Being expected to smile on command....
February 23, 2019 6:03 PM   Subscribe

... and how to deal with it without getting fired.

I work a service job. Smiling is a big part of what is expected of employees and emphasized as part of the company's service ethic. I don't have a problem with this. Nobody wants to be greeted at a business by someone who doesn't seem to care they are there. At the same time, remembering to smile all the time is hard for me. I get focused on the job to be done, as in getting it done right, and forget perkiness is part of the package. Most people don't comment and I usually remember on my own. Sometimes, though, someone will make a really obnoxious comment about it. Today it was a guy. I was helping another customer, who was filling out a form. While they filled it out I stood waiting with what I thought was a polite demi-smile on my face. If I don't do this I naturally have "RBF". The demi-smile satisfies most people but not all unfortunately. The guy, who was being helped by another (smiling) woman, looked over at me and said, loudly, "she's smiling but that one there she ain't smiling!"

Reader, I felt instant and seething rage. I scowled, and my scowl is such that people who see it usually shrink back and scuttle off. He shrank back but looked offended. This is a desirable response when being catcalled on the street, but this is work and not the street. It's happened before with other people and that's annoying and angering but I've never been called "that one" before. I found it humiliating and demeaning. Now, I do get that emotional labor comes with having a service job. I understand that I am being paid in part to, essentially, play a role, to act with Disney-princess-y upbeatness and pep. This being the South that kind of thing is very common, even from the men in service jobs to the extent such perkiness is ever expected from men, and I knew that when I took the job. I understand that all I have to do is manufacture the requested uplifted lips and they will leave me alone. My problem is I let it make me angry, it gets to me, and it affects the rest of my day and affects my interactions with people who did nothing wrong whatsoever.

My questions are,

1.) What can I say, when told to smile, that will make it clear I am not an object or a Barbie doll, while at the same time being polite? Yes, politeness is required. I need the job. At the same time just submitting to such comments (by smiling in response, however wrathfully) makes me feel like I am a dog being told to sit.

2.) Why does this make me so angry?

3.) How do I just not let it bother me so much?

posted by Armed Only With Hubris to Work & Money (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My observation as to #2 is because you may essentially feel like you're being treated like a robot, and that you weren't allowed to be human (ie, not smile for a second). You were called "that one" like you were something on display. I would be annoyed, too.

I worked retail before. It wasn't easy putting on a facade; some people are good at it, some aren't. I don't think I am. If you aren't, that's okay, too. But, perhaps, I'd recommend trying to find another job that isn't so stringent on smiling and allows you to be more yourself, or one that you can work behind the scenes. My two cents.
posted by dubious_dude at 6:13 PM on February 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

I actually do like a lot about this job. I just need help with this one aspect of it, how to be more relaxed, less reactive. This is actually an issue that affects all my jobs, even non-customer facing ones, because I am always perceived as overly serious/not jokey/bantery enough. So this is really a question about working in a smile-expectant culture in general.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 6:25 PM on February 23, 2019

Can you fake a sneeze? Then it looks as if you were trying to fight it off?
posted by tilde at 6:49 PM on February 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've been in a lot of customer-facing jobs with these kind of expectations. The "performative" expectations are really high and difficult to meet all the time, it's not just you. I'm a pretty smiley person generally, but my face literally hurt in my first few weeks/months from having to smile SO much. And I actually think it's kind of emotionally damaging, too, to have to wear an affective mask all the time. But at the end of the day, getting to socialize for hours all day every day is rewarding and helps you develop some really good soft skills.

Anyway, how I have handled it in the past:

Chuckle. Not in an angry or mocking way, just chuckle in shock/incredulousness that this guy apparently doesn't know how to act. You know you're laughing at what a disrespectful asshole this guy is being, and he sorta does too -- but not in a way that he can call you on, since he told you to smile. A lot of the time, the customer will laugh along with you and then it's basically all good, especially if you then start a conversation with him.

People that do this are just making an inappropriate bid for your attention. The thing is, since they're customers, giving them attention is your job, so even though their bid was obnoxious, you do ultimately have to reach out to them in response. Just tip your hand a bit (like with a surprised expression/laugh) that how they tried to get your attention wasn't the best, but that they do have it now.

Another tact or a way to respond once you and the customer are talking is to act concerned that the customer himself isn't happy. "Oh, is everything OK? Can I do anything for you?" -- draw ostensibly concerned and thoughtful attention to the fact that he's not smiling, either, and is in fact acting pretty surly and unhappy himself.

Your anger and defensiveness are normal feelings to have in response people crossing your boundaries, which is what these customers are doing when they make personal comments. It's really intrusive to not only have your work but your facial expression and emotions policed. It's like your inner self is being policed, and that feels wrong. It is wrong! Just acknowledge that your flare of anger is legitimate, but that you're also safe and don't have to push back super hard on these boundary crossers in order to defend yourself -- you just have to start up the employee/customer "script" with them and the interaction will probably go back to being inpersonal and well within your comfort zone again. And if the customer does keep boundary crossing, that's when you get a manager (or at least a coworker) and have them help the customer instead of you continuing to do so. And again, you're safe, you can remove yourself from the interaction in order to protect your boundaries instead of giving a lot of direct/explicit pushback.
posted by rue72 at 6:57 PM on February 23, 2019 [25 favorites]

I was the exact same way when I worked in retail. Honestly, I was never able to fake it/banter/smile enough. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake my reputation as harsh, or a downer, or any of a number of other synonyms for bitch. Part of it was amplified by the sexist culture of the team I worked with. Part of it was that my personality type was never suited for the retail environment, regardless of how much I liked other parts of my job. Now that I no longer work in a job where it feels like my demeanor is constantly being evaluated, I feel so much better. It’s crazy how much better my mental health is, being able to largely focus on my work, with social expectations being a much smaller part of my day.
posted by bluloo at 7:01 PM on February 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

One thing that worked well for me was to wear bright colors or something playful. This makes people focus on that visual playful thing and assume that you are happy. I used to work trade shows where you still have to be friendly after days of non-stop presenting and being social in the evenings with sales staff, etc. At one trade show, for example, I had red clogs and blue clogs so I wore one of each and most people wondered where they could get a pair; it really distracted from my fatigue and the empty spaces when you're exhausted. So if you can wear something to help you get your friendly vibe going, people will infer the rest.

I so empathize with your rage about smiling. There's nothing more rage inducing than being commanded to smile. I used to get it a lot when I was a college student by random men walking by me in Westwood. One day, I was making a concerted effort to smile while walking so I wouldn't get taunted, and a man said "What are you smiling about, shit for brains?" So there's nothing you can do that others won't criticize you for.
posted by effluvia at 7:16 PM on February 23, 2019 [15 favorites]

False smile or grimace, and turn away if possible. Public service can be the pits. On Hallowe'en some ugly old guy said to me (my back was turned, checking an inventory list) 'Great costume, oh you're not wearing one'. I guess I was supposed to laugh. Why do they think anyone wants to help them after being insulted? Why would you want to smile after being chided for not lookng as perky as they think you should? You are doing your job pleasantly and competently and that is enough. He's lucky you didn't hit him with a stapler.
posted by Enid Lareg at 7:35 PM on February 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you were angry because that man was acting like a grade-A asshole.
posted by Hypatia at 7:49 PM on February 23, 2019 [26 favorites]

I can speak to your question "why does it make me so angry?" I have a legit RBF. I look sullen and miserable most of the time, and I used to get comments on it constantly, especially when I was in my 20s. It made me angry because it deeply hurt me to think that people were seeing this miserable bitch when I was acrually pretty happy and pleasant. I felt mis-judged, unheard, doubted, and unseen all the time. I felt a frustration because I wasn't able to portray to others that I was a happy positive person,and all they saw was someone negative.

It made me angry because it hurt. It still doesn't feel good, but I'm used to it and if I get comments now I just smile and say "it's hard going through life with a resting bitch face!"

In the same vein, I also get offended and when people say "I used to think you were the biggest bitch but now I see you're cool!" No. You used to mis-judge me based on your own bias and then you took the time to acrually connect with me and now you see I'm human too. (Eyeroll).
posted by katypickle at 7:49 PM on February 23, 2019 [9 favorites]

rue72 put it beautifully. I only wanted to add that once you've done it for a while, at least in my case, I started to be able to think of my face as sort of a mask that wasn't necessarily a reflection of my innermost thoughts and feelings. Maybe my default "resting" face arrangement changed?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:53 PM on February 23, 2019

What can I say, when told to smile, that will make it clear I am not an object or a Barbie doll, while at the same time being polite?

[In a very kind tone] Sir, I was concentrating on helping this gentleman/lady. Sometimes, when I'm focused on helping someone, I forget to smile. [To your actual customer] I hope you don't mind.

I think it's possible to say these things in a kind, or friendly, or gracious tone without actually smiling. I think in general if you can keep up a friendly patter while you work, or make patient noises here and there, that can create a sympathy between you and the customers without you having to act delighted all the time. (Might not be enough if you work at Disney, but ought to be enough in most other contexts.) It might feel less dehumanizing to focus on kindness toward the wretched mass of humanity than on being perky and positive.

I wonder if you could also offload some of the sympathy-building to other aspects of your presentation, like wearing something funny or quirky for the customers to focus on, or bright colors as suggested above, or having something cute placed on your work area.

This is actually an issue that affects all my jobs, even non-customer facing ones, because I am always perceived as overly serious/not jokey/bantery enough. So this is really a question about working in a smile-expectant culture in general.

I think you can get around that by showing you're involved in these social interactions in other ways: listening intently, showing interest in their lives, giving the occasional appreciative smile or empathetic comment. Bringing in the occasional cookies (which on the one hand might feel annoying to need to do, and on the other hand is a less effortful way of contributing "fun").

Regardless, I think feeling angry is more than normal. We're not robots, nobody should have to feel one way or another, let alone have to feign exaggerated emotion. I'd say that if a job requires acting we should get better paid for it, but then again I guess acting isn't generally a profitable occupation...
posted by trig at 7:58 PM on February 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

The chimpanzees in the linked pictures have, like you, been coerced into making a facial expression by means of threats. The resulting fear grimace is something that looks quite a lot like a human smile - but to chimps it means that they distrust what is going on, that they are not at all comfortable and that they would happily rip somebody's arm off.

You might find it helpful to meditate on this at certain times.
posted by rongorongo at 9:31 PM on February 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

Resting demi-smile should be fine and that guy was an asshole.

I have friends who handle it differently. One says, totally deadpan, "well, my mom has cancer, so." I don't know why they let her get away with it, but her mom DOES have cancer (she's been living with it for a few years), so it's true? Anyway, not recommended.

I have another friend who, unsmiling, replies, "Oh, I thought I was smiling," and then shrugs philosophically.

I've gone with, "sorry, not right now." I'm pretty good at projecting appropriate customer service emotions, though, so that's just me.

I did have to learn that you don't have to smile with your whole face to get the job done; if I'm really not feeling it, what feels like a grimace to me will count as a smile to jerks.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:42 AM on February 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Well, first I would ask if your manager has your back. You say you like the job, which is a big plus. If you and your manager have the sort of relationship where you can openly discuss situations like this, it might be a good idea. They might be well aware that some customers are simply rude, tell you you're doing a great job overall and try not to let the occasional jerk bother you. Or they might have other helpful advice for dealing with rude customers. Hopefully their response would not be like "Well clearly you should have been smiling a huger smile!" because if it is, that's bad management.

In the specific case you mentioned, and maybe other cases, is it possible to just try to act like you didn't hear the comment at all? Honestly, I think most attempts at a direct response to people like that will only escalate the situation. They are being assholes, plain and simple.
posted by wondermouse at 6:49 AM on February 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

"I am smiling?" [gently puzzled head shake]
posted by desuetude at 7:33 AM on February 24, 2019

Some people are just rude sums it up. Shrug it off.

You're probably more a task-oriented than relationship-oriented sort of person; your emphasis on getting it done right is one clue to that. While that's totally OK, there are some jobs where people orientation is part of the job. I'm particularly aware that in a lot of front-facing-service type places, the people orientation is actually one of the big reasons why a certain customer segment is going there. For instance, I definitely choose my car rental company above others because the people are nicer and that's clearly part of company values. So you just have here a disconnect between your values/priorities, and that of the customer.

If it's part of the job to smile, do your best. When someone makes a jerk comment like that, maybe try something like "just working on getting this done right" - with a smile - and shrug it off. There's no "winning" by making a bigger point of it in these situations. Especially when the company clearly has its values, and it's not clear whether your manager can back you up.

I get that there are politics and critical theory that go with all this, but being right within the situation in the moment is not the best time to resist and the anger only hurts you. You might need to think about a change of workplace or industry entirely; if you're stuck here for now, just observe and learn and do what you think it takes to get through.

One thing you might do is just describe this interaction to your manager and ask what you should have done in this instance. Maybe you can work up a range of acceptable responses to have at the ready.
posted by Miko at 7:34 AM on February 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I hate to say it, but this is what service jobs are all about. The customer has all the power and you have none, and it makes them feel good to order you to SMILE!. You ARE an object/Barbie doll to them. If you don't SMILE!, they call your supervisor. You can't fight back. You do have to submit. You are a dog being told to sit. You can't stand up for yourself in the way that your heart wants to. That's just the life of a service worker. And if you're in the South, I assume that goes double there. Unless you can do that syrupy sweet "bless your heart" thing, which I am not an expert on but might work there. Any reaction you have has to be couched in smiles and so much sweet it makes you sick, really. Your reactions have to be impeccable so that when the guy complains to your supervisor that you were, I dunno, too perky (I don't know of anyone getting complained about to their supervisor for that one), he looks ridiculous instead of being correct that you weren't smiley enough.

Why does it make you angry? Because this kind of emotional labor is abuse and not human. Of course it makes you angry. I'm angry reading this on your behalf. I'm angry all the times I got critiqued on this shit myself. I'm angry on behalf of my coworker the other week who obviously got annoyed at a customer who was being difficult and then the customer complained that she wasn't being nice enough. Having to have a happy perky service mask on all the time is godawful. But: that is what you are getting paid to do. I can't find any jobs these days that don't require "excellent customer service skills," so learning how to take abuse with a smile is a job requirement.

How do you not let it bother you so much? Sadly I don't have an answer to that one, other than learning how to postpone your emotions. Once you're off the clock you can seethe all you like, but as long as all eyes are on you, judging your lack of smile, you have to work hard to mask everything.

I use the anger to fill my smiles and Disney perky, really. I may be smiling like a chimpanzee, but they can't complain that there isn't a required smile on my face.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:21 AM on February 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

I wear reading glasses and if I were still in retail and someone said that to me, I'd lower my head and stare at them over the glasses. I'd be saying to myself, silently, assholes gonna asshole.

It's a small aggression (larger than micro-) for a person who is engaged in a different interaction to make a demand of you. Of course it was a guy, because men are more likely to want to exert dominance, even in such a small way with someone they're unlikely to see again, though women also do dominance behaviors. When I worked in retail, it got better when I was the owner, because I developed my own sense of power and control, and it shows, in body posture, probably in pheromones, in language. Dress up a little, not cute, but wear quality clothing that feels like that's what your boss should be wearing. Research disproved the Power Stance recommendation, but try it if it feels helpful. Set your shoulders, i.e., consciously make sure they're not tensed and raised, hands out of pockets and relaxed at your sides, stand or sit tall, knowing you are in control of your 2 ft diameter of space. Work on removing hesitance from your language.

Service work is unvalued, but it's important, skilled, and necessary. Be proud of who you are and what you do, and silently tell assholes to Fuck Off with a pleasant smile and strong telepathic waves. Use your anger to fuel being good at what you do, and remember it when it's time to vote, spend, etc. Don't do business with jerks or elect them or date them.
posted by theora55 at 9:45 AM on February 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

Others have given really solid and meaningful answers. Just here to add my stupid tip, which helped me enormously but absolutely depends on your workplace culture and whether or not there is a general understanding that sometimes customers are assholes and it's hard to let the dehumanizing aspects of customer service roll off of you.

We had a Smile, Honey jar in the back. It was like a swear jar but our coworkers had to put money in it when customers told us to smile, whistled at us like dogs to get our attention, etc. Amounts ranged from whatever pocket change we had around to five dollars for customers so bad they become breakroom legends, and proceeds were spent on breakroom doughnuts and post-work bar trips beer. And it was amazing, because the bigger the asshole, the more reason I had to smile at him, since a five-dollar asshole was basically buying me a beer and didn't know it.
posted by xylothek at 1:04 PM on February 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

You need to perfect the “you’re a twat” smile. Smile sweetly with your face while projecting “you’re a complete twat” with your eyes. If there’s a way of responding in a slightly non-sequitur, I-must-have-misheard-you way that is also patronising, do that too. So for the Halloween outfit one, a big beam and “I love your costume too!” like you are speaking to a toddler (assuming he was in street clothes). Or a completely random “Oh have you? Good for you!” will wrong-foot most people enough to make them shut up and go away. It certainly isn’t the reaction they want.

And with the Halloween guy, some people are so stupid that, if they think of a funny joke, they are so pleased with themselves that they have to try it out on everybody they meet, regardless of context. You were probably the 8th person he said that to that day. It’s unlikely he was trying to offend you, or that the thought that he was being insulting ever crossed his mind. He did a funny and wanted a cookie for it. Like a small child. You were meant to laugh and tell him how funny he was. I don’t know how these people dress themselves in a morning, but enough of them seem to exist.
posted by tinkletown at 1:17 PM on February 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

Really, just mentally invoke Nancy Pelosi's clap, and you'll probably be unable to *stop* smiling.
posted by theora55 at 2:35 PM on February 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

You sound great. Please keep on not smiling.
posted by Morpeth at 3:20 AM on February 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

1.) What can I say, when told to smile, that will make it clear I am not an object or a Barbie doll, while at the same time being polite?

"I beg your pardon?" (Raise eyebrows and look down your nose while saying this.)

2.) Why does this make me so angry?

Because you're being treated as less than, and nobody appreciates that kind of treatment.

3.) How do I just not let it bother me so much?

I actually enjoyed working retail, assholes and all, and had no problem with customers going off on me, thanks to two approaches that really helped me keep it from feeling personal:

1. My retail persona was an act, where I was hired to perform the role of retail salesperson. As such, I could pretend to be amused by stupid customer jokes, and impervious to stupid customer insults, because they weren't interacting with me, they were interacting with Retail Lunaloon.

2. Every time somebody (owner, coworker, or customer) said or did something really out of line, I mentally laughed and congratulated them for giving me another "stupid boss/coworker/customer" tale to share with family and friends. Cuz that shit never gets old, and people love to share these stories. So thank you, Mr. Asshole, my friends and I will be mocking you mercilessly later tonight.

But the big issue is that retail staff are expected to take this crap, well beyond what reasonable limits for reasonable persons should permit. Like I said, I was able to depersonalize it for myself by treating it all as an act. But when I became the retail manager, I told my crew to page me immediately when they had a problem customer. Because my view of my role as manager was: I was getting paid to take abuse, but they were not. So I'd happily handle the problem people, especially since, the nastier they got, the happier I was to say No to their demands. I could keep denying their demands all day or until they gave up and went away. It really cheered me up.
posted by Lunaloon at 7:18 AM on February 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I, too, have RBF, and have been told many times in the past that I look angry or sullen or upset. It's just my face, people. I have gotten better at keeping that sort of demi-smile on my face, unless I am concentrating deeply on something, and that has cut way down on the commands to smile. (And those commands are deeply infuriating! I am not your servant, and unless I am actively rolling my eyes or sticking my tongue out at you, my facial expression is not yours to command!)

(People ordering me to smile don't succeed anyway, because every time it happens, I am so gobsmacked and startled by the "did you really just do that?!"-ness of it that I end up giving them a baffled, blinking stare.)
posted by sarcasticah at 9:22 AM on February 25, 2019

Something that helps me when I need to smile for work and definitely don't feel like smiling or being told to smile, is to think of my smile as a threat signal. Supposedly many animals use smiles/baring teeth as a non-verbal cue for aggression. So, I try to frame my smile as an aggressive act, I visualize my smile as a "fuck you" that bores into the customers and masters who I feel have made me their tool. It's like getting to tell everyone personally "fuck you and fuck this job and fuck this economic system that necessitates I be here doing this fucking bullshit" but they can't argue back or react to it because for all they know it's just a friendly grin.
posted by GoblinHoney at 4:01 PM on February 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

There's another survival strategy - I am not necessarily recommending it but putting it on the table as something that may or may not work for you or in your setting. For instance, it may work better in a coffee shop type setting than in a receptionist type setting. It is: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. You can sometimes use responses that are so left-field, so unexpected, that they're neither offensive to the customer, nor rewarding to the customer. But use with caution. It can be effective in that it makes customers a little uncomfortable and that tends to stop the "joshing" behavior. But it also makes some people uneasy, so you need to be a bit comfortable being branded the weird one.

Maybe riff on the word "smile" itself:

Let me awaken with a smile
And go to garden glee,
For there is such a little while
Of living left to me

Or Emily Dickinson, a particularly badass one:

Her smile was shaped like other smiles —
The Dimples ran along —
And still it hurt you, as some Bird
Did hoist herself, to sing,
Then recollect a Ball, she got —
And hold upon the Twig,
Convulsive, while the Music broke —
Like Beads — among the Bog —
posted by Miko at 6:35 AM on February 26, 2019

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