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This seems to be a fairly common scenario. Since I don't work in a public environment anymore, it's been something that hasn't crossed my mind in a long while.

However, today while paying for a few items at the gas station the guy working the register decided to strike up a conversation with me that went something like this:

Guy: "Having a bad day?"

Me: "No?"

Guy: "Well then, why don't you smile for me? You look mad."

Personally, I find it annoying at best to feel like a stranger is telling me how to present myself. I end up feeling like my personal "bubble" has been somewhat invaded. It's not anyone's choice but my own if I choose to share a physical cue of (emotional) warmth with them and being asked to do so makes me immediately disinterested in everything about the person in question.

However, I really don't know what to say next when people put me in this position. I don't want to "lash out" because I feel that often the people doing this may not understand why it can be inappropriate, but there is absolutely no way that I am going to smile for them, let alone continue a conversation with them.

Given this information, what's the best way to respond to such comments? Is there an "exit strategy" I can take that can express that the reason I am doing so is because of that comment, without coming off as aggressive?

Edit: Here's an article speaking to why this scenario can be off-putting when coming from a stranger, for those who aren't sure where my annoyance is coming from.

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    The title is misleading, depending on whether stranger means 'vendor', 'customer', 'random passer-by' or 'coworker'. Some of those have a power imbalance, some don't. – smci Jan 13 '18 at 19:05
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat and further comments will be deleted unless they are asking for clarification or suggesting improvement to the question. – HDE 226868 Jan 13 '18 at 22:48
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    Were you angry, annoyed, or otherwise upset before the other person asked about your day? – jpmc26 Jan 16 '18 at 0:29
  • @jpmc26 nah - just frozen from our temps. – Jess K. Jan 16 '18 at 0:32

13 Answers 13

70

People like that can have no boundaries. They tend to take offense when others respond negatively.

Depending on my mood and the vibe I get from people who approach me like that, I'll respond with:

"How often does that work for you?"

"Well, I'm pissed now that you think you can demand any type of emotion from me."

In my case:

"I suffered an injury and the muscles that control my smile are painful to use. Thank you for the reminder that I'll never express happiness again."

This may kind of turns the situation into a joke which could allow you to leave on a good note:

"I don't smile on demand, but I might for a $50."

Or the more effective:

"No, thank you."

And then you leave.

Edit: There is no one correct answer or approach. Certainly some of these responses will rub people the wrong way. It's up to the OP to determine their comfort level in dealing with this situation.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Catija Jan 15 '18 at 2:17
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    The second option you give -- "Well, now my day's bad, because someone is telling me to do something I don't want to" -- is basically what I'd say, so +1. – Nic Hartley Jan 16 '18 at 21:28
  • Please remove option 3, that's not funny, don't joke about that – Mario Trucco Jan 17 '18 at 8:52
  • your answer seems to imply that the guy at the gas station had intentions to flirt which is not necessarily the case. Maybe his intention was indeed just to cheer a customer up. He managed badly then as well, obviously, but his intentions were different. – Sip Jan 17 '18 at 14:37
  • @MarioTrucco in removed comments it is noted that the third option is not a joke as it applies to me. The edit to clarify this did not update as I was using the app. – doctordonna Jan 17 '18 at 17:00
40

I am the boundary-challenged gas station attendant in this scenario... at least for many years I WAS that person engaging in the “smile exchange economy.” I offer you my learned perspective and some empirical data from many years as a quasi-professional smile-pusher. I submit to you that correctly Observing and Orienting yourself to the underlying transaction will give you the advantage in Deciding how to reAct. [hat tip to Boyd, et al. for the OODA loop reference]

BONA FIDES. During college, I worked as a late-night gas station attendant near my urban campus in upstate New York. Because this King Fuels location was a full-service station, I personally pumped all the gas and interacted with each customer. But I got my real start in this smile exchange economy several years earlier as the counter guy at a very popular fish market in South Florida. I have built on this experience over many years.

DATA. From those and many other retail experiences, I estimate that out of every 100 strangers from whom I elicited/cajoled/negotiated/shamed a smile I got 75 smiles and 25 alternative responses. Of the 25 alternatives, 10 were straight up "f* offs" or the equivalents thereof. The remaining 15 required continued engagement to achieve end game. (note: I was only physically threatened twice, and never actually beaten.)

Given these risk-reward data points, I offer three observations:

  1. The Smile Exchange is Not Personal… it is a Numbers Game. I wanted numbers. The more smiles, the better. In general, the risk-reward(return) assessment favored my continued, invasive behavior. Society incentivized it by responding with smiles, though specific individuals did not. Like a VC investing and assessing her whole portfolio, no single failure or low return data point will spoil the overall return-on-investment. Since I was getting upward of 75% ROI, society offered me a positive risk-return outcome.

  2. Risk Belongs to the Asker Not the Asked. At least, in the mind/heart of the gas station attendant, I was taking the emotional risk in the exchange. As your question reveals, opinions vary. But examining my self-centric motivation, I believed that smiling offered rewards to both sender and receiver and considered that I might even be performing public service—ref. Jan 28, 2015 Fast Company article by Vivian Giang. As a fish monger, fuel pumper, sales engineer, or public speaker, when I ask for a reaction (laugh, smile, shock, sympathy), I believed I was taking the emotional risk, by risking rejection. Getting a smile, or a smirk, or even a well-timed smart-a* reply, offered me validation. Selfish and pathetic, possibly. On a slightly deeper level, an additional reward is learning to deal with rejection and handle unanticipated human reactions. For the cost of a few seconds of ego risk, I could get three college credits worth of insight into human interaction. And finally, in most retail, there is merit in repeat business; smiling customers just might come back.

  3. Cultural Biases Play a Large Role. The relative power of the players and the motives for commentary are important here. Whether or not others are watching, or the encounter is one-v-one, matters too. I recommend rereading Gladwell’s Blink section on “Thin-slicing”, which is his term to describe the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices", or narrow windows, of experience. In my Florida fish market years, I was a young man in my late teens and most of my customers were retirement age women from New York. They had the power advantage. Many did not smile automatically, but most appeared to enjoy the game of negotiating for the best cut of codfish, and I didn’t hesitate to include a smile tax in the bargain. At the late-night fuel station, the clients were vastly different, and often drunk, so smiles had to extracted through unusual measures. I rarely asked straight out, but offered some measure of physical comedy or other personal buffoonery to extract the reaction—think Monsters, Inc for the gas pump. As a father now, eliciting smiles from my child’s classmates seems to be well-received by all involved. The cultural variations among other regions and nations are significant as well, and some segments of certain cultures will not smile, while others won’t stop smiling, even if clearly faked.

CONCLUSIONS. It is each person’s right to choose their emotion and reaction. They are more effective at this if they first master self-control. If you don't care what the asker thinks, then a terse "no thanks", accompanied by physically walking away, is effective. Conversely, it is my right as asker to try to understand the emotion and motivation of the people I interact with, provided I don’t harm or violate cultural lines. To be effective, I must be both sensitive and agile. Your gas station attendant may be just in the early learning phase. You might consider offering him advice to improve his game. This will serve as both a shut down to his rude approach, and a pay it forward for karma points. Long ago I stopped demanding or even asking strangers to perform for me (mostly). There is a better path. In any human interaction, I see constant Observe-Orient-Decide-Act assessments going on, sometimes subconsciously. By learning patterns of behavior over time, I now attempt to meet strangers where they are and move together toward a win-win exit… even if only a fleeting 10 second nod of acknowledgement.

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." -- Thich Nhat Hanh.

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    Thanks for taking your time out for writing this answer, but it's really hard to find the exact answer. Please keep your answer according to the scenario mentioned by the original poster. Thank you. – A J Jan 14 '18 at 14:03
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    +1, on the grounds that are supposed to be used, which is that the answer is useful. Answer provides data (anecdotal as it may be, it's more than I was able to come up with). Also provides a perspective that is alternate of the OP and many of the other answers. I'd also like to comment that I really appreciate that other perspective, contrasting the offensive question. People should be friendly, as the world is better when people are. OP should have recognized the self-failure, laughed at own error, and thereby smiled. Obviously my attitude is swimming upstream of most here. Thanks Hertz! – TOOGAM Jan 15 '18 at 1:46
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    Good to hear the other perspective. It probably is a number game and it always helps to identify the people who take themselves too seriously. At the end of the day, it's just a smile. – UnicornsSeem4EverHorny Jan 15 '18 at 16:23
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    OP owes the gas station attendant nothing, nor has any obligation in helping him improve his game. The question was simply about her asking if there is a better way to deal with such situation. This blurb is not relevant to the question. – Adnan Y Jan 16 '18 at 21:51
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    @Adnan Y "OP owes the gas station attendant nothing" - Question clearly states she does, otherwise why would she be there? – RyanfaeScotland Jan 17 '18 at 1:11
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There's no reason you should smile to him you can tell him that politely, for a humorous response you can use

My mom told me not to smile to strangers

Or

I don't go around smiling to every stranger that asks me

Or (Credits to Erik)

I only smile when I witness something stupid

Works best if followed with a smile.

And for a more serious response you can use something like

Sorry but I only smile when I find something funny

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    Be careful with these responses. They could be taken as flirting. Unless you're trying to flirt, then go ahead. (Lightly informing someone you just met about how you deal with "strangers" suggests that you could be willing to be more open with that person in the future.) – Paul Dexter Jan 15 '18 at 12:04
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    @PaulDexter I agree, I was aiming my answer on short conversations like at the register, or with strangers, the first response is courtesy after that you can stop conversation without coming off as rude. – kingW3 Jan 15 '18 at 17:53
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Based on the strangely personal phrasing "smile for me," this may be an inept attempt to flirt. Whether or not it is, a stranger asking you to smile is rude. It deserves no answer whatsoever. If is an attempt to flirt, any answer, especially a joking one, may be seen by someone with such a lack of boundaries as an invitation to continue the banter/flirtation.

Given that possibility, the correct response is no response at all. Completely ignore the statement. You have no obligation to respond to such rudeness in any way, and a response may serve to make things worse, not better.

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    Personally, I can't see that asking for a smile is any ruder than asking someone to have a nice day. – Michael Kay Jan 17 '18 at 7:57
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    @MichaelKay something like "Why aren't you smiling, then? Let's appreciate the good days we have." or "You should try to smile more, then" would be better ways to ask for a smile, imo, but "smile for me" is flirty, and IMO it's quite rude to say to a stranger. – Ave Jan 17 '18 at 8:19
  • Yes, it all depends how and when you say it. And it's very culturally-dependent too, for example a waiter in the US can be much more "friendly" with customers than in the UK. – Michael Kay Jan 17 '18 at 11:01
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[...] I feel that often the people doing this may not understand why it can be inappropriate

Exactly. Make them feel conscious by playing dumb. They have to feel embarrassed, not you.

They're asking you to do something for them, right? Well, if somebody tells me "do it for me", it's because

  • that person cannot do it by themselves or
  • someway I owe it to that person.

Ask them (politely, as if you really didn't understand their question) which case is this.

-Blah blah smile for me.

-Excuse me sir? I didn't understand your last sentence. Do I have to smile not because I feel like doing it but... because I owe it to you? I really can't remember seeing you other times, I'm sorry. Am I in debt with you?

Or:

-Blah blah smile for me.

-Oh. I'm really sorry for you. If you ask strangers to smile for you, it means that you cannot do it by yourself. It is a really strange and sad case. No, I don't think I'll be able to smile for you, this is way too sad.

Or, even more simply:

-Blah blah smile for me.

-...excuse me? *# I-don't-get-it face

-Yes, smile for me.

-For you...in which sense? *# more intense I-don't-get-it face

-[Confused blabbing]

-[answer(s) asking for clarifications]

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    You can also make them feel conscious another way. Like asking "do you also tell other dudes to smile?". He might realize that in fact he doesn't tell other men to smile because doing that is flirting. And that he is trying to flirt right now, while she doesn't want to. He will probably stop unless he was doing that intentionally in the first place and/or is really brazen. – user31389 Jan 15 '18 at 16:37
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what's the best way to respond to such comments

Play the ball back into their field by demanding a silly condition:

Only if you dance - and do it well.

Only for a 100% discount on the gas, bye!

Implicitly, this is demanding something from him that he probably won‘t do, so you place him in the same situation.

This is not the way to make me smile.

is somehow verbalizing your inner state, but could motivate the other person to continue the conversation, which you do not want to.

Personally, I wouldn‘t go further into explanations of why I look as I look - after all, it‘s a guy at a gas station, and probably his intention is to cheer people up - not very successfully though - at least in your case, he may want to work on his methods.

12

I'm glad you asked this question because this has happened to me many times.

At first, I thought you worked at the register and that the customer complained that you weren't smiling. In the US it's almost required or expected that a customer service representative smiles at the customer whether they want to/feel like it or not. I understand the politics behind it but the opposite, you (a customer) not smiling at a customer service guy and the guy demanding for it is a bit weird. He could be flirting with you.

I have responded differently to comments that I looked mad or that I didn't smile, depending on my mood.

Sometimes, a "Why don't you smile..." comment has elicited a smile. The comment itself made me smile.

Other times, I just chose to keep appearing mad or serious (mood I was in at the time) and ignored their comment without saying anything. And this is what I would do in your situation. You don't owe this guy an explanation.

But if nonetheless you feel like saying something, these have been some of my responses in the past:

I don't feel like it right now.

I don't like smiling on demand.

I don't want to (my favorite and to the point). Ironically, I have sometimes caught myself saying this with a sarcastic smile.

Note: Sometimes, it's possible to overreact when someone is trying to make us smile or trying to cheer us up (especially if we aren't in a good mood). Some people are like that and they mean well.

I don't know if it felt like that to you with this guy or not. This is for you to tell. I try to be fair and not too rigid and unless this happened often or I felt a particular person was being too forceful I would ignore their comment and leave. My response almost always depends on the vibe I get from the person making the comment and the mood I'm in.

  • +1 for "they mean well" and sometimes letting yourself smile in response. Several answers seem to jump to the conclusion that it's some kind of power play or self gratification. While there are certainly contexts in which that conclusion can be drawn, jumping to it in general seems to be an unnecessary escalation. – bvoyelr Jan 16 '18 at 15:04
  • @bvoyelr "smile for me" is not something someone meaning well would say, imo. – Ave Jan 17 '18 at 8:23
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    @Ave Though I don't necessarily disagree with you, keep in mind that a lot of times people sound awkward when trying to express themselves. And unless we can really read people's minds to know exactly what they mean - sometimes they don't know themselves - when they say something to us, we can only rely on gut feeling and unfortunately our own biases and projections. – Tycho's Nose Jan 17 '18 at 9:28
  • @Tycho'sNose That is my exact thought. Most people are imperfect orators, to say the least. It's usually best (even for the recipient of such a comment) to assume that it was meant in a positive way. – bvoyelr Jan 17 '18 at 13:18
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Life tip: don't spend your energy on trying to change people.

Many of the answers here tell you to do something to make clear to the gas station guy, that he should leave you be. I think that's a waste of effort.

Being asked to do so makes me immediately disinterested in everything about the person in question.

Honestly, I think you are unreasonable here. The guy didn't mean it so bad!

Do what feels right for you. It doesn't matter anyway. Shrug, grin, ignore, give a witty response "nah, my face is more comfortable this way!"..

Above all, don't waste your energy worrying about stupid things other people do.

7

Let's assume that you do not need anything from this stranger, that is, the stranger is not an IRS auditor or the person who is going to repair your car or fix the leak in your bathroom.

Be haughty. Say something like "Really !" in a haughty and incredulous tone of voice. Do not say anything that even a moron could construe as an invitation to continue the conversation. In the example you cite, you could even just walk out, if you had not already handed over the money for your purchases.

Be prepared to be called a bitch. So what? Be proud of being a bitch!

If this is too extreme for you, say something like

I have rigor mortis and am unable to smile. I don't want to talk about it.

If you are dependent on the goodwill of this person (the plumber, for example), say, something like:

I always look like this. It's nothing personal.

You do not owe anybody an explanation; you do not even owe them courtesy. They are way over the line, unless they are senile, or you are a child.

Edit in response to Comment

My last sentence may have been ambiguous. What I meant to say is that you are under no obligation to be courteous (in this case) unless you are dealing with a person with a mental disability or a child, or unless you yourself are a child. I agree that children should not be obliged to accede to the demands or even requests of strangers, and they can run screaming from a stranger if are frightened, but it does a child no favor to teach it that it is OK to be rude. A dollop of rudeness needs to be seasoned with judgment.

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    The last sentence should end at the comma. Being a child does not give others an excuse or the right to make demands of them, and requiring children to access to the demands of strangers is not a good lesson. – Nij Jan 13 '18 at 5:16
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    * accede. Autocorrect errors. – Nij Jan 13 '18 at 6:25
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    @Nij in fact, teaching kids that adults can demand others to smile may contribute to this very behavior when grow up. – Erik Jan 14 '18 at 8:06
  • A slow incredulous “Wooooow...” can also work instead of “really!” – rrauenza Jan 14 '18 at 8:09
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First off, I understand all the connotations of men telling women to smile and totally agree that it is pretty much always out of place, as it was in this instance.

However... it may be that this particular instance was as much about customer/server interaction as male/female.

You said that you felt as if your personal bubble had been invaded. To continue the bubble analogy; when two soap bubbles come close to each other, they join up while remaining divided, you get a flat interface where they meet.

two joined bubbles

Each bubble is still intact but it has a temporary shared boundary. This can be a useful way to think about human interactions.

  • Total strangers passing in the street... their bubbles remain separate from ours,
  • Strangers we share brief interactions with ... their bubbles connect to ours for a time and deform them as we deform theirs and that shared membrane is where we can feel particularly sensitive to each other's actions.

Analogies only go so far, but perhaps in this instance as you approached the cashier, he felt your approach as an impact on his bubble and responded, which you felt as an impact on yours.

I agree that he was wrong to tell you to smile, but it might be worth thinking about whether there was anything about your approach which might also have felt invasive to him.

You have said that he 'decided to strike up a conversation' from which it isn't clear if you had already exchanged any kind of greeting. Where I live, it would be strange not to make eye contact with, greet and probably smile at the cashier when you enter the kiosk or get to the head of the queue, regardless of anyone's gender.

But we all have off days and are sometimes too preoccupied to remember to smooth the flow of interaction with strangers and we waltz up to pay-desks in full resting-bitch-face (which men get too), and sometimes they will give us prompts... like 'bad day?'. often the response to the prompt is as simple as 'Oh, sorry, I was miles away, Hello, that's Pump 3 please' and everyone goes on none the worse. If we respond with more of a 'why are you asking?' challenge, things can go rapidly downhill.

I think the key in this instance is to consider that anyone working behind a pay desk probably gets a procession of customers to serve who can be anywhere on a spectrum from overly familiar to overly aggressive and that that must get wearing. So, while that is part and parcel of what can be expected from a customer-facing role, it behoves the rest of us in such interactions to deploy our culture's appropriate, respectful social niceties. So our bubble got poked a bit, maybe we poked theirs too.

Note: I am not saying you did, just mooting the possibility that that may have been the cashier's perception.

2

An Italian proverb/saying declares that

Il sorriso abbonda sulla bocca degli sciocchi.

Smiling abounds on silly ones' mouth.

Noone is required/forced/mandated to "smile to anyone". Social good/common sense recommends to be polite and kind, not to smile, all the more reason for which this guy's request is inappropriate.

I think that "[aforementioned proverb]" so I rather keep my smile for worthwhile occasions. Have a nice day.

...would be my answer.

2

I'll borrow advice from captainawkward:

They are being rude by crossing the boundaries. You don't need to cave in.

Here are your 4 new best friends:

  • “Okay.”
  • “Wow.”
  • “No.”
  • CHILLY AWKWARD SILENCE

You don't owe them a response. They want your attention. Just like a child that does something bad just to be scolded so they can get attention. Actually giving them a response, as some answers here state, is letting them win.

Be a broken record. Let them be offended. Let them think you’re being manipulative. Don’t engage in detail or give them reasons. If they won’t stop or escalate, say “Welp, good to see you, time to go!” & get out of there. You don’t owe them continued access to your attention. Leave the conversation and try again another day.

Drop the mic and walk away.

You can’t legislate people’s hearts, but you can hack away the culture that normalizes their behavior one plate of mashed potatoes and awkward conversation at a time. The world needs you to be awkward and make it weird.

It is just a mote on your day. If they think it is ok to force an emotional response on others just to get some eye candy, lets change it one awkward stare at a time.

0

I'm the same as you and don't care for other people telling me how to act, feel, or respond. It's none of their business. But I've learned that when I don't give any facial expressions, people can't read me, and assume that I'm a certain way. Although it's not fair or accurate, that's the way it is.

If this person is someone you are friends with and see often, then just share your annoyance with them. If they are someone you see rarely, and it's not worth the aggravation of discussing with them, then just suck it up and don't respond.

I know how you feel and it's very annoying! Good luck.

protected by A J Jan 14 '18 at 16:46

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