“Smiles, everyone, smiles!” Like an annoying tune that I can’t get out of my head, that line always simmers on the edges of my consciousness. Don’t get me wrong, I possess a positive attitude. I love smiley-faces. Nothing warmed my heart like the two-dots and a curve enclosed by a circle that my mom would always, always draw on the outside of my brown lunch bag.
But I hate nothing more than to be told to smile.
Why can I not be un-happy? Am I not allowed to experience the whole gamut of human feelings? And, worst of all, who made up the rule that said women are supposed to always smile?
Case in point, a conversation my boss had with me when I was in my late twenties. I was in charge of nine people who, as a group, were in charge of a process consisting of fifty workers, which as a whole, had the task of moving over a thousand people and fifteen planeloads of cargo. Within a twenty-four hour period. With less than a day’s notice.
In easier terms, I had a lot of responsibility for a twenty-something. But one day, during an impromptu feedback session, along with the litany of things my boss said to me, out came, “You really should smile more.” Everything he’d said up until then was valid. I remember nodding, something I do during quick mental assessments of what I’m told, kinda like a “cha-ching” that registers the point for future moments of self-reflection.
All I could do was stare at him after his “smile” comment. I can distinctly remember not hearing what else he said because blood roared in my ears. In that moment, I realized no matter how hard I worked, or how successful my team performed, I would never get full credit because I wasn’t living up to his pre-conceived notion that I should act a certain way.
So, with nothing to lose, I cut him off and asked, “How many men do you tell they need to smile?”
He sputtered, turned red, and looked everywhere but at me. I considered my feedback session over, and walked away. In a weird way, I was liberated. I knew exactly what he thought of me, that I could never compete against my male peers. So, I decided to succeed for no other reason than to help those on my team. And in doing so, I left my peers in our dust.
The lesson from that day went deeper, and in the years that followed as I rose higher in the leadership ranks, I always tried to be aware of my own bias about others. Before I passed judgement, I tried to understand all perspectives. And I can guarantee you, I never told anyone they should smile.
But, how dare he sully the action of a smile? To this day, I still draw happy faces on paper bags whenever I pack my own lunch. It’s one thing to get told to smile, and another to remind yourself to have a good day.