman were to smile at me I’d think it was because there was a boog hangin’ out of my nostril.

    • Haily

      I’m pretty young as it is – on the cusp of turning 20 – and I look almost a decade younger due to facial features and the childish mismatchery style I dress myself in – and older men are ALWAYS Telling me, with a capital T, to “smile, pretty girl.” Being the most awkward girl in the world, I instinctively resort to my bug-eyed creeped-the-fuck-out look and shake my head and cross my arms and walk away as efficiently as possible which makes me feel like the judgemental one in the scenario. Ever since I read somewhere that the worst thing you can be called if you’re a guy is “creepy,” then I’ve tried to not mark every guy that compliments me as a creep, but everyone I know insists I look like a 12 year old, so I instantly think, “PEDOPHILE ALERT!” whenever a man in his late 40′s tells me I’m pretty. I came up with 21 things to respond to a man who tells you to smile, but I never have the courage to vocally intercept their plans to violate my emotional status.

    • Xen

      Sorry, I’m not your robot. I won’t smile if I don’t feel like it, because hey, I’m a human! Surprise surprise…

    • Anjali

      I actually think it’s cute. I’ve only had it happen once or twice, but it was always friendly, flirty in a cute way, and not at all offensive. LIghten up for god’s sake. Are you determined to be offended by everythin?