The impetus for this, you ax? It comes out of a conversation I had a while back with Adam Bock. Now Adam is not a smiley kind of guy, in my opinion, but it came out that we came to feel we both offer up our smiles too much and too easily, as a reflex. Adam observed that it’s a trait endemic to gay men in particular – smiling as an act of submission, a way of saying “see, I’m harmless.” Just as so many gay people wind up in helping professions as an unconscious way of self-justification (“I make an important contribution to society”), so too does the self-deprecating smile telegraph that the smiler is soft and toothless and not worth attacking.
Also, because society tends to look on smiling, friendly people as weaker than their more impassive counterparts, smiling for gay men can broadcast an acceptance of their own second-class status.
There is a study related to this, which John Tierney quoted in The New York Times earlier this year, that speaks to this bias:
While we typically think of a smile as displaying our emotional state (happiness), it also appears that smiles convey information about the signaler’s status. Specifically, lower status individuals appear to smile more than higher status individuals. I suspect that this is due, in part, to the fact that there are several different types of smiles, including a true happiness smile and a true embarrassment smile. The latter smile, the embarrassment display, is often seen as an appeasement display in primates. Jimmy Carter smiled a lot, George Bush smiles much less. Jimmy Carter is generally perceived to be warm and friendly, but not very dominant and strong. George Bush is perceived be somewhat less warm and friendly, but is seen as quite dominant and strong.
Not that we shouldn’t smile at all, thank heavens people do. But for me, well . . . it’s a habit I’d like to break. And let me add that (notwithstanding the illustration I chose to accompany this post) I’m not saying my smile is fake or forced, I’ve just come to the point where I distrust my very readiness to smile. To always seek to blend with others, to pacify, to help and to cheerlead.
So don’t take it personally if the next time we meet my face is a perfect Botox blank. Blame Adam!