Why asking for a smile could be a bad idea

The day I discovered how intrusive, threatening and stupid smile orders really are

The scene is Covent Garden packed with tourists and locals enjoying the sunshine. I’m rushing through the crowds on my way to meet a friend for lunch.

Outside the restaurant I pass a group of men in their thirties.

Their eyes are glazed over and they’re surrounded by the stench of beer in ashtray. One of them smiles at me and tells me to smile back. His tone isn’t friendly and his smile is the mean grimace of a drunk who’s long ago given up on getting lucky, instead settling for second best: Harassing passing women.

Since I’m no longer a young person, some might say I should be grateful for such attention. I’m not. I find it annoying and intrusive.

‘What’s bothering you today?’ he shouts, trying to grab my sleeve as I rush past him, entering the restaurant’s revolving door. He looks genuinely puzzled, clearly thinking there must be something wrong in my life since I don’t want to smile. I can almost hear the conversation that’s taking place between the two brain cells inside his skull.

Brain cell 1: ‘Why isn’t she smiling? We’ve just handed her the gift of attention and the spoilt princess doesn’t want to know?’

Brain cell 2: ‘Don’t know. More lager.’

In my brain there is no conversation. Only a question: Why should I have to smile at some random drunk?

Back in the day, I would have brushed off the episode as something to be expected. Annoying, yet harmless. But an incident that took place eight years ago has made me think differently about smile orders.

I was on the tube two weeks after my husband had died of cancer. It was my first underground trip since his death and part of a long list of firsts. First phone call, first shower, first time having a cup of tea. First time outside the house, first time alone in the house, first time in the coffee shop, and so on. Every first was a mile stone and some were victories that deserved to be celebrated. One such was the first tube ride.

Handbag in lap, I was in my seat, feeling a tiny, tiny bit happy that I had almost completed the journey. Earlier that day, I had taken a cab to work because the public space felt too daunting. But now I had made it and I was proud and relieved.

When the train stopped at Victoria, a young man on his way out knelt by my seat and looked straight into my eyes. Then he said in a calm voice: ‘You would be so much happier if you smiled more’.

I was utterly unprepared for this and so stunned I was lost for words. The worst part was that he looked happy, clearly thinking he had done me a favour. He then joined other commuters queuing for the exit.

I had a few seconds to consider running after him. I could have got off the train and told him why I wasn’t smiling. But I didn’t feel like ever seeing his face again. He did not deserve to be let into my private world.

Before that day on the tube, smile orders merely annoyed me, but now I understand that they are invasive of my private space. Smile orders can even be threatening as they often come with an undercurrent of ‘or else.’ But most of all, smile orders are stupid. The smile is not a human default position. It’s a reaction to positive stimulus.

We react by smiling when we see a friend, a kitten or a present with our name on it. We smile when we hear good news, a song we like or the sound of a champagne cork popping. And we smile when somebody smiles nicely at us.

Not when a stranger decides to require it.