Women's Experiences with Being Told to Smile
When the first trailer for the 2018 film “Captain Marvel” premiered, some (predominantly male) fans were quick to criticize actress Brie Larson for not smiling enough in her depiction of the superhero.
In 2016, former secretary of state and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton faced similar criticism for not seeming “happier” during debates and other appearances. Clinton was chided for not smiling enough on camera during public events. Even other women are guilty of using “smile more” as an attack, like former press secretary Sarah Sanders did in 2018 to Nancy Pelosi, saying, “I think she should smile a lot more often. I think the country would be better for it.”
A prevailing cultural expectation that women should smile to appear more friendly or approachable seems to be perpetuated by everyone from internet trolls to the president of the United States. In fact, “smile more” could be a sexist double standard with much more detrimental implications for women in the workplace.
For a closer look at how often women are criticized for not smiling enough, we surveyed over 500 women about the implications of their expressions. Read on as we break down how often women are asked to smile at work (and how they say it feels); how important they believe it is to be liked at various stages of their career; and the impact of “RBF” on their ability to be taken seriously.
For a majority of women, unsolicited comments on their facial expressions are a fact of life. Of those surveyed, 98% of women acknowledged being told to smile at least once in their life, and nearly 15% said this was a weekly or more frequent experience.
However, a smile isn’t just a happy facial expression. According to one expert, a woman’s smile is as much a signal of joy as a sign of submission, general agreeableness, and a deliberate lack of anger. According to our survey, 37% of women said the last time they were asked to “smile more” was at work, followed by 25% in public and 21% at home.
In professional settings, appearing either too angry or happy can pose an unnecessary balancing act for women. Additional studies suggest too much smiling by women at work can be seen as aggressive or assertive with negative implications. With seemingly so much meaning loaded into one facial expression, it’s no wonder why women are using hashtags like #donttellmetosmilemore to simply reclaim the right to their own expressions.
According to one expert, there are only two reasons a man might ask a woman to smile: because he’s caring or he’s controlling. Based on a more traditional stereotype of women as caregivers (rather than professionals or leaders), smiling may be viewed as subservient and vulnerable.
Although slightly less common among entry-level (24%) and associate (22%) employees, roughly 1 in 3 women each working in midlevel and senior and executive roles received requests to smile more regularly. Fifty-three percent of requests to soften their expressions came from male co-workers, while 41% of women reported receiving similar requests from their female co-workers. Thirty-seven percent of women were asked to smile by a male boss. And while just 1 in 4 women reported being asked to smile by a female boss, those who did were the most likely to feel undervalued at their job.
While many studies suggest sexism and bias in the workplace is unconsciously conveyed, they can have very real consequences for women in professional settings. More than half of women “softened” digital communications with their colleagues, something that was more common among those in elevated positions.
Compared to 57% of women in either entry-level or associate positions, 70% of women in senior and executive roles believed it important to be liked at work. Similarly, women working in midlevel (60%) or senior and executive jobs (59%) were the most likely to “soften” their written communication to come off as less aggressive or brusque. Research suggests women in higher working positions are often caught between what’s expected via gendered stereotypes (to be caring and nurturing) and what is expected in a leadership position (to be firm and assertive).
Why So Serious?
For a woman who may feel less inclined to smile, it’s probably not uncommon for her to encounter accusations of RBF, or “resting bitch face.” This is often used to describe a person who regularly appears unhappy or aggravated despite feeling content or at ease. However, RBF is typically employed to characterize a woman who simply isn’t smiling.
Over half (53%) of women self-identified as having RBF and suggested they were taken 20% less seriously at work as a result of their natural expressions. A majority of women also saw RBF as a negative trait, as 69% of women with RBF believed they needed to “soften” their demeanor.
Even with the right intentions, asking a woman to smile more at work could come off negatively. If you need any proof of that beyond these accounts, take a look at this movement of women reclaiming the right to their own expression, to get a sense of how pervasive this negative connotation is. The top emotions women used to describe being told to smile were demeaned, annoyed, and offended.
As one 31-year-old woman told us, women may feel that the request to smile more is “extremely demeaning” and shows that their outward appearance is valued over the mental and emotional well-being of the female staff. A 40-year-old woman also told us she felt “depressed, resentful, misunderstood, and alone” when she was asked to smile at work, while a 43-year-old woman believed her smile had nothing to do with the quality of her work performance.
Overwhelmingly, women we surveyed acknowledged experiences in their lives where they were asked to “smile more,” a majority of which occurred in the workplace rather than in personal or recreational settings. As we found, the requests to soften their expressions or adjust their demeanor typically came from male co-workers and were more commonly directed toward women in higher working positions. By their own admission, women we polled identified finding these requests demeaning, annoying, and offensive.
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This survey relies on self-reported information from employees. Problems with self-reported responses include telescoping, selective memory, and exaggeration. This is important to remember when reviewing survey results, as this data was not statistically tested and relies solely on self-reported survey responses.
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