Fake Smiles and Stony Faces

During the first several weeks of my romance with Magnum, in moments of silence or transition, he would often return my gaze with an expression I found discomforting. It looked like the offspring of a grimace and the Joker’s grin—his mouth stretched into the shape of a too-large-to-be-real smile, his eyes reflecting zero mirth.

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Not quite this discomforting, but close.

It had the effect of turning his handsome face into a caricature. I finally asked, “Why you look at me like that?”

“Dat what all you white people do.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You white people. All the time. Everywhere, you do dis ting.”

“We what…we fake smile?”

“Yeah, all the dahmn time I see you do this. Only white people.”

“…And this is your attempt at fake smiling?”

“Yeah. Dis what I do when I wuking an dah white people look at me dat way.”

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to witness this odd mimicry.

I was enjoying myself watching him work and interact with customers, which he generally does with a fair amount of charm. Now, Magnum has a gorgeous, even charismatic smile when he’s really smiling. And he does really smile a lot. But it’s not something he can pull off when he doesn’t feel like it. If it doesn’t come naturally, if he’s actually irritated or even just bored, the smile you get is the Joker Grimace. Which is what he was doing while trying to help a white family-man back his rented sedan into a tight parking spot. He directed the nervous fellow into position, the Joker Grimace frozen on his face.

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Feigned happy. It hurts.

“Sweetie,” I told him later, “It doesn’t look like you’re smiling at all when you do that, it actually sorta looks like you’re in pain.”

And in a way, I guess he is in a bit of pain for having to pretend to smile when he doesn’t feel the urge. The more I got to thinking about it, the more I noticed that yes, indeed, we white people do fake smile all day every day. I did it reflexively myself just this morning, which is especially telling since writing this piece has brought the practice to the forefront of my attention.

Whether we’re pleased or not, we’re socialized to turn the corners of our mouths up a bit when making eye contact with another human on the way to the bathroom or upon entering the elevator. It’s basically, I guess, an acknowledgement of the other person. “Hello, we’ve made eye contact and are in the same space and time on the planet. Good day to you.” Or something similar.

Magnum has assured me, “Black people don’t care if you smile at ‘dem, ya know. We don’ care one bit. You don’ smile? No madda to me! I still gon’ sleep happily in my bed at night.”

Even so, unless I am utterly burned out or pissed off, when dealing with people (especially when I’m the one working) the smile on my face emerges naturally. There is absolutely no effort required on my behalf to greet the customer with a smile. It’s not necessarily fake. Would I rather be working instead of writing or reading or drinking beer on the beach? No. But when my role is to be of service, the smile automatically materializes. It’s been this way since my days working at JCPenney in high school. The smile may not be completely genuine, but neither is it forced. It’s a work-mode thing. This seems to be programmed into most us white people.

However, this does not seem to be programmed into most West Indians. In fact, it seems more like the opposite. You get, what I have started referring to as the West Indian Stony Face, until and ONLY until you prove that you are not an asshole. West Indians seem to start with the assumption that you are going to be an asshole, and if with time—maybe over the course of a conversation or business transaction, or maybe over several weeks, months, or years—you prove to them that you’re a genuine and good-humored sort, then the wide smile comes out and you’re treated as a friend forevermore. But until then, the blank expression they offer you rivals the likes of red carpet ice queens Kristen Stewart and Victoria Beckham.

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Maybe she’s just shy…

I can only really speak for myself, but white people seem to operate from the opposite premise. You, the customer, are deemed decent until you prove you’re an asshole. Then, and only then, will you get the Stony Face instead of the Fake Smile.

I think I understand at least partly why we get the Stony Face until proven worthy. Just imagine if your home was constantly invaded with people from a differing landmass, with different skin color and customs. They make demands and tell you how things are done where they come from in white people land, with little to no understanding of or interest in why things are done the way they’re done in your homeland. They just assume that because of their white people exceptionalism, their ways are superior.

I get it. My perception of tourists has changed dramatically since living in a vacation spot, and it has forever changed the way I behave when traveling. But there is something to be said for being greeted with a smile when you walk in the door of a business. Even Magnum recognizes this. During a recent errand run, we entered a non-tourist business while the two local girls behind the counter continued their conversation, backs to the door, without bothering to even look in our direction, despite the electronic ding dong that sounded when we crossed the threshold. Walking down the aisle to find our items, he said, “Lemme tell you sumtin’. If I ever own a business, I will not hire black people to work in my store because dey don’ even bodda saying hello when you walk inside. A customer like to be greeted if he gonna spend money wit you!”

But can you train a fake smile? If Magnum is any evidence, the result is far more confusing than helpful.

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This chick has it down.

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Ashley Ladlie

About Ashley Ladlie

Ashley lives on St. John in the US Virgin Islands where she can be found drenched in sweat while communing with the hermit crabs who live in her yard. The irony of living in a shac-teau on the most remote part of a tiny secondary island in the Caribbean while spending the majority of her time with a creature named after people who prefer solitude is not lost on her.

Despite constant inquiry as to how long she’ll be on St. John, Ashley has learned in her three decades on this planet that setting one’s life plans in stone is the best way to ensure their futility. For now she remains enchanted with the beautiful absurdity on her rock of residence, which is colorful in far more ways than one.

You can hire her to write and design for you at www.badashbabe.com.

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13 thoughts on “Fake Smiles and Stony Faces

  1. I’ve caught my reflection in the mirror, more than once, with the fake smile on my face. Not pretty….it definitely looks like a grimace. However, I prefer to improve my fake smile rather than not smiling at all. Smiling makes me feel good.

    • I find that smiling usually makes me feel better too. I can be in a terrible mood, and if my “customers” are not assholes, then they can really lift my spirits. I can also be in a wonderful mood, and if the “customers” are assholes, it will deplete me. That’s what I get for having permeable boundaries!

  2. My renewed driver’s license shows me with a long fake smile that started to hurt because the female worker made sure I looked good 🙂 It is better than my old VI license that looks like a mug shot that belongs in a line up with my name and serial number on the picture.
    When I go to Sub Base Pueblo, one of the gypsy cab drivers tells me to smile. I’ll smile when I want to, not when “you” want me to.

    • Hi LouLou. It sounds like you’re lucky to have gotten a BMV worker who likes people! I remember my mom had the same mug shot VI drivers license too a few years ago because she said the lady was so rude. I also don’t like it when people- strange men especially- tell me to smile. It’s my face, dammit!

  3. Interesting cultural observation, Ashley. I’m afraid I come off impassive when I’m smiling inwardly. Flat out laughing is foreign to my Danish heritage, I guess. I’m a bit your opposite: everything in moderation. Just another reason I respect your moxie and spirit.

    • Yes, come to think of it Sev…I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed you emitting more mirth than an amused chuckle. Thanks for telling me I have moxie– I could certainly use a lot more of it!

  4. What is wrong with Kristen Stewart? she never steps out from that ‘Twilight Saga’ mood and expression 😀
    Haa thanks for sharing this awesome post! Both for black and white people, smile is the language of heart 🙂
    Keep smiling ( no faking please)…!

    • I agree, smiling is the language of the heart. I’m a smiler, through and through. Can’t help it. It’s a nice contrast to my potty mouth. I’m glad I could offer you some enjoyable reading at 3:33am! Thanks for your comment!

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