Smile, Smile, Smile! But Why?

July 2, 2007

The demand to keep smiling – or, in fancier language, to maintain a “positive outlook” – is pervasive in American culture. Song lyrics and gurus drum the demand into our heads, and we echo them, telling ourselves things like “Mustn’t complain!” and “Must look on the bright side!”

The philosophy of the compulsory smile goes back at least to 1936, when Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People appeared. His first two pieces of advice are “don’t criticize, condemn or complain” and “give honest and sincere appreciation.” How you can always be honest and sincere if you have to be appreciative, whatever your true feelings may be? Don’t ask me!

The entertainment industry is celebrated as the pacesetter of nonstop smiling in the Irving Berlin song There’s 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 days’ “family leave.” 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:

Don’t start to frown; it’s never in style…
Just do your best to smile, smile, smile!

We are also told: “Smile and the world smiles with you.” In other words, look unhappy and the world will give you the cold shoulder. I suppose it’s true to some extent: I have enough troubles of my own, thank you, don’t burden me with yours! But what does that say about our way of life?
One curious rationale for smiling is the “urban legend” 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, isn’t 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 others’ complaints. That means: the most privileged and powerful section of society.

If you take Dale Carnegie’s advice and “don’t criticize, condemn or complain” 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.

Stefan

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