Americans 'Need' You To Smile

“Coronavirus just made it harder to become an American! And here I thought I was done assimilating,” my sister huffs, hanging her jacket up on the door and disinfecting her hands. She’d just gotten back from her job as a pharmacy technician at a popular American chain store.

Legs crossed, laptop shut, I sit back, waiting eagerly to hear my ever so calm and composed sister complain about her job.

“These people smile so much!” she continued. “No, I mean they were smiling loudly!”

And I finally understood. The conversation was happening in our native language, Sylheti, where we have only one word for smiling. And laughing. And giggling and chuckling and everything where your mouth turns upwards. To Sylheti speakers, all of those are expressions of happiness.

Everyone at work wears masks, making it difficult to figure out whether or not someone is smiling. And since neutrality isn’t an option, her coworkers and most of the customers have opted to laugh during conversations, even the most mundane ones.

Yes, there is no refill for the Losartan. You’re gonna have to come back with a prescription. HAHAHAHAHAHA.

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Both of us sisters who were raised in the motherland and were taught only to smile when we’re happy, just can’t get into performing the brighter-than-sun-showing-off-my-dental-insurance American smile. How do you convince your brain to display the same smile when the smell of freshly baked pizza doesn’t spark the same emotions as calls with insurance companies? I’m not particularly thrilled to go to the grocery store, and I’m pretty sure neither is the cashier who’s been standing there for the past eight hours. There’s no reason for me to smile or to expect a smile from the cashier in return. We don’t owe each other our happiness.

And this is where things get complicated.

The American smile diverts from the universal definition of smile. It isn’t about happiness. It’s a form of social cue, a non-verbal signal that says, “Hey, I’m a friend.” Researchers explain that the American smile is a product of American socialization. When Europeans started migrating to the U.S. in the early 1600s and 1700s, they were coming from all parts of the continent. Brits, Italians, Germans, and Finns often found themselves living in the same street. Not knowing each other’s languages, they had to rely on non-verbal communication measures--a common phenomenon in countries with many immigrants. Smiling was the confirmation that your neighbor wasn’t a threat, and they would also probably agree to a meal together.

What evolved out of necessity now presents an integral part of our society. You can’t survive with a neutral face in America, even if you speak the language.

The American smile is more than just about communication. The American smile is a sign of comfort. And if there’s one thing Americans hate the most, it’s being uncomfortable. If you're speaking a different language they don’t understand, it brings them discomfort and they make it their business to fight it. If you look a little unusual, it brings them discomfort and they make it their business to get rid of it. Heck, if you’re eating, dining, or cooking a meal outside, it can still manage to bring discomfort to some Americans, and they can somehow find a way to tell you off for eating something that goes into your stomach and is paid for by your money.

Americans need to feel comfortable and they need you to smile.

Being Asian, I have no problem with being uncomfortable. In fact, most Asians don’t. Discomfort is a part of life. So what if my prescription for Losartan isn’t ready?

But of course, my American-born and bred friends and colleagues believe differently. To them, I owe comfort which comes in the form of smiles. And I’m not exempt from this obligation just because we are in a global pandemic. If your face is covered by a mask, they need to hear you laugh to be sure. I find myself turning on Zoom videos specifically for that reason because the alternative to not smiling is laughing like a clown for two hellish hours.

Having lived in the U.S. for almost half of my life, I know how to pronounce words like an American and how to smile like an American. I’ve been pretty confident in my communication skills, until, of course, COVID-19 happened. The rules of the game have changed, and we’ve upgraded (or downgraded?) to laugh.

However, this isn’t the first time we’re seeing a cultural shift in this regard. Remember those black and white photos of your grandparents’ wedding where everyone looks like military soldiers waiting for commands? Smiling for photographs used to be rare. Historically, portraits were painted and they were used for serious occasions. When photography came around, the ideal for portraits stuck around and people treated them with similar weight. Smiling for the camera wasn’t just against the norm, it was looked down upon and downright feared. Referring to photography, Mark Twain, a professional humorist, wrote, “There’s nothing more damning to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”

Wedding Portrait Photograph Early 1900's Line Up Bride, Groom, Attendants Chicago - Donna Jackson - JacksonMarket Wedding Portrait Photograph Early 1900's Line Up Bride, Groom, Attendants Chicago - Donna Jackson - JacksonMarket

But of course, that has changed. With advanced technology and photography becoming more accessible, the culture surrounding it has shifted. At first it was a “cheese” with a dazzling smile and a victory sign, but since mid 2010s, we’ve become bolder. Smiley, grumpy, angry, pouty- all expressions are normal for the camera today.

While my sister and I have been struggling to get on board with the shift from the smile, many of my peers seem to have adapted smoothly. During Zoom sessions, I hear laughter sprinkling through black squares, and the checkout lines at the store feel like the audience of a 90’s sitcom.

COVID-19 has challenged the way Americans communicate. Each day, we’re discovering new ways to get around the masks and distance in an attempt to continue life as it was before. This could be the beginning of a new era. We may finally graduate from our century-old tradition of the American smile and embrace the new American laugh. What will the rest of the world think of it? We shall find out once these travel restrictions are lifted.