Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Unbearable Meanness of Being

This little anecdote is still making me laugh, hours after my husband told it to me:

He was walking near our house and decided to cut through a park with a playground. A little girl he didn't know was rocking back and forth on a large chicken on a spring. As my husband walked by her, she said to him "You're mean."

He was very surprised and stopped in his tracks. He said to her "I hope I'm not mean. I don't think I'm mean. Why do you think I'm mean?" She said "You look mean."

And he does! When he is walking and thinking intense thoughts about Science, he is the classic spaced-out professor for whom the rest of the world doesn't exist. He is off in Science Space, thinking about a problem he is working on, a paper he is writing, a proposal he wants to write. His impressive Science Eyebrows are scrunched up as he walks and thinks. I can see why a little girl on a rocking chicken would think he looked mean.

This has happened to me too. A few years ago the lab coordinator for my department told me that one of the international graduate students was afraid to be my assistant for a lecture course because I had never smiled at him (the student) in the hallways. After being told that, I made a point of giving this student a huge smile and a hearty hello every time I saw him. I personally would find that more disturbing than passing a busy, distracted professor in the hall, but he seemed to like it. Eventually he was my lecture assistant and we got along fine. I still give him a huge smile and hello whenever I see him. I do wish he would finish his degree and leave, though, as all that smiling and hello-ing is exhausting. [<-- joke]

When I was younger, random strangers would sometimes tell me to "Smile!", and that made me feel hostile, even when I'd been feeling reasonably cheerful before. I used to respond with "My best friend just died" or "I have cancer", which was mean, I know. I don't get the Smile! command anymore, perhaps because it's not something you say to middle-aged women.

Do real people out there in the real world walk around with huge smiles all the time, either because they are always cheerful or as a preventive measure so that people won't think they are mean or grumpy? I don't know. Perhaps I am too absent-minded to notice, but I get a lot of my best thinking done while I am walking around.

51 comments:

Ghostmonkey said...

I know exactly how you feel. I'm just an undergrad, but I've often totally ignored friends who were greeting me until it was almost to late to say anything back for the simple reason that I'm idly thinking about some interesting problem on my homework or recent exam/quiz.

All of the non-sciency majors on campus do seem much more cheerful and engaged with their surroundings. I like to invoke the principle of Conservation of Smiles: they are smiling so I don't have to!

Dan said...

I think I'm usually smiling when I stroll about campus thinking about a problem, but that's mostly because I tend to come up with a lot of ideas that excite me, and only later (in my office, or at home) do I discover that none of them work. Plus I can't help but be happy to be outside after being cooped up in half of a windowless office all day.

social scientist said...

I feel for your husband. No wait, I didn't mean it like that...

Like you, I don't tend to go around doing compulsive smiling. That reminds me of the military expression "mandatory fun."

There are gender issues too and you might appreciate this article:

LaFrance, M. Smile Boycotts and Other Body Politics. Feminism & Psychology, Volume 12, Number 3 (August 1, 2002), pp. 319-323.

Kris said...

I always get accused of looking grumpy. (and too have been told in the past to Smile!)

Anonymous said...

A few years ago when I walked around with my then-girlfriend, two separate strangers told me to cheer up because she looked attractive.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I remember having the same issue come up in college. I heard through an indirect connection that someone found me arrogant because I (repeatedly) hadn't said hello back when walking by them going to class. Of course, I just think while I walk and hadn't ever heard them, as I was pondering science.

I imagine this is an unusual condition among scientists, particularly academic scientists. We like thinking about things we're working on, and it can be quite consuming.

mareserinitatis said...

I got involved in middle eastern dance a few years ago. Standing (dancing) very close to someone who had that look of concentration made me realize how uncomfortable it is to look at someone and have them not respond in kind with a smile. It really does make you think they're angry, possibly at you!

That's why I now think that particular social grace is exceptionally important. I try pretty hard to smile at and acknowledge people when they walk by me. I can handle it if they walk by with their head in the clouds, but I really don't like people who look right at you and fail to say hello or, even worse, glance furtively in the other direction. I was working with a professor who does that a lot, and my friends frequently discuss how unapproachable he is because of this.

volcanista said...

I think the "smile!" command is different from the rest of these - I really only think women get ordered to do that (maybe youngish women?), by male strangers. It's one of those things that pisses off us humorless feminists. Why do I have an obligation to smile for a stranger? And if only women are being told that, to all male strangers: there is a person in this body. I am not just here for your viewing enjoyment. gah! drives me crazy!

Brittany said...

I first noticed this phenomenon when I started working in a science department some years ago. I had no experience working in such an environment before. Scientists would just walk by without so much as a glance, as if they were afraid to say hello or make eye contact. Now that I am a graduate student and aspiring FSP, I realize I do the same thing...and I am not afraid of making eye contact with people or saying hello, I am deep in thought something sciency, off somewhere in my own little world. I really don't notice people when this is happening, and someone saying something to me kind of snaps me back to reality. I don't think people in general realize that scientists do this, and it can be off-putting to someone who doesn't understand that we are always thinking about something. I like to think that one of the things that makes scientists special is that we are on a whole different playing field when it comes to our thought process.

FemaleAssistantProf said...

For some people (like myself) smiling is just a natural default response when they see others; not a tactical preventive measure OR an indication of their internal happiness.

Just thought I'd add a third option.

Anonymous said...

I am a fellow female science professor and used to get that comment in my more junior years. It used to drive me nuts. Why should I walk around with a dopey grin on my face? I have since exceeding the tender age of 40 and no longer get that comment. So either I have become more cheerful in my old age, or people don't mind a scowling middle aged woman prowling the halls.

Ewan said...

At a small dinner party with good friends maybe twelve years back, when I was a TA, I mentioned that my evaluations had included one that described me as "intimidating." I was flabbergasted; a la FSP's husband, I didn't think of myself as being in the slightest intimidating. So I expressed this... and everyone else in the room cracked up. "Of *course* you're intimidating!" was the general response.

So these days I have to try really hard not to be, especially with students. Seems to mostly work, but I know that if I am in the middle of actual thought** I probably look as though I am planning to kill anyone who interrupts me..

{**rarer than it should be, alas. But the end of the semester approaches..}

Anonymous said...

The people who order other people to smile are undoubtedly extroverts who assume everyone is (and ought to be) exactly like them. This article sheds some light on this kind of struggle that all of us introverts go through:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200303/rauch

Anonymous said...

absolutely not... I also get questions because I naturally sit with my arms crossed most of the time (I find it less tiring for some reason) - I just don't understand why people don't realize that some peoples natural relaxed state face is not as smiley as others...

Mister Troll said...

Funny story. My wife is in fact that person who walks around with a big cheerful smile all the time. I find that kind of baffling/disturbing but it turns out smiley people are just normal people, too.

I am probably more like your husband. I can't speak for the eyebrows, and little children haven't scolded me, but my wife does say I don't recognize her when she (unexpectedly) stops by the office/lab. She's... probably right.

Anonymous said...

Haha, that story is so cute! In my department, graduate students often complain that professors don't acknowledge them in the hallway. Maybe the profs are thinking deep thoughts, but at the same time when you pass a person multiple times a day and the prof avoids eye contact, doesn't smile, and ignores the student if he or she tries to initiate a smile or (god forbid) a "Hello"... it does result in the grad student feeling intimidated (or like the professor is a jerk).

At the same time, my advisor hates it when graduate students from other labs come in to ours to talk to one of his students and does not bother to say "hi" to him! I think everyone likes to be acknowledged, and a smile and a friendly "hello" is a good way to do it (and takes minimal brain power away from deep thoughts).

unlikelygrad said...

I am also a fan of thinking while walking.

I don't know if anyone has ever thought I'm mean, but they often think I'm sad. I believe the last comment I got was, "Cheer up! It can't be that bad!" (I was pondering the mystery of which grad school to go to--I was ecstatic that I had so many choices, but the decision required a lot of thought!)

I also get a lot of requests to smile, which inevitably make me want to blow raspberries. Oddly, these comments generally come from men. Some have gone so far as to tell me that I'd be beautiful if only I would smile. (??!!) Thank God I have a husband who thinks I look good even when I'm scowling at an equation!!

Sneks said...

I am a female grad student who (I think) is a very cheerful person! I find joy in most things and perhaps even seem too happy and excited (which can backfire for women in science ... but that is another issue all together ...).

I have found, however, that when I am wondering alone and thinking about the paper I need to finish writing or the really complex topic I need to explain to a class of undergrads, I have been ripped out of Science Space by the "Smile!" command. And, as volcanista said, it's always strange men. Like guys stocking shelves at the grocery store, or the old man at the post office, or the target pharmacist. I don't think a woman or a friend has ever commanded me to "Smile!".

amy said...

Very funny story -- the spring chicken adds just the right touch of absurdity. I used to get the "smile!" command all the time, too, and people have often told me I look angry when I'm thinking. I have eyebrows that dip down in front, and marionette lines around my lips, so I do look like I'm frowning a lot. I've taken to walking around with a very slight smile on my face, which seems to counteract the frowny elements.

This semester I was trying to explain something difficult to a class of freshmen, and it wasn't working so I got a little frustrated (with myself). A day later one of the students who had been asking a lot of questions in class emailed me to say he was worried because I looked so angry at him in class, and he was afraid that he'd stepped out of line or something. I felt so bad! The last thing I want to do is stifle discussion, but when I'm really thinking hard about something my brow furrows and my eyes squint, and I guess I can look pretty ticked off.

Side note: people in all fields are prone to get lost in their thoughts, not just scientists. Some commenters seem to think scientists have a unique way of focusing very hard on their ideas.

Comrade Physioprof said...

I don't get the Smile! command anymore, perhaps because it's not something you say to middle-aged women.

Men tell women in public to "smile", because that signals their fuck receptability, and it is unacceptable in patriarchy for women to not signal their fuck receptability. As women age, and begin to no longer be considered fuck receptacles, it is not longer important that they signal fuck receptability, and this no longer important that they smile in public.

Global Girl said...

I manage to think and smile at the same time. I don't find it difficult at all. I enjoy thinking, I enjoy walking, I enjoy seeing people. Why shoudn't I be smiling? (Unless, of course, I'm thinking about how bitter I am at my advisor. Then I don't smile.)

Not being acknowledged can feel very dehumanizing, whether you mean it or not. People you meet can't read your mind to know it's not personal.

Anonymous said...

I am perfectly capable of smiling and responding "normally" but sometimes I'm deep in thought and apparently it looks like it. Recently, this has caused a problem with a potential collaborator because he thought that I was ignoring him on a couple of occasions when I walked past him outside his building. I was just thinking, and he was happy enough when I told him this. However, apparently he did think I was being really rude for a while, and it coloured his view of our other interactions a bit. Oops...

Tom said...

Smile. People will think you're up to something.

Anonymous said...

next year I'm gonna be a grad student and I won't be able to say "f___ you" to people who tell me to smile anymore because I might get fired. I'm sure gonna miss that. However, I'll be 33 this October so does that mean I have seven more years before strange patronizing men quit telling me to smile?

Anonymous said...

I find this post fascinating following the previous post about FSP possibly being too well liked for a big award.

Perhaps one should smile but also intermittently be horribly mean and demanding, just to keep everyone a little bit on edge. It seems to work for one of my colleagues.

Anonymous said...

Both my husband (science postdoc) and I tend to smile a lot. Our reasons seem to be more like those of FemaleAssistantProfessor's. -Female postdoc

Anonymous said...

Fuck receptacles, CPP? That phrase makes (even) me smile!

chemfan said...

I've received the "smile!" command many times from men, even in different countries. My respond is to scowl at them, and if they continue making sexist comments, they get an offensive hand gesture. Maybe a bit strong, but so is telling a complete stranger what to do.

I tend to furrow my brow and purse my lips a bit in lab. I had no idea until I worked with one particularly cheery labmate who asked me a couple times why I was upset/angry/sad. I then realized that my "concentrating face" looked slightly angry. I try not to do that anymore, but sometimes I still catch myself really concentrating and really scrunching my face. Oh well, at least I know I'm doing my science right.

Thomas Joseph said...

Between your daughter telling your husband he lectures like he's angry, and this little girl telling him he looks mean ... I hope your husband hasn't come down with a complex.

Field Notes said...

I got that "smile more" crap a lot too.

Smiling can be an appeasement gesture (as you yourself found out, FSP) so when women specifically are implored to smile more, it's a commend to be more demure or as CPP says, signal we are just 'fuck receptacles.'

I always sneered whenever someone told me to smile more. It still makes me want to gag.

LaFrance's research and observations on smiling are excellent. I cite her work frequently in my courses on nonverbal communication.

Toaster Sunshine said...

The creepy alternative, however, is walking around grinning wildly with eyebrows akimbo and eyes shining. I do this frequently, because Cool Science Thoughts just make me very happy. I have noticed, though, that when I am in this state people generally give me quite a bit of space on the sidewalk.

Try it sometime!

social scientist said...

chemfan & volcanista, I think you'd appreciate the article I cited (comment #3).

Anonymous said...

Bartkid sez,
Maybe he should spend less time pacing and brooding and more time back and forth on a large chicken on a spring.

John V said...

Maybe the suggestion to smile is an invitation to discuss one's troubles, or more aggressively, a challenge to defend one's gloomy mood.

Still irritating if it is one's default habit to scowl, but I'd like to know, for example, whether someone is brooding or just thoughtful, and it is a delicate question to ask.

Laura E. Mariani said...

I've noticed a difference in smile frequency between people in Boston (where I lived for the past 6 years) and Atlanta (where I live now). Northeastern folks tend to walk around in a purposeful manner, sometimes with a real scowl, other times with a more neutral expression, but rarely with a smile. Southerners amble along, smile at everyone, and wish me a good morning. As someone who was raised in the South, I found Boston very unfriendly and intimidating at first. Then I got used to it, and now I'm somewhat alarmed when strangers smile at me and strike up conversations at the bus stop.

Anonymous said...

I was walking through the airport in Chicago yesterday feeling content and slightly smiling. I was in no rush so walking slowly and enjoying the scenery. A large man walked up to me and demanded to help me because I looked "so confused". You can't win... no smile you are "mean", smile and you are "confused".

EliRabett said...

Science folk (idle speculation) are terribly linear. It's part of the training to think things through from beginning to end. So you get ahold of a problem (better put it grabs you by the throat) and everything, including smiling becomes a distraction.

You husband should bring the daughter to the chicken farm and play with the two kids.....

Anonymous said...

comrade physioprof, you made me laugh out loud. thanks. i must share, though, that my husband reports that he has been told to Smile! by random strangers at times in the past, just as i have. i have no data on frequency of occurrence for men vs women, but at least the occurrence is not 100% women.

Eve said...

I get the "smile!" thing too. It's a little aggravating. I know it's all about getting along with other people who have a different opinion of what the default facial expression should be (the German expression looks a little angrier, maybe), but if I want to walk down the street with my German face on, thinking about Science, then I should be allowed to. I actually feel weirder walking around with a smile on, because it makes you look like you are planning something dangerous, ogling someone or just gazing mindlessly into the distance. I prefer gazing Sciencely into the distance.

caostaff said...

Part of it may be concentration, and part of it is certainly introversion or extroversion, but part of it can be a mood disorder. My family used to call me Cmdr. Data because I never smiled or really laughed. SSRIs are Great! That said, woe betide someone who interrupts me while I'm working. And you don't even want to know the comments I've gotten for reading while walking, much less thinking while walking. ;)

quasarpulse said...

I can't seem to win, myself. When I'm smiling, I get told I smile too much; when I'm not, I get told to smile. People are far, far too preoccupied with other people's facial expressions!

Female Science Grad Student said...

oh... maybe that is why my advisor sometimes doesn't say "hi" to me? It usually makes me feel very sad...

Anonymous said...

I've never had random strangers tell me to smile. However, I have an office in a location where people often walk by my window. I have had a few people come in and ask me if I was ok or angry when I have been focusing on my work. That amused me to no end!

Anonymous said...

What irks me about people who will command random strangers to "smile!" is the intrusion. It is an invasion personal space, IMO. Plus the knowledge that some random stranger you probably weren't even aware of, has been observing you closely enough to take note of your facial expression and be displeased with it, is kinda creepy....(especially when it's a guy saying it and you're a woman)

The last time some random stranger on the street commanded me to "smile!" I responded with "I just lost my job" because it was true, I had just got laid off that very day and was in a very bad mood - I was feeling a mixture of anger, resentment, panic, desperation, you name it. And here is some stranger commanding me to smile?? He looked uncomfortable and hurried away.

Dionne said...

I scowl a lot when I'm deep in thought and am forever getting the smile command - in particular from dear husband.

I never used to worry about it - until I realised I'm getting permanent wrinkles...

NJ said...

Maybe I am one of the few who does this, but when I am walking I sometimes debate the pros and cons of an idea back and forth with myself. I can become so involved with this that I start to gesturing quite vigorously as I argue with myself! I wonder what the little girl would have thought of that - perhaps that I was talking to my imaginary friend...

zoelouise said...

When some one orders me to smile, my reply is "Say something funny".

Anonymous said...

Ditto CPP.

Also, smiling is an indicator of status. Think all those models on TV advertising teen products, and smiling and waving their hair. As we progress up to Cartier, expensive cars etc, the models never smile.

So perhaps if we don't smile much it might improve our probability of tenure. .

Alethea said...

In agreement with the last comment and a few others, as well as what you wrote, too, FSP.

Smiling can be an appeasement gestureThe flip side of looking mean and not smiling enough, is smiling too much, trying to put people, even strangers, at their ease, and looking so g-d approachable that no one respects you.

So I am practicing looking more distant and serious. I was discussing a corollary with another Female Science Colleague today, whereby the Female Science Grad Students we each mentor have little apparent respect for us, at least publicly in the company of others, because we come across as too "nice" and not sufficiently authoritative.

Linds said...

this is classic...how many times do think men (of any age) are commanded to "Smile!" on the street by random strangers?

Change said...

Several good friends told me that they thought I was arrogant and unapproachable when they first met/saw me and that they are wrong when they got to know me better.

Another funny incident:
On one of the long days spent in the department, while I was walking to my office at the end of the hallway, I kept absent-mindedly staring at the design patterns on the skirt of a girl who was walking towards me from the other end of the hallway. She stopped by me and explained that her shoe soles were not convenient to walk on the waxed floor of the hallway and that's why she was walking funny. I was totally surprised to have a stranger stop me in the hallway to talk about her shoes. Later it dawned on me that she probably thought that I was watching her gait.