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Via Heartless Doll, I’m pleased to report that Dear Abby has finally taken on an issue of paramount feminist concern: The etiquette of reacting to the strange man who insists that you smile for him.
Abby, to her credit, suggests that the recipient of the “smile!” command drop the formalities and get the eff away from her harasser. But not before she engages in some dubious psychoanalysis of the “Smile, Baby Guy.”
But first, the letter:
DEAR ABBY: I am a 29-year-old female who would like to know why people feel compelled to tell random strangers to “smile.”
I was in the market the other night and a man came walking by me saying, “You dropped something,” and was pointing to the floor. I looked down and said, “I don’t see anything.” He then told me, “You dropped your smile.”
Abby, I was SO not amused. I turned around going back to my business saying, “Oh, OK.” The man proceeded to walk away mumbling, “Don’t look so serious. It’s only the grocery store.”
I hate when people do this. It happens to me a lot and has most of my life. People—-especially seniors—-say, “Don’t you dare smile for me, don’t you dare!” Or, “Smile! You’re too cute not to smile.” An old gentleman said, “Oh, she’s like ice — so cold, never smiles.”
What can I do if this happens again? I don’t see the need to walk around the store or sit at my desk at work with a Cheshire cat grin on my face all day. Any suggestions? — OFFENDED IN GILROY, CALIF.
Offended in Gilroy is actually posing two questions here: Why are these strangers telling me to smile? And what should I do about it?
Interestingly, Abby’s response to the second question—-get yourself to safety—-contradicts her answer to the first question, which positions the “Smile, Baby Guy” as a hapless social misfit, not a harasser.
DEAR OFFENDED: The man who asked if you had “lost” something may have been making a clumsy attempt to pick you up. That sometimes happens in markets. As to the “older people” who comment on your expression—-or lack thereof—-they may consider themselves so “senior” that they can “coax” you into doing as they would like—-like “coochy-kooing” a baby to make it laugh on cue.
Making personal remarks to strangers is, of course, rude. My advice to you is to distance yourself from those individuals as quickly as possible. Speaking personally, if I was approached the way you have been, the last thing I’d be inclined to do is smile or engage them at all. I’d be offended, too.
In Abby’s view, strangers who demand that women smile are harmless, “clumsy” romantics who are just following standard behavior or what “happens in markets.” Interestingly, Abby comes around when she addresses the behavior of the “older people” who tell people to smile. Abby theorizes that harassment from the elderly is born of a sense of entitlement.
Actually, anyone who instructs a stranger to smile does so because they feel entitled to exert their power over another person’s private emotions. The fact that these casual, grocery-store power plays disproportionally target youth and women says a lot about how our social hierarchy works—-and the harasser’s dismissal that it’s “only the grocery store” shows how this sexism is far-reaching enough to be excused as “normal” behavior.