Asking a woman to smile feels insulting because it is essentially asking her to please you and thus establishes the dynamic that your opinion of her matters – while her mood to you doesn’t. You may also want to cushion your life with good-natured smiles. So it’s all about you.
But you don’t have to meet a feminist to find people getting worked up about “being forced to smile”. Just come to the Eastern Bloc and you will find any number of men and women who will be appalled by the idea of having to smile in social interactions. In Hungary they call it the “McDonald’s grin”, referring to the alien practice of smiling first introduced by the infamous fast food giant in the 90s.
So when I saw this Czech magazine piece about how Czechs don’t smile (and neither should you, dumb American tourist) I, well… smiled. (No teeth though.)
When I ask myself why I don’t smile on the streets of Budapest, my reason is to avert people messing with me. I don’t want to be seen as weak – to avoid what’s avoidable. And a smile is taken as a signal of weakness because you must be naive if you think there’s a reason to smile.
So not only do I not smile, I even frown menacingly in public – at least that’s what my western-born friends tell me. And they are right (I saw photos) but a non-smile could still be taken as a cue to come and mess with me. So I don’t risk that either. You see, we always assume that someone out there has nothing better to do than trying to find another human to mess with. Not just to rip him off but to ruin someone’s day, for its own sake.
But Hungary is not the worst. The further you go east the worse the smile-situation gets. People of the streets look more and more depressed – even if they function in their daily lives.
Societies that spent decades under oppression have been socialized to feel helpless. That nothing they can do changes their situation. And that is the essence of depression. The stronger the oppression, the more pronounced the society-level depression. And it lingers down the generations.
Oppressed societies have learned that there is nothing they can do against power, but they can still mess with each other because the dictator has nothing against that. In fact, it is highly encouraged to terrorize each other. Damaged people are only stopped by fear, and they only fear the stronger. The weak will be picked on for its own sake, to feel in control, to have someone who has it even worse than I do.
Hence the preventive frowns. I want my frustrated, damaged fellow countrymen to go and pick on someone else if they must. Go cut in the queue before someone else, shortchange someone else, offer your palm reading to someone who looks more gullible.
Oh and keep your “find the beauty in life” wisdom to yourselves, you lucky, western folks. It makes me angry, too…