I wrote in a previous post that I often smile at strangers while I am looking them in the eye, particularly if they appear threatening. In this situation, I am using my smile as a way to deflect a negative event. In general, however, I am not a smiley person. I have often been criticized and chided for not smiling while working in my office, concentrating on a statistical analysis, or analyzing a complex factual situation in a litigation matter for which my company has been retained, or countless other tasks lacking in the ability to make me smile. I greatly dislike the big toothy grins some people display, particularly when they are forced or faked for the purpose of a photograph or other socially desirable situation. In addition to situations when I do not believe smiling is appropriate, I do not believe laughter is the “best medicine” or is appropriate in some situations. I have known many people who smile, laugh, giggle, or snicker, sometimes uncontrollably, when the situation dictates a somber or reserved response. In these situations, I often ask, “What is funny about someone falling down and hurting herself?” or another question that stops the laughter and smiling. There are some situations that require decorum, such as a funeral, when big grins may not be well received by everyone in attendance. The next time you see someone who is not smiling, think before saying, “Smile!”; maybe the unsmiling person just lost her best friend and has no reason to smile just because other people think smiling is a good idea.
Smiles, as simple as they are, can be inappropriate or misunderstood. Smiling, as a way to share positive vibes, is, perhaps, a one way action. It may not, as Melissa noted, be appropriate to expect a smile in return. The world can be a difficult place for many – and smiling may not be in the cards for them at the time. (Having recently returned from Las Vegas, it was easy to spot the losers. They are the only people in Vegas who are not smiling.) Smiling, and relatedly, laughing, at inappropriate times or places is also a strange behavior. Perhaps it is to cover the discomfort felt by these people, but engaging in such inappropriate behavior might make for a funny respite in a movie or TV show, but in life it can do harm. Social norms are what they are for a reason, and as such, the decorum of solemn places and events does not involve smiling. And, it does not have to be the most traumatic of all environments, rather, it should include professional environments and workplaces when serious issues are being discussed. Levity is not appropriate in every situation: the challenge is to find the balance and to be observant enough to strike that balance.