Jessica Bennett wrote in a recent New York Times article that there is a silver lining to the mask problem, at least for women. Those of us who don’t smile continually no longer have to listen to remarks like, ”Hey, sweetie! Lighten up and smile!” Unless we knit our brows and scowl, we look like anyone else. For all anyone knows, we are smiling broadly under our masks.
Maybe it’s genetic. My father was a handsome, serious man who wore a pleasant expression but seldom smiled broadly unless he was laughing. For years, no one bothered him about it, but by the time he became a school principal in the sixties, things had changed. As you can tell from comparing school photos taken in the fifties and sixties, smiling for photos became mandatory around 1960. No one sent the memo to my dad. Finally, when he had to pose for a faculty photo, the frustrated photographer shouted, “Smile, Henry! Smile!” He did so reluctantly, and the result was gruesome. He looks like someone who has a few too many drinks. I saved the photo and used to tease him with it. Mother, on the other hand, smiled easily and often.
Though the smile mandate caused a slight problem for my dad, men in general seem able to look serious without being criticized. In fact, it seems to give them an advantage in business and political situations, where looking too happy may make them seem too lightweight. Women, in contrast, are expected to smile in social situations, but to look and act only slightly serious otherwise. We can choose between seeming too accommodating and being perceived as shrewish.
Smiling has different connotations in different cultures, too; German waiters seem to take pride in looking severe, while American servers of both genders may smile too often for customers’ comfort. Both groups must be handicapped by the current need to wear masks.