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Without a wink or a smile

Smile for the camera...or not

I have a compulsive smiling problem.

When someone gets on the elevator with me, I smile. When the bagger hands me my groceries, I smile. When someone opens the door for me, I smile. The only time I don’t smile is when someone at the grocery store says, “Hey, why don’t you smile for me?” and I want to stuff arugula down their throat, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

I think this is a female thing. I also think it’s a desperate-need-to-please-others-and-be-liked thing, which I am working on getting over. I listened to a RadioLab podcast recently about the nature of laughter which revealed that we often laugh when things are not funny. We laugh as a social function to let people know, “Everything’s ok! We’re all friends here!” I think smiling is the same way. I smile to let people know I am not a threat. Please don’t give me trouble. Smile, smile, smile.

It is hard to stop smiling. I find the corners of my mouth being pulled up by invisible marionette strings. Don’t do that! I murmur in my mind. I have been reading my guidebooks in preparation for my trip to Europe and they say “Don’t smile in Paris! It can be seen as flirting.” The French don’t smile willy nilly like Americans do, which is part of the reason they are sometimes seen as rude. I don’t want to attract weird French men to me, so I’ve got to stop this compulsive smiling…or buy a fake wedding ring.

This is not to say I am going to stop smiling. I will not Botox my smile muscles closed. I will still smile when someone has been nice or if I really do want to flirt. I just need to stop smiling for no reason or strictly out of fear or discomfort. Don’t worry, I promise to smile in all my touristy photos.

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40 Comments

cc • April 30, 2009 at 9:35 am

am not sure a fake wedding ring will do the trick in france. ahem.

i wouldn’t worry too much. i also smile loads all the time (in europe and france) and there has been no serious trouble yet. not even a hint of it. i also particularly smile when i’m nervous which does make heading off the unwelcome advances a little complicated and probably take a little longer than it should, but not impossible. generally though smiley-ness is a great thing.

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Christine • April 30, 2009 at 10:29 am

It will be pretty obvious that you’re American in any case, so I don’t think it’s the end of the world to smile. They will expect you to :)

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Shelley • April 30, 2009 at 10:31 am

I don’t know…that Gilles from Dancing With the Stars is French, and he is so gorgeous and sexay – maybe you DO want to find a Frenchman!

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Kimmi • April 30, 2009 at 10:34 am

I feel your pain, I too am a compulsive smiler! Though I find that it is often better than opening my mouth. If I just smile people usually leave me alone…is that a bad thing?

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Richard • April 30, 2009 at 10:44 am

I think it’s a Midwestern thing. I’ve lived in New York, Ohio, and Virginia, and can tell you that almost every Buckeye smiled by way of silent greeting. They almost all wanted to know how I was doing.

Hey Ohio! I’m fine!

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jkd • April 30, 2009 at 10:49 am

Why wouldn’t you want to flirt with Frenchmen? It’s not like they’re going to abduct you. Also, I highly recommend taking advantage of the free hugs given out in random metro stations (there’ll be signs). It’s nice to get a little bit of affection while you’re negotiating a foreign city.

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Keri • April 30, 2009 at 11:40 am

I too, suffer from your affliction. I also do it in emails and text messages. :-) See? I often have to go back after I’ve written something and edit them down. Sometimes it’s a passive-aggressive thing with me, in which I follow a request with a smiley face. I have started removing those smileys because I should be able to assertively ask for something, right? Haha. (That’s another thing I do, the nervous “haha” after everything I feel stupid for typing). Boy, am I neurotic or what? Haha. ;-) See? I can’t stop!!!! Ahhhhh!!!

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vivi • April 30, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Don’t worry, I’m European, a compulsive smiler, I have lived in Paris and have never had a single problem, a normal smile is a normal smile and a flirting-smile is a flirting-smile :)

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Schmeesa • April 30, 2009 at 12:15 pm

I lived in Brazil for 9 years, where they are generally exceptionally happy people, but don’t smile willy-nilly, either.

Brazilians make eye contact, but keep their faces neutral. When I moved back to the States, the first thing I noticed was the compulsive smiling-it actually felt creepy and came off as fake or even demented. The funny thing is, though, after a few months of being back in the US, I forgot all about it and reverted back to my old knee-jerk smiling ways. It’s a cultural thing.

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Lainey • April 30, 2009 at 12:37 pm

I’m the complete opposite. I occasionally try to force a smile in social situations, but it always feels like it comes out as a grimace. I’m Canadian. So much for the “friendly” stereotype! :o) (But I can do it (smile) online, see?!)

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Aline • April 30, 2009 at 12:41 pm

I also do the smile thing – but more embarrassingly I used to also wave at people all the time – sometimes even people I didn’t know. Now that’s something I had to teach myself to not do anymore because it makes it difficult for people to perceive you as a grown up.

I have lived in Europe most of my life and am now living in America. I will continue to smile at everyone. It has only brought me good things, no bad things at all. The only thing that is somewhat bad is that often people don’t smile back – more so in Europe than in America (and at Starbucks in Chicago).

If you don’t want to be recognized as American in Europe – don’t wear sneakers. You can wear cool sneakers like vintagy Addidas or those kind of colorful Nikes that the kids wear with skinny jeans but don’t wear your work out shoes. This is the number one way to recognize an American. Also baseball hates – people in Europe don’t really wear them much. Oh and please for the love of god – do not wear your back pack in the front – this singles you out as an easy target and you will have creepy guys wanting to show you around all over you. I used to make fun of the front-wearers when I was living in Amsterdam.

Enjoy your trip and don’t stop smiling! It makes people happy to be smiled at!

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Melanie • April 30, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Please don’t stop smiling. We need more smiles in this world.

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” -Mother Teresa

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JEM • April 30, 2009 at 1:07 pm

I also smile a lot.

I feel so akward when I smile at someone and they give me a weird look. This happened a lot when I lived in Miami.

I wondered if I should stop smiling. But I decided against it. Its just who I am…

However I love it when I visit friends in Southern Georgia, the people were friendly and my smiles were not wasted.

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K • April 30, 2009 at 1:35 pm

I lived in France for a year and nobody tried to flirt with me at all. Maybe I look constantly glum?

I think I smile as much as the average (British) person – particularly if I’m nervous, admittedly. Though it’s very irritating when people say “Smile! It may never happen.” Excuse me? I think it just has.

You have a really nice smile, I always think. Mine is a bit goofy because I’ve got a small mouth – or that’s what I think when I see photos of myself!

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Becca • April 30, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Oh I KNOW!!! This morning I apologized for being in existence! i was waiting for the elevator and a Woman came around the corner and was startled ot see me there and jumped. And I smiled and said sorry! For standing there!

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Laura N • April 30, 2009 at 2:26 pm

I have the same issue. & it’s mostly a problem in the business world, where everyone has to be serious. I apologize alot too. It’s interesting to figure out why we do these things. & then try to imrove. Because there are times when smiling is not appropriate, & when it’s compulsive & you can’t help yourself, then it’s a problem.

The Frenchmen will hit on you whether you don’t smile or wear a wedding ring. I got hit on in Paris by a waiter who wanted me to meet him after he got off work. I said no. He said, “why not? We Frenchmen are very good lovers.” EWW! Oh, & a drunk old man tried to hit on me in the subway. He didn’t get very far b/c the prof’s wife who was in charge of our tour group got in his way & told him to leave me alone. Which was good because I was only 23 & very naive & wasn’t sure what to do. So figure out a way to fend off all those French guys!

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Barb Cooper • April 30, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I think it’s a Southern thing. I do it, too and everyone here in New York looks at me like I must be some kind of mass murderer. I. Still. Can’t. Stop.

It’s like saying, “Y’all.”

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Kelly • April 30, 2009 at 3:15 pm

I guess it depends on where you go, but I got smiled at by many Parisians. Granted, most of them were in tourist locales, but I found everyone I came in contact with to be very nice.

I understand what you’re saying, though. I do the same thing with the smiling and sometimes deferring to others. I feel a need to be tougher, especially since I AM an attorney. Aren’t we all supposed to be bulldogs?

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Jen • April 30, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Or don’t buy the fake wedding ring and smile and bring yourself home a nice frenchman.

If you want to live there I hear they have excellent healthcare!

I know all about the weird men hitting on you. Good luck!

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jennywenny • April 30, 2009 at 3:58 pm

I think you should stay just as you are. The advice about the sneakers is good too.

Like anywhere else you’ll find some lovely people, and I’m sure the more you smile the more nice people you’ll find.

I just came back from New York, which has a reputation for everyone being short tempered and rude, but nearly everyone was just delightful and incredibly helpful.

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Laura Brandon • April 30, 2009 at 4:07 pm

I don’t smile enough. I’ve been told that. When someone smiles at me in the grocery store, I find it a struggle to pull the corners of my mouth up. I think I’d rather have your problem.

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Mechelle Crosby • April 30, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Please, keep on smiling! I’m from the Heart of Dixie, where everyone smiles at everything all the time. I’ve been travelling for a living for 10 years, mostly across the US, Europe, and Canada. And I have received “special consideration” many times simply because I smile. I’ve had many people in many different countries come up to me and tell me what a beautiful smile I have, simply because they are not used to seeing people with a friendly-shaped mouth. Whenever you smile, you give away a gift and make someone’s heart just a little lighter. Maybe that person will give it away later on, and so on, and so on. What a great pandemic to start, a Smile Pandemic!

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Quix • April 30, 2009 at 4:33 pm

I smile all the time too. People thought I was weird in So Cal, but here in Austin it’s normal. Yay! But I also have an engagement ring so people don’t get the wrong idea. :)

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Becki • April 30, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Interesting…this explains some of the weirder things that happened when I was in Paris!

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Marla • April 30, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Hey, why not attract weird Frenchmen to you? What’s a vacation for?

I totally get the female-placating aspect, but I also think that life sucks bad enough without being around bad tempered assholes. So I do tend to smile at random strangers because I figure it might make someone feel better for a moment, and that’s a good thing to put out in the universe.

Goodness knows I’m bad tempered enough myself, so I consider it good karma and part of my charity work.

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Mike • April 30, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Please don’t stop smiling. I don’t know you nor your smile but I understand what the guide book is talking about – there is a difference between a sincere smile and “I want to be liked” smile.

I was in Hawaii recenlty with a friend from England. We were on a nice patio bar and he would not stop ranting about fake American politeness – the watier comes to the table “how are you doing today?” he starts to answer and she cuts him off and asks him what he wants? He found this rude. Why didint she just do her job and ask for the drink order first?, he would ask. Politeness is a matter of perception.

Have fun in Europe. French guys rule.

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Michelle • April 30, 2009 at 8:32 pm

I grew up in Wisconsin and most everybody there smiles, I just do it because I’m introverted and it’s way easier than small talk.

Don’t you dare give up your smile, it lights up your face and Mother Theresa is right, it is a gift.

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Rebecca Hoover • April 30, 2009 at 10:55 pm

I vote with the smilers, what’s not to like about flirting? I’m pretty sure your kitties won’t mind. ;) Oooh, men with nice French accents.

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MizFit • May 1, 2009 at 6:50 am

Im with christine.

and so like you are.

they expect it of us Americans.

yet another reason they dont adore us americans :)

(OOH LOOK AT THAT. a smile…oops)

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Dee • May 1, 2009 at 7:49 am

I smile a lot but I don’t think it’s a people pleaser thing I think it’s because I’m friendly and I’m relatively in a good mood. Plus I like to approach the day in a good mood whether or not someone else is crabby around me.

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Olivia • May 1, 2009 at 9:14 am

You may also want to purchase a pair of dark sunglasses. It may not happen as much in France, but in Spain eye contact while walking down the street was enough for a cat call.

And I know you don’t want to be seen as rude, but Europeans can spot a tourist a mile away and there are some who will try to take advantage of that. In Athens, when a 50-something man said hi and I said hi back, he then asked me if I wanted “company” while I travelled and followed me for several blocks. In Amsterdam I was approached and when I told the guy to leave me alone, he grabbed my arm (I yelled at him to let go, garnering the attention of people on the street. He left quickly). In Bern, Swizterland I was followed for an hour in the train station while I was waiting for a friend.

Of course, I met LOTS of nice people, but one does need to be cautious of pick-pockets and questionable characters. Also beware of gypsies wanting to read your fortune.

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Femke • May 1, 2009 at 9:40 am

Hey there,

Maybe a late reply, but I just wanted to say that I do not really see the difference (when it comes to smiling) between Eureopeans and Americans. I am from the Netherlands and I smile a lot. I have been to Paris many times and I don’t recall anyone replying in an unwanted way to me or anyone smiling. French men are very attractive by the way, at least I think so… They will flirt with you no matter what, but I do not find them as annoying as Spanish men (in the big cities in Spain). And ofcourse you should be aware of pickpockets, but that’s the same in every big city anywhere.

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BrightAngel • May 1, 2009 at 10:56 am

Smiling is a GOOD thing.

There is research indicating just the act of smiling activates positive vibes in your brain.

PLUS,

As I am now 64, my skin is aging and wrinkles are deepening.

I’m not interested in having a plastic surgery look.

Most of the wrinkles on my face are “smile wrinkles”,

which are characteristic of a pleasant and happy person.

Look around you at the faces of people aged 60 and above,

Do you see the difference

between the wrinkles of those who’ve smiled their way through life,

and those who have lived with a discontented droop or frown?

Which would YOU rather be someday?

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Jamie • May 1, 2009 at 2:36 pm

I have this same problem. I smile constantly and have noticed that it really does seem to confuse some people. I hope you enjoy your trip!

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Amy • May 1, 2009 at 2:44 pm

I don’t smile much so maybe that’s why I don’t remember an issue in Europe. But I didn’t read the guidebooks about that… I’m just crabby.

I did have my camera pick-pocketed on the Tube (I felt it and caught the guy unzipping it out of the case, demanded it back loudly, and made enough commotion that he handed it to me and jumped off as the doors closed on him) and had a guy in Rome yell at us about how awful Bush was, but then I kind of agreed with him about that.

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Doji • May 4, 2009 at 11:58 am

– I’m the opposite — I generally DON’T smile, and people assume that I’m either crabby or not feeling well, which generally is not the case. Not sure why this is, except that I had really bad teeth for the 1st 25 years of my life, so I didn’t want people looking at them. They are now quite lovely, but it’s not my general habit to smile.

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MB • May 4, 2009 at 8:32 pm

You have a beautiful smile … don’t let the grouchy Europeans take it away.

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lauren • May 6, 2009 at 6:07 am

you should come to Korea, when you smile all the time, it means that the mood in the room will be beter and it means you are thinking of others feelings.

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Ang • May 12, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Smiling is good. You wind up with happy lines on your face when you get old, rather than the frowning down-turned ones. This world is tough enough without having smiling people discouraged from smiling.

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Amy • July 6, 2009 at 5:40 pm

People often smile gratefully and in a friendly way to me — and I realize I’ve been smiling at them! (They’re returning my smile — and it makes me realize I’m smiling!)

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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