Geez, I'm not a pageant queen here
March 4, 2011 8:23 AM   Subscribe

The VP of my company has made a habit of teasing me about whether I'm smiling. I'm getting to the point where if I don't say something soon, I might blow up one day. How can I communicate my distaste for this kind of teasing without offending and/or alienating him?

Following up on comments like this on the What not to say to women post. I've been with this company for three and a half years, and only just now has this man (who isn't my direct boss, but with whom I sometimes work closely) started pestering me about smiling. I find it offensive and condescending, but obviously I want to keep my job. This man is very sensitive to what others think of him/say to him, and I'd rather not stir the pot. I don't want to risk compromising our currently cordial rapport. But for my own personal sanity, I need to tell him to knock it off. How can I do it in the gentlest way possible?
posted by litnerd to Human Relations (56 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm just concentrating on work/thinkign about this project/composing an email to a client right now."
posted by jeather at 8:29 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Look, I appreciate your input/angle/concern, but I'd really prefer you didn't mention it all the time. Everyone does as best as they can, right?"
posted by Namlit at 8:31 AM on March 4, 2011

I hate to be like, GO TO HR, but if your HR dept isn't incompetent, someone there should be able to talk to hm about making those kinds of comments to people without outing you (assuming you're not the only one he does that to).

Alternatively, "Hey, Joe, I appreciate that you're concerned about whether I'm happy, but really, this is just the way my face looks with a neutral expression."
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:31 AM on March 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm always tempted, in situations like this, to bust out with a big psycho grin or crazyface. My face is pretty emotive, and I can contort it into wacky expressions that I think adequately reflect my mood. "Are you smiling?" "I don't know, did you know that I'm completely insane?!"

But if that style doesn't suit you and you don't want to be as direct as the comment you linked to, you could say something like, "why do you always ask if I'm smiling?" Or "ohmygosh, is there something in my teeth?" Just something to turn it back on him so that he has to say something to justify his stupid teasing.
posted by phunniemee at 8:34 AM on March 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

Privately, directly, and acknowledging that he doesn't mean to hurt your feelings by it.

"You keep teasing me about smiling, and I know you mean this as a good-natured joke, but I'm starting to be more concerned about my facial expression than my work! I'd appreciate it if you could drop it and go back to teasing me about my terrible taste in baseball teams."

If he pushes you on it and says, "I'm just joking!" I'd stick with, "I know you are, it's just getting to me, I don't know why. It's becoming a distraction for me." With the uber-sensitive who are totally INsensitive to others' feelings, it's often helpful to keep putting the onus on YOU, and exonerating THEM. Which is sort-of the same thing as saying, "You're hilarious, I just have no sense of humor," when really it's "You're kind-of being a jerk and you're not funny," but the key point is it usually gets them to stop with a minimum of drama.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:34 AM on March 4, 2011 [13 favorites]

If he's a nice guy with whom you have a friendly working relationship, I would talk to him privately and phrase it along the lines of "I know you're joking around, but makes me really self conscious when you tease me about smiling." This is all in the tone of voice, not like you're chastising him, more like "I know this may seem silly, but..." If you phrase it as being about you being embarassed rather than him doing anything wrong, he shoudn't take it personally and he should stop doing it if he's at all decent.

Note that his behavior is unacceptable and condescending, but I make the above recommendation with an eye most towards preserving the relationship while getting the desired effect of him stopping.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 8:35 AM on March 4, 2011

I mean other than hanging up this poster, obviously.
posted by Namlit at 8:36 AM on March 4, 2011

Can you just sigh, look vaguely pained, and say, "Again with the smiling thing?"
posted by Greg Nog at 8:37 AM on March 4, 2011 [9 favorites]

i often weigh these kinds of ideological stands against my own personal comfort - then i lie.

it isn't pretty but this is exactly the kind of place where lying could endear you to him and solve the teasing (it could blow up in your face - but no worse than "confronting" someone who probably doesn't realize they're being condescending).

"bob - it's funny you mentioned my smile - i'm really quite sensitive about it - i was teased as a child for it - i know you have the best intentions, but it is still difficult for me, i know you are someone i can talk to about this kinda stuff"
posted by ten year lurk at 8:38 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you pushed back at all? If not, I'd say something a little lighthearted, like, "Jack, you're going to give me a complex! Really, I'm very happy here, I just don't smile all the time. You don't want to make me feel bad about that, do you?" and then if necessary escalate to something more firm like, "I know you mean it as a joke, but your comments about my smile are embarrassing me." (Not it would be rude to use the more assertive response first, I'm just thinking that if he's thin-skinned and oblivious AND you want to keep a cordial relationship, this might be a way to do it.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:39 AM on March 4, 2011

If I am friendly with people I will say "This is as good as it gets. You can work on your bargaining, anger, denial and acceptance at this juncture"

What you don't want to do, in my opinion, is make this into a thing that the two of you get to negotiate. He's totally out of line to say this to you. If he's doing it because he's flirting he needs to stop. If he's doing it because he's sort of a jerk, he needs to stop. If he's doing it because he's trying to cheer you up, it's not working and it needs to stop. So, the point to communicate as decently as possible is "this needs to stop" not "you need to be sensitive to my feelings on this matter, by the way my feelings are this..." You do not need to negotiate about your feelings with this person because what he is doing, however well-intentioned, is out of place in the workplace.

So I'm not saying that so that you holler at him, I'm saying that so that you feel confident and justified being possibly less-than-polite if this continues after you have made it clear that it needs to not continue. Obviously the best way out of this is a way where everyone saves face and can work together happily. That said, if he continues to push the issue after you have made it clear that this line of conversation is unwanted then he is the one who needs to be made to see why this is not okay, either by you or HR.

So, some very neutral "Please stop saying that. This is just how I look when I'm concentrating" gets across

- you are being polite
- you need him to stop
- you're not being frowny and his issues with this are his own

If he persists, you remain with that approach "I've asked you to stop. This is how I look. Please stop saying that, thank you." At this point it should be clear that he's crossing a line and at this point I'd say it's okay to go to HR and ask for suggestions. Agree with what other posters have said, if they're at all decent, they will have dealt with this before and should be able to handle it professionally.
posted by jessamyn at 8:45 AM on March 4, 2011 [19 favorites]

Sorry to be the contrarian, but in the grand scheme of workplace problems, this ranks right at the bottom. Assuming the guy thinks he's being friendly and helpful, why risk alienating him or hurting his feelings? I bristle, too, when people tell me, "Smile!" But living in a society -- and working closely with others -- leads to a lot of interactions that are irritating but harmless. My suggestion? Grin (pun partially intended) and bear it, and have a stock answer that you repeat every time. With all due respect, suggestions that you go to HR, or tell him he's being "inappropriate" are crazy.
posted by pardonyou? at 8:54 AM on March 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

I hate to be like, GO TO HR, but if your HR dept isn't incompetent, someone there should be able to talk to hm about making those kinds of comments to people without outing you (assuming you're not the only one he does that to).

I would advise that you not go to HR. They aren't on your side. And this might seem like mighty small potatoes.

I don't know what kind of job you have or what kind of career path you're on, if any, but people you work with will always be annoying, will have the same one joke or whatever, and the VP just seems a little clueless. The best thing to do is to let things like this roll off your back (is that the phrase? roll off the back of your hand?), especially when people who are your superiors are concerned.

Joke that you would smile, but you're afraid your dentures will fall out, or tell him something awkward ("You can't ride a motorcycle while smiling") or say, "I don't want to blind you."

Obviously this is important to you, but I caution you against not playing along. Learning how to be easy to get along with is rewarded not only in the social world, but also in the working world in general. Again, I don't know how ambitious you are or if this job's just to pay the bills until you find something better.
posted by anniecat at 8:57 AM on March 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

"You know, the more people tell me to smile, the less I feel like smiling. I enjoy chatting with you, but I'd prefer you stopped asking me to smile. That would really make me happy."
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:59 AM on March 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

pardonyou, there is a difference between someone saying it once, and someone saying it repeatedly. It can be ignored once, even twice, but when it becomes an ongoing refrain, it needs to be stopped.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:59 AM on March 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

Does he (or do you) have a sense of humor? My temptation would be to turn it into a joke if you think he'd take it the right way (being funny vs. being passive-aggressive).

Print out picture of a big cheesy grin, cut it out and mount it to a popsicle stick (kind of like one of those fancy masks at a formal costume ball). Next time he mentions that you aren't smiling, open your desk drawer, take out the popsicle stick smile and hold it over your mouth. If he has the right sense of humor, he'll laugh, and if he asks you again about smiling, it would be less about the negative experience of being told "I want to see you smile" and more about a positive shared experience of laughing at a goofy joke.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:00 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sorry to be the contrarian, but in the grand scheme of workplace problems, this ranks right at the bottom.

This may or may not be true - depending on the circumstances (it can be part of a pretty sexist attitude, for example). I mean, I agree with you, the best would be if it could just be blown off, but if the guy is a jerk, a polite but firm rebuff may be in order.
posted by Pax at 9:01 AM on March 4, 2011

Anniecat, I think a really valuable skill to learn is how to diplomatically get what you need. If this is the kind of thing this VP says, I can't believe that others in that organization don't think he's an annoying twit, and I think they might see promise an employee who was able to handle this situation neatly.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:03 AM on March 4, 2011

It can be ignored once, even twice, but when it becomes an ongoing refrain, it needs to be stopped.

I (respectfully) disagree. Why does it "need" to be stopped? I disagree with the premise that we have a right to be free from annoyances -- petty or otherwise -- at all times. I will say that my advice is political, not moral. The guy is a VP of the company who even litnerd says cares what others think about him. It may make litnerd feel good to get it off her chest -- and she certainly has the "right" to do so -- but at what cost to her relationship with the VP? I still say suck it up -- the juice ain't worth the squeeze.

I will say, just to be clear, that I'm assuming (based on the post) that these are short interactions that do not interfere with litnerd's ability to perform the job. I also assume there is nothing sexist or sexual about the situation, but is what it appears to be: a manager who seems to be interested in how much an employee does, or does not, smile. (I think that the conclusions that the guy is a "jerk" are unfounded based on what is in the post). I'd think differently if those assumptions were incorrect.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:14 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

pardonyou?, I think it would useful for you to read some of the comments in thread linked to above about men telling women to smile. However good natured it is, it's very common sexist trope. It can go from being mildly annoying to being genuinely insulting. Especially when done continuously, like this.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 9:21 AM on March 4, 2011 [25 favorites]

a manager who seems to be interested in how much an employee does, or does not, smile

Those of us who are taking a more serious approach to it are presuming, I believe, that the manager would not care if a male employee did, or did not, smile.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2011 [10 favorites]

I am so 1 billion percent with you on this one. I have to pull myself away from my descent into volcanic anger to answer your question.

I think you need to turn this around onto him. Your response should be “Why does it matter to you?” tailored to you and your relationship with this guy. Because, why does it? Now we can speculate on the reasons—with a smile on your face, you fit more easily into his sexual fantasies; if you aren’t smiling he takes it personally and feels inadequate—but they are his reasons. Make this his problem.

Good-naturedly and innocently bring attention to the fact that he is bizarrely and inappropriately obsessed with your facial expressions. So you ask why it matters to him whether you’re smiling—“LOL, gee Jim, why are you always so in tune with my facial expressions? Don’t you have enough work to do? Hahaha” but then look at him like you are actually waiting for an answer because it’s just so weird and you are really curious. Now maybe he’ll tease back or something, and you can just say “Huh, it’s just weird, no one else has ever been so obsessed with whether I’m smiling or not.” It might help to have other people around that you can bring in on your side, maybe look at them and pull a Jim [from the office] face like “amirite, guys?”

Now, if this were some guy on the street instead of someone that you know and wish to have continued congenial relations with, you could use my standard "What makes you think my facial expression is any of your fucking business???"
posted by thebazilist at 9:25 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

However good natured it is, it's very common sexist trope.

Huh. The time it happened most noticeably in my workplace, it was a woman who went around telling everyone to "smile" and commenting when they were not. So I don't know -- it's awfully easy to jump to conclusions here and react emotionally rather than logically. But again, if litnerd thinks she will feel better if she confronts him, more power to her.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:32 AM on March 4, 2011

Of course, it's completely annoying and condescending and ... ugh. But, don't go to HR -- take this as your learning-to-navigate moment (because trust me, trying to smarten up every asshole at the office is exhausting and mostly doesn't work).

I'd make the shut. it. down. snappy comeback: "Hmn, Dave, wouldn't that be weird -- incessant smiling!" And then I'd make an "Eeks!" face and go back to work. Lather, rinse, repeat. And go the extra mile to be nice to him when he's on a good track!
posted by thinkpiece at 9:34 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Right, that's my point exactly. Being of the male persuasion, you probably don't have much experience with people telling you to smile, and how annoying it can be. For further evidence of how ubiquitous it is for women, note how many people favorited the comment I linked to.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 9:35 AM on March 4, 2011

With all due respect, suggestions that you go to HR, or tell him he's being "inappropriate" are crazy.

With respect, calling people who disagree with you "crazy" is not really in keeping with the "let's all work together to help the OP solve her problem." If people need to continue this side discussion, please feel free to take it to MetaTalk and keep answers here directed towards the OP and the problem she is trying to solve. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn at 9:38 AM on March 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

Being of the male persuasion, you probably don't have much experience with people telling you to smile, and how annoying it can be.

I have some experience with it, and certainly enough to know how annoying it can be. I'm not disputing that at all. My point is that lots of things in life that are annoying aren't worth the fallout from trying to alleviate the annoyance.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:39 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

With respect, calling people who disagree with you "crazy" is not really in keeping with the "let's all work together to help the OP solve her problem."

Bad word choice. My apologies.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:40 AM on March 4, 2011

It's unwelcome remarks on someone else's appearance, it's condescending, and it's highly annoying. In a workplace, habitual remarks like this are simply inappropriate.

Probably the best course of action is like others have said -- short comments in response that let him know subtly that this is unwanted. It may take a while for this kind of conditioning to work, but it should be successful.
posted by statolith at 9:42 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I also assume there is nothing sexist or sexual about the situation

Maybe not sexual, but perhaps sexist.
posted by Pax at 9:48 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have had two bosses who did this to me, but one was relentless about it. She would not let go of it, insisting that smiling would make one happier, that it would make customers happier (despite the fact that I was face-to-face with customers rarely), and generally reached for any excuse to remind me. This suggests that smiles when you aren't "feelin' it" will worsen mood.

"This is what my face does when I'm concentrating" was my stock reply.
posted by adipocere at 10:05 AM on March 4, 2011

The OP's problem was not voiced as a question of whether it's sexist or not. I feel that it actually doesn't matter much. Telling co-workers to smile is, as Jessamyn wrote in her first answer, out of line on a bunch of levels. We're talking about an intrusion into private space.

Your answer ought to be "stop this" and "I have no other face," made somewhat more polite according to situation and/or power structure. Just don't wait until your only way out is an uncontrolled "Fuck. Off."
posted by Namlit at 10:09 AM on March 4, 2011

Just off the top off my head, my response would be something like:

Him: [unwelcome remark about smiling]
Me: I beg your pardon?
Him: [repeating or rephrasing remark]
Me: (confused look) I'm terribly sorry but I've got no idea what this is about. (glance at watch) Sorry, got to run. See you!
posted by rjs at 10:10 AM on March 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Anniecat, I think a really valuable skill to learn is how to diplomatically get what you need. If this is the kind of thing this VP says, I can't believe that others in that organization don't think he's an annoying twit, and I think they might see promise an employee who was able to handle this situation neatly.

They are more likely to see a person who is easily upset, who complains, and is unable to interact/handle a variety of personalities. They may call her high-strung and feel like they have to walk on eggshells around her. I would bet money on it that if the guy felt embarrassed by this kind of thing, especially if he's as concerned about his image as OP says he is, he would probably get her terminated. And he definitely could.

Work is a huge part of life and ego is a huge part of working relationships, especially the positive ones you need to get ahead (it's not based on meritocracy). I'm pretty amazed at how many people think that it's wise to go to HR about this kind of thing.

However good natured it is, it's very common sexist trope.

Does OP want to keep her job? Yes. At the end of the day, if she wants to keep her job and that requires choosing your battles wisely. This is not one of those battles.

And while you perceive it as a sexist trope, this is what my mother has been telling me my whole life. "You should smile more!" "Why aren't you laughing and enjoying life more!?" "You are so much prettier when you smile." Seriously, this is what old ladies and mothers (and even your friends) and older people say. Not just men to women. I'm hard pressed to think it comes from a genuinely sexist place.

If OP wants to try the experiment of complaining about the VP, risk alienating him and making him realize he's being a fuddy duddy, that's her decision, but I wouldn't confuse what people are saying to be supportive to be good advice. And I'm telling you this from someone who has done a little hiring and given the "she's a good worker and her work is really good, but she seems a annoying and off, let's keep looking" explanation to the ED when asked to recommend an intern for hire. She just seemed weird. And that's a perfectly fine reason not to hire someone or to gently recommend that they seek other opportunities at places they would be "happier." (I helped my old friend practice the whole, "You don't seem very happy here, and we've gotten some sense that you'd thrive in a place that was a better fit for you" once.)

Being of the male persuasion, you probably don't have much experience with people telling you to smile, and how annoying it can be.

I'm pretty sure there's something similar going on. Probably the incessant, "You have a girlfriend?" from the time when the kid has his first boy haircut until he gets married.

have had two bosses who did this to me, but one was relentless about it. She would not let go of it, insisting that smiling would make one happier, that it would make customers happier

I was an international student at my American college, and they had tips on reducing homesickness or what to do if we were homesick, and it was something like, "Wear brighter clothes and it will cheer you up." Jeeez.

posted by anniecat at 10:27 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a VP once who would, when I was talking to co-workers, walk up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders and scoot me out of the way so he could talk to them instead. It was infuriating, and you bet your bippy he never did it to a man.

After seething about this for a month, I finally decided I was done, and the next time he did it, I yelled "AAAAAA!" like I'd been goosed and whirled around. He was very taken aback. I looked him straight in the eye and said "Sorry, you startled me. I'm not used to men sneaking up behind me and grabbing me." Then I turned back, stepped aside to make room for him in the conversation, and kept talking. He never did it again, not to me nor any of the other women in the company, and it didn't seem to affect our working relationship poorly.

Obviously, you can't just yell at this guy, but I think there's every cause to make him bear some of the social awkwardness of his inappropriate and out of line remarks. So when he asks you to smile, say, in a panicked voice, "WHAT?! Why?!" If he actually gives an answer, whatever it is, look puzzled and say "Oh," and then drop it. Eventually he'll stop it, just because he'll get sick of the loud noise you make when he says it.
posted by KathrynT at 10:31 AM on March 4, 2011 [19 favorites]

I am a guy. There is another guy at work who does this to me all the time. "Hey Diag, smile!"... "Hiya smiley!". It IS condescending and belittling, and it makes want to rip his throat out. But I take solace in the fact that he is a guy with stereotypical "short man's syndrome", it's all just a power trip for him, and everyone knows he's a wanker/jerk. When he does this to me now, I just put on a fake "smile" for him which is actually more like a snarl.

Even worse, he's discovered that I'm jumpy when it comes to uninvited, unexpected physical contact. So sometimes he'll creep up behind me at my desk and roughly put both of his hands on my shoulders and say something like "How's it going smiley?". The last time he did this, after I jumped, I said "Hey! Don't fucking do that!". I know swearing in the office is inappropriate, and I sit right next to my boss, who was there at the time and saw the whole thing. But I think uninvited physical contact is even MORE inappropriate than swearing, and I guess my boss seems to concur since he hasn't mentioned it since.

Sorry, I'm ranting about my own situation now. I guess I just wanted to point out that it might not be a sexist thing, and relate how I have tried to deal with a similar situation.

I would never dream about going to HR about the "smile" comments, although the physical contact thing might push me to do so if it continues, more-so if I were a woman.
posted by Diag at 10:32 AM on March 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

“Every time you ask me to smile, a little piece of my soul dies.”
posted by scruss at 10:33 AM on March 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

So this guy is the VP of your company, something of a superior but not quite your boss, and you work with him closely sometimes.

With all these things in mind, in that situation I would try to keep it light while making him realize how silly it is for him to keep telling you to smile. Possible replies, depending on the nature of his pestering and the overall mood:

"Thanks. I'm smiling on the inside."
"OK." (Do not change your face after saying this. If he follows up with, "You're not smiling!" just say, "I'm working.")
"When people tell me to smile, it doesn't make me want to smile. You know?"
"Is there something specific I should be smiling about? I'm confused about being told to smile while I'm trying to work."
Make the big crazyface smile like phunniemee suggested. Don't stop until he inevitably gets creeped out and tells you to stop, and then he probably won't ask you again.
posted by wondermouse at 10:47 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

the people who are suggesting that this is just something you should suck up to keep quiet and keep your job, are the kind of people who perpetuate uncomfortable, subtly hostile "old boys club" workplaces. with respect: we live in a different era now, and that sort of crap shouldn't be tolerate any more than the "smile" comments.

you spend all day every day at work and there is no reason you should put up with harassment from your superiors, however "lighthearted" it may be.

i'd go with an approach like one of the gentle-but-firm ones suggested above. and if you ask nicely and it still keeps up, or they accuse you of not being able to take a joke, THEN go to HR.
posted by wayward vagabond at 11:16 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Deadpan: "If I'm smiling, it means I'm not working." Then bust out laughing and move on.
posted by loquat at 11:21 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not smiley by nature.

However, when I am at the office, I make an effort to smile and be friendly to everyone because I would prefer to work in a friendly smiley atmosphere - even if I am faking it!

So smile when your VP is around and then get back to work and forget about it.

If you were in the elevator with the president of the company instead of the VP would you smile?

I don't see this as perpetuating uncomfortable, subtly hostile old boys club workplaces - I see it as promoting a friendly happy work atmosphere.

Who wants to hire people who can't muster up a real or fake smile for their superiors?

I bet you smiled at your interview :P
posted by anewnormal at 11:31 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

men telling women to smile. However good natured it is, it's very common sexist trope

Good god. Seriously?

I've been told 6,038,000 times since I was a kid to "smile" by everyone including females, males, whatever. Especially teachers back when I was school.

And, really: It's because my normal facial expression makes me look like a complete miserable bitch.

My old boss (FEMALE) would always comment on my facial expression. I would always just say something sarcastic (jokingly) or just shrug.
I've been trying to change my expression (smile and say hi to people) now that I'm working in a business professional environment. But every once in a while someone sees my scowl and makes a comment. I usually just say, "Ha, I just look this way."

Big deal.

But hey, climb the HR ladder and file a lawsuit, right?
posted by KogeLiz at 11:57 AM on March 4, 2011

How about "Hey I don't want to hurt your feelings but I have always been told to smile since I was a little kid and it kinda makes me feel bad sometimes."
posted by tarvuz at 12:03 PM on March 4, 2011

Yeah, it is worth checking to see if you actually do look miserable. While being told by random creeps on the street to "Smile, beautiful!" is always annoying, a superior at work telling me to smile can be construed in all sorts of ways, especially if it's just started recently. Maybe you do look upset. Maybe you look like you hate your job. It's annoying that he's doing it enough that you feel like you're being pestered, but see if maybe your face actually has gotten used to being in a scowl. Surely it can't be helping the situation that his telling you to smile is only making you more upset, and he probably has no idea that it is offensive. But try to separate yourself from this for a few minutes to see if he might actually have a point.

There was another thread here recently about smiling naturally, or having that "public face" where you automatically look kind of cheerful as you're walking around. I can't find it, but that would be a good counterpoint to the "what not to say to women" threads you linked to.

This isn't at all meant to discredit you or say you don't have a reason to be offended. But we're not there and we can't see this happening. Whatever it is, he isn't communicating well. I think a combination of evaluating your demeanor as well as testing some of the previously suggested replies would have the best chance of helping the situation without damaging your working relationship with this guy.
posted by wondermouse at 12:33 PM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since we don't know a lot about your relationship with him or what sort of guy he is, I'm just gonna throw one more possibility into the mix.

Maybe come back at him with "No, you!" every time he does it. Don't be mean or nasty with it, and if you can help it smile a bit when you say it. (Just so it doesn't look like you're sneering. Not like a huge full on fake smile, just enough so that it doesn't seem mean.)

Alternately, "Then you better tell me a joke."

(Like I said - without knowing the guy, it's hard to know what will be effective with him. I'm usually more straight forward than either of those approaches, but for sensitive people sometimes turning it back on them gently can have a positive effect with minimum conflict.)
posted by stoneweaver at 12:36 PM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sexism is not just something perpetuated by men against women. A woman can say sexist things to another woman. A woman can say sexist things to a man. It doesn't make them any less sexist.

litnerd, if this bothers you, you should not have to deal with it.

I was in a not dissimilar situation at work where a woman was constantly making comments about my appearance, and it really bothered me even though they were positive. I would have loved it if her compliments had been about my work, but she was always telling me she liked my blouse or my hair or asking me if I had lost weight (I am pretty fat). I finally got her to stop by saying, when she asked me if I had lost weight: I sure hope not, it might mean I was sick!

This confused her enough (a fat person who doesn't want to lose weight?!) that first she apologized, and the comments on my appearance have stopped entirely, though we are still friendly and talk often.

I think the 'I've been told to smile since I was a kid and it bothers me' conversation would have similar results for you. Or so I can hope.

Good luck!
posted by rosethorn at 12:45 PM on March 4, 2011

[it is at this point that I have to step in and say you can open a MetaTalk thread but you can't continue arguments here that do not help the OP answer her question. I am sorry this question is fraught with baggage to so many people, but please leave it alone or go to metatalk, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 2:06 PM on March 4, 2011

This may be a long shot based on the impression I get from your description of your job, but is your job customer-facing at all? Presenting a smiley, cheery customer-service face might be a part of your job, or it might be an environment where you're expected not to belie any dissatisfaction, even a little bit, with your work environment.

I only ask because I used to get this all the time. I'm a guy, but my eyebrows make me look angry if my mouth is in a relaxed position. A few years ago, I started making an effort to at least turn up the corner of my lips into a smirk when engaging with people, and it made a huge difference in people's reactions, or lack thereof.

At the same time, I've also been in the work situation where my boss's boss got into the habit, like Diag describes above, of coming up behind me and scaring me while I was hard at work. It drove me absolutely insane and reduced my quality-of-life at work greatly while he was doing it. You absolutely need to talk to him in a discreet, polite, but assertive way, or this could go on forever. I'll defer to the many scripts proposed above for advice on that subject.
posted by malapropist at 3:43 PM on March 4, 2011

This may be a long shot based on the impression I get from your description of your job, but is your job customer-facing at all?

It absolutely is not. I never see our customers, and I very, very rarely speak to them.

Thanks for everyone's comments and advice so far. I haven't decided what approach to take, but y'all are giving me plenty of great input.
posted by litnerd at 3:55 PM on March 4, 2011

This is a tough one. I'm a lady who gets the "Smile" thing from people on the street (and once even someone who honked his horn at me while we were both stopped at a light until I opened my window and he told me to smile and asked if I was ok) and it is always irritating to me.

However, I think you're caught between a rock (VP of your company who is a sensitive flower) and a hard place (your sanity is at risk).

I'd ask myself one question: is this worth finding a new job over? If the answer is no, I could come up with a silly way to respond every time he says it and let that be the end of it until that question is yes.

If your answer is yes, that it makes you crazy or annoys you enough that it would potentially be worth finding a new job over, I would consider pulling him aside sometime and gently tell him that him it makes you feel uncomfortable. This will go over better if you have some sort of excuse to explain it "Oh, my dearly-departed great-grandmother always used to say that..." but if you just want to tell him straight out, that is entirely your prerogative.
posted by arnicae at 4:07 PM on March 4, 2011

I agree with stoneweaver that it's hard to guess what the best response will be without knowing the guy. However, I'd be inclined to suggest that you try for a behaviorist-style extinction of the unwanted behavior. (Here's a popular primer on behaviorism.)

Option 1: No response. The VP wants to get a response from you, whether it is your smiling on command or some other interaction that he hopes to initiate. When he tells you to smile, look at him blankly for half a second—if that—before continuing your work or continuing with the conversation in whatever logical, work-related direction it might be headed. Do not change your facial expression. (VP: "Hey, litnerd, give me a smile!" litnerd: "Is Bob from accounting coming to this meeting? I heard he was out sick yesterday. If he's not here we'll have to get last month's reports from Mary.")

Option 2: Train an incompatible behavior. If you can anticipate when the VP is going to command you to smile, try to jump in first with a question or request for him to respond to—preferably one that will take so much of his attention that he'll forget to ask you to smile. You might be able to replace the unwanted "smile" routine with a new routine in which, every time you run into the VP, you ask him about his favorite sports team, or you ask him how things are going in his department.

Whichever approach you take—possibly a combination of both—it will be important to stick to it consistently.

One advantage of this approach is that, whether you choose option 1 or option 2, it's basically a non-response; there's nothing for him to take offense at except the inefficacy of his own smile-commands. There is no confrontation and he might not even realize that you are deliberately working against him.
posted by Orinda at 4:39 PM on March 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

When I was getting this sort of commentary from my new (female) boss, I finally said, "I'm sorry, but this is who I am. If you were looking for a cheerleader, you really should have put that in the job description." I said it with a matter-of-fact, if somewhat resigned, tone of voice - not angrily. It worked, and she never mentioned it again.
posted by Maarika at 8:47 PM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's a reply to sidestep this: "Well, any smile I'd give after being asked to smile would be a fake smile, and I like to be honest."

It's true, and it makes the point that you won't smile on command without including the phrase, "Fuck you, I am the sovereign of my own face!"
posted by ignignokt at 9:19 PM on March 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

I really disagree with pardonyou? and anniecat's suggestions. I think, from the context you describe, the VP is asking you to "smile" because he considers women to be ornaments whose purpose, at least in part, is to please the people around them. It is repulsive, ossified, disgusting behavior that is belittling to you. For that reason alone you should take a pretty hard line approach about it.

With regard to the suggestions that this should be only a minor annoyance that people just need to put up with for the sake of advancement or "getting along with others" ... Sorry, no. Kowtowing to some sexist pig's commands regarding how to please him with your face is not going to be critical to any advancement or career success you want to be part of. In the professional environments I'm familiar with, women who stand up for themselves are respected. Even if going along with it got you some short term advantage, I strongly believe that what it would cost you to submit to his commands would be far greater than any small gains you would earn from going along with it. For example, being so pliant and agreeable could actually harm your professional reputation in some circumstances.
posted by jayder at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know, not to excuse the behavior whatsoever, and I heartily encourage shutting it down, but truly, might we not show a little bit of compassion for someone who may have grown up in another culture/another time/under a rock, and just doesn't know how to upgrade his approach? Who may not have the smarts or the confidence to try relating to a young woman, and not the "smile"-bot? As we do for so many others who aren't what I assume is the standard-issue, insensitive, middle-aged villainous corporate VP-type?
posted by thinkpiece at 2:24 PM on March 5, 2011

"Why, are you giving me a raise?"
posted by oneaday at 8:24 AM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

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