The demand to keep smiling â or, in fancier language, to maintain a âpositive outlookâ â is pervasive in American culture. Song lyrics and gurus drum the demand into our heads, and we echo them, telling ourselves things like âMustnât complain!â and âMust look on the bright side!â
The philosophy of the compulsory smile goes back at least to 1936, when Dale Carnegieâs classic How to Win Friends and Influence People appeared. His first two pieces of advice are âdonât criticize, condemn or complainâ and âgive honest and sincere appreciation.â How you can always be honest and sincere if you have to be appreciative, whatever your true feelings may be? Donât ask me!
The entertainment industry is celebrated as the pacesetter of nonstop smiling in the Irving Berlin song Thereâs No Business Like Show Business:
There’s no people like show people.
They smile when they are low.
The second verse elaborates:
You get word before the show has started
That your favorite uncle died at dawn.
Top of that, your ma and pa have parted
You’re broken-hearted, but you go on.
From this I infer that you might be let off smiling duty if a parent rather than just an uncle has died. You might get a few daysâ âfamily leave.â But when you return your smile must be firmly back in place.
Besides show business, smiling is a condition of employment in all service jobs involving contact with the public (and to a lesser extent in many other jobs). A waitress, air stewardess, hotel receptionist or croupier, for example, is expected to keep smiling, however rude and unpleasant a customer may be to her.
So why do we have to smile?
The song lyrics don’t really explain. Smiling is simply required by fashion:
Donât start to frown; itâs never in styleâŠ
Just do your best to smile, smile, smile!
We are also told: âSmile and the world smiles with you.â In other words, look unhappy and the world will give you the cold shoulder. I suppose itâs true to some extent: I have enough troubles of my own, thank you, donât burden me with yours! But what does that say about our way of life?
One curious rationale for smiling is the âurban legendâ that more facial muscles are used in frowning than in smiling (exact figures vary). Smiling saves effort. According to Dr. David H. Song, the claim is false: a smile uses 12 muscles, a frown only 11. In any case, isnât exercising as many different muscles as possible supposed to be good for us?
In figuring out the likely origin of the insistent demand to smile, smile, smile, it helps to consider whose interests it serves. Above all, I think, the interests of those who do not have much to complain about themselves but who are natural targets of othersâ complaints. That means: the most privileged and powerful section of society.
If you take Dale Carnegieâs advice and âdonât criticize, condemn or complainâ about anyone or anything, then you will never develop a critique of the social system or an aspiration to change it. Ultimately, I suspect, that is the smile propaganda is about.