Not long ago I was doing some thinking in the shower, you know, where all the best thinking happens, and I decided that I should probably smile more. I don't even really know where the thought came from or why, but I do know that for the first time in my life I’m generally happy and content, so I should really exercise my face muscles more often. The corners of my mouth naturally turn down when it’s just sitting there minding its own business, but I got convicted recently that if I’ve got the joy joy joy joy down in my heart, then maybe I should actually let my face surely show it.
So I had been mulling that around for a couple of days when I had an interaction with a male co-worker. It was a pleasant exchange – polite, professional. We talked briefly about a project I was working on and I was given some instructions and then he left. And when he left I thought, “Gosh, I didn’t smile at all.” I could have at least looked happy about the project or given some indication that I wasn't mad/annoyed/upset. Why don’t I smile more often? Why don’t I smile readily and happily and automatically?
Just over two years ago now an article was published by The Huffington Post about women and this thing they do that men aren’t usually aware of and perhaps women aren’t aware they do it. I still remember it because it was so striking. It said,
We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to… We learn at a young age how to do this. We didn’t put a name or label to it. We didn’t even consider that other girls were doing the same thing. But we were teaching ourselves, mastering the art of de-escalation. Learning by way of observation and quick risk assessment what our reactions should and shouldn’t be.
“Learning by… quick risk assessment what our reactions should and shouldn’t be.” Yes! We think to ourselves, 'How should I react right now? What is this person going to think? How do I keep this short and to the point?' And when it gets uncomfortable we minimize our situations. We de-escalate. We think, 'What can I say to get out of this in the least confrontational/awkward way possible? How do I back away from this politely so as not to be seen as rude?' I read this article and thought, “Oh, dang. I have done this for as long as I can remember.” And I realized in thinking through my interaction with my coworker that this is also the reason I’m slow to smile. Granted, he did not make me uncomfortable. He did not make me feel anything at all. But I’ve trained myself to hold back often enough that it comes more natural than smiling.
I don’t smile that often because I don’t want to give someone the wrong idea. Maybe this sounds conceited to you, but that is not my heart. I don’t think every man I interact with is interested in me. But too many of the wrong ones have been. Too often I had people tell me I was flirting with someone who I had no intention of flirting with because, apparently, I was really smiley and laughing too much. Too often I had men pursue me because they thought I was flirting when I wasn’t, I was just trying to be nice. Too often I had inappropriate comments made to me and about me because of the way I look. Too often I had other women worried that I was flirting with their man because I was smiling and joking around, so they would cut me down or make fun of me in front of others. Too often I had male authority figures in my life make comments to me that were outrageously inappropriate.
When something happens too often, when you sense a pattern, you either consciously or unconsciously learn how to deal with it. I think this is where all my smiles got lost. This happened so often in my late teens and twenties that I eventually made myself smaller so as not to seem like I was “too much” or “too flirty.” A couple of years ago a friend said that I carry myself with a general attitude of, “Nothing to see here.” But I think I just learned to become less – to go out of my way to make everyone else feel comfortable so that I don’t seem imposing or intimidating or flirting, especially with a man that was never even on my radar. Don’t smile. Don’t give him the wrong idea. Don’t give her the wrong idea. Become less. Shrink. Melt away if you can. Is it possible to vaporize at this moment? I wish. I think a lot of us have done this - become bearers of the message, “Nothing to see here.”
The article went on to say that when we’ve encountered a situation where we know we must de-escalate, “We go through a quick mental checklist. Does he seem volatile, angry? Are there other people around? Does he seem reasonable and is just trying to be funny, albeit clueless? Will saying something impact my school/job/reputation? In a matter of seconds we determine whether we will say something or let it slide. Whether we’ll call him out or turn the other way, smile politely or pretend that we didn’t hear/see/feel it.”
A few other things on my mental checklist are, “How well do I know this person?” “How will other people perceive this interaction?” And all of this happens within a flicker of a second. In the span of one awkward comment or one up and down look in your direction. But the problem with de-escalation is we're usually trying to be nice.
I was raised to be a nice person. Say please and thank you. Listen. Obey. Respect authority. Put others before yourself. So I guess I just always felt like I had to be polite - especially to authority figures. Like that article says, we learn to “play along to get along.” Don’t cause a scene. Don’t be a problem. Be nice. So I never wanted to start a fuss but I’ve learned, more often than not, I should have started a fuss. And sometimes you don’t have to be polite. Sometimes you don’t have to put others first. Sometimes you can just say, “You know what, you need to run along. And don’t talk to me like that.” I look back on the whole 33 years of my life and there are so many times I should have stood up for myself, respected myself just a LITTLE bit and said, “Don’t talk to me like that.” “Don’t treat me like that.” In fact, the one time I did snap back and say that, I got fired. I told my man-child of a boss, “Don’t talk to me like that,” and a couple of days later, he fired me. But I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. I maybe could have said it with a little bit more tact, but for once in my life I stood up for myself and it felt great.
Maybe you've never felt the need to de-escalate a situation, but have you ever been asked to smile? Because that's a prime example. I have been asked/told this so many times. “You should smile more.” “You look prettier when you’re smiling.” And this has happened in all sorts of arenas – work, church, out with friends – but many times it happens with strangers – at the checkout of the grocery store, or even just walking by someone on the street. And in my heart my reaction is always, 'Are you kidding me right now?' First of all, I don’t even know you. Second of all, how do you know what happened to me that day? What if my mom died or something? Should I be smiling then? And third of all, what if we’ve all tucked our smiles away because we don’t want you to think we’re flirting? We don’t want you to come talk to us. We don’t want you to approach so we’re putting out approximately zero vibe on purpose. But, you know, we want to be nice. So we usually smile.
I’m walking a fine line here. I am aware of this. Like even as I type this I feel like I’ll get pushback from people who will say, “Wow, calm down. They’re just trying to make conversation.” Sure, but there are plenty of people who know how to do this without demanding something of me. Maybe something like, “How’s your day?”
And listen, I am not bashing men. Hear me say this: not all men are like this. Say it out loud to yourself if you have to: Not. All. Men. Are. Like. This. I have so many amazing examples in my life of men who take their calling seriously and show honor and respect to women in beautiful ways. But I also know that not all of us have the same experience. Maybe the men in your life have been horrible to you. Maybe you’ve had nothing but terrible interactions – men with wicked hearts who took advantage of you, hurt you, betrayed you. I know this. I know you’re out there. At times, I have been in that position. So I’m praying right this minute that a man who fears the Lord would enter your life even today. That one would step up to the plate and show you what it means to honor and respect you as a woman.
Because so many women have been put in these uncomfortable situations, or because they feel like they have to push back doubly hard against wicked men, our culture has created the idea that “The future is female.” I get the underlying feeling it’s trying to promote so don’t @ me, but I find it to be a little vapid because if we’re to have a shot at a future at all the fact is we need men. The future is men and women working together, living together, going to school and work and church together, cooperating, sharing, respecting and honoring one another. The future is strong women and good men. Our men are smart and endearing and funny and helpful and brave and we need them! We just need more of them to step up and be men, not weak little boys who take a rejection as a reason to whine and a girl not smiling at them as a personal affront. So yes and amen, let’s raise strong girls who are brave enough to say, “Don’t talk to me like that.” But let’s also raise good men who wouldn’t even think of talking to her like that in the first place.
I just finished reading Anna Kendrick's book, Scrappy Little Nobody. She's the actress from all the Pitch Perfect movies and I thought it would be a funny book but it's not really that funny. Anyway, the part I appreciated about it is when she talks about being nice. Especially as girls, we're raised to want to be seen as nice and,
"Lest we be besmirched with that most damning label (being called "difficult"), it feels imperative that we strive for "nice." When I'm put in an uncomfortable position or when someone asks something of me that I feel borders on taking advantage, the threat of "so nice" being snatched away from me hangs in the air. Should I stand my ground, or be a doormat? How many concessions would I have to make, how much crap would I have to swallow to stay a "nice girl"? ... Nice is different than good. Do you need to do whatever you're told to be a nice person? Maybe. Do you need to do whatever you're told to be a good person? Of course not! Man, woman, personal, professional - some people have a skill for persuading you the best thing you can be is obedient... [But] I gave up on being nice. I started putting more value on other qualities instead: passion, bravery, intelligence, practicality, humor, patience, fairness, sensitivity."
Amen. Let's stop worrying about being nice. Let's be wise, humble, compassionate, smart. But nice doesn't need to hold so much value.
I really do still feel like I should smile more, but not because I'm still striving for nice. I want to care less if you think I'm nice and more about being a ferocious woman of God, who cares deeply for people. I want to be steady and brave. I want to show mercy and grace. Let's raise brave girls who aren't afraid to stand up for themselves and kind boys who grow up to be men who don't put women in uncomfortable situations where they have to decide how to de-escalate. Listen, I get it, the waters of our current culture are murky. And I'm not a parent so I'm not even going to give you advice on how to raise your kids to be this way. But the fact is, we need each other, and the only way into the future is together.