Too Many Smiles (Or Too Few)

SmileHave you ever met anyone like Levi from Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl?

He “smiled all the way from his chin to his receding hairline. His forehead wrinkled up, his eyes twinkled. Even his ears got into the action — they twitched, like a dog’s.” At times, it would “devour[] his whole face.” Rowell further describes Levi as “pass[ing] out smiles to everyone he met like it didn’t cost him anything, like he’d never run out.”

fangirlYou’d think that someone who smiles this much would be phony or creepy, but Levi is an extremely likeable — albeit flawed — character who, with relentless smiling, defies gender stereotypes, but perhaps strains a reader’s tolerance for repetition. It’s understandable that Cath, the main character in Fangirl, would want to “come up with more words for Levi’s smiles.” The word “smile” appears in some form 205 times in the novel (according to my Kindle). It’s hard for me to fault Rowell for using the word so much,* given how I use “smile” all the time in my own creative writing. The common synonyms for smile, including beam, grin, smirk, simper, and leer, come nowhere close to describing the many smiling expressions our faces are capable of making.

Unlike Levi, Cath smiles sparingly, as though “smiling at strangers [would] exhaust[] [her] overall supply.” She was even fired from her job at a bookstore because she didn’t behave the way society expects women to behave–she didn’t smile enough. We’re raised to be pleasant, attractive, and approachable, a presumption about women’s mentality and behavior that is reinforced every time a stranger thinks they are entitled to a smile from those of us who don’t walk around grinning from ear-to-ear.**

My friend Jaclyn from Covered in Flour calls this interaction with strangers the introvert’s pet peeve:

Don’t you absolutely hate it when strangers shout “Smile!” at you?  Scarcely anything bugs me more.  First of all, stranger, I don’t know you, so why should I grin at you like an idiot?  If I’m going to give myself smile lines, it’s going to be for people I actually know.  Second, this is my face’s natural position.  I look serious.  Do I screech at you things like “Why so giddy?”  No.  Simmer down.

I probably produce more happy smiles now than I ever had in the past — thankfully, each year of my life has brought more to smile about — but I keep these facial expressions for my family, my friends, and for myself. I’ll return a polite smile, but I don’t dole out joyful smiles to just anyone.

Smiles can be wide, broad, flat, wistful, seductive, sheepish, expectant, indulgent, sympathetic, rueful, quirky, deceitful and just about anything else, communicating an infinite number of feelings beyond happiness or amusement; as Herman Melville wrote in Pierre, a very strange novel (by the way), “a smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities.” The degree of the upward turn of the lips matters — a slight upturn is different from a wide smile — but, really, the rest of the face is the best indicator of a person’s internal feelings. A genuinely happy smile, for instance, tends to light up the entire face with telltale creases around the eyes, while a faux or sad smile, often on a tilted face, is usually only slightly curved and has no creases around the eyes.

So, the next time someone tells me to smile, I’ll probably ignore them the way I always do. However, I might just smirk, roll my eyes, and say, “[F-you]. I am smiling!”

*Though I liked Levi and really enjoyed Fangirl (which I reviewed last week), I must admit that some of Levi’s smiles/grins didn’t quite make sense to me. For example, in the Emergency Dance Party scene, Rowell writes, “Levi raised his eyebrows and grinned.” In another example, Levi “grinned and raised a hand-drawn eyebrow.” I can’t believe he’d do one after the other–this guy is a perpetual smiler–but if he raised his eyebrows and grinned at the same time, he’d look like this, which is rather weird. Try it.

**Perhaps some of us suffer from BRF.


  1. I prefer a faux or retail smile to the permanent grumpy frown that many old men insist on displaying.
    Oh, did you hear the one about the horse who went into a bar and the barman asked him ‘Why the long face?’?

  2. Great post! It’s great to read about an author who has thought a lot about which characters are more inclined towards an action – in this case smiling – than others. The fact that it’s smiling makes it all the more poignant. I have to say, though, I’m one of those people who prefers synonyms to just ‘smile’. If I write ‘he smiled’, I’m more likely to automatically want an adverb after it. Rowell, however, seems to have got the writing a smile down to a T. *secretly jealous*
    And, wow, I’ve just realised why I can’t smile nicely on cue: because the Cheshire Cat was my favourite character when I was a little girl and I’ve somehow stolen his mad eyebrow-mouth grin!

    1. I’m glad you liked the post!

      “It’s great to read about an author who has thought a lot about which characters are more inclined towards an action – in this case smiling – than others.” So true! Rainbow Rowell really knows how to develop characters. That’s the best part of this novel.

  3. Great post. So thoughtful. I never really think about smiling. I know the fake retail ones, but I just forget to even think about a single one. Makes me think now; and still want to read the book!


    1. I’m glad you liked the post! If you haven’t read Fangirl already, I highly recommend it. It’s full of great characters. I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

  4. I love the bit about “do I screech at you things like why so giddy?” Cracked me up. 🙂 I’m one of those people who does smile at everyone, strangers included. It’s mostly just habit, but sometimes I worry that smiling like that all the time takes away from the emotion and makes all my smiles less genuine. : /

    1. Yeah, Jaclyn’s quote cracked me up too! I’m not a person who smiles much in public, but I have found myself smiling when I come across someone with a smile on their face (as long as they don’t tell me to smile, too!). So, your smiles might be having a positive effect on people. 🙂

  5. LOL, I love that you quote me at my grouchiest! Heh. (And I’ve also noticed that it’s always men who tell me to smile. Interesting.) Like you, I smile when I’m happy – and I have plenty to be happy about, so I don’t always walk around scowling – but I don’t just hand out grins. There’s nothing wrong with that!

    1. No, there’s nothing wrong with it! It’s a great quote. You really described how many of us feel when strangers tell us to smile. I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

    1. I agree that smiles can be contagious (in a good way), but no one should feel pressured to do it. Levi is a great character. His infectious happiness is the best aspect of his personality. I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

  6. I teach women’s psychology and gender studies which notes — as you say – that women are taught to smile much more than men. If you look at advertisements women tend to have much bigger smiles than men do. And women are even more likely than men to smile when they’re angry. I perform the move for my class and it’s kind of creepy.

    1. Thanks for chiming in! Your classes on women’s psychology and gender students sound very interesting. I miss taking those types of classes (it’s been a long time!).

  7. A bit creepy to raise your brows and smile on purpose. Smiles can be an interesting thing, and I don’t just mean for the typical reasons. Have you heard of the movie “The Man Who Laughs”? It’s very old, but apparently served as inspiration for Bob Kane in creating the Joker.

    Thanks for mentioning the book. Off to read your review.

    1. I’m glad that you enjoyed the post! I relate to Cath, too. She’s a great character. If you haven’t read Rowell’s Fangirl already, I highly recommend it. I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

  8. It’s interesting that no one tells me to smile, but I’ve heard men tell women to do so, as if the lack of a manic grin was a negative reflection on them. How are females taught that smiling is required of them, and why do they do it? Is it their innate need to please others–most specifically males? And if they aren’t walking around smiling all the time, why does this immediately indicate they’re in a bad mood? Smiling is nice, but it shouldn’t be required of anyone.

    1. I think we learn it at a young age, whenever anyone in authority tells us to “smile” or to “be friendly.” Parents, other relatives, and even strangers do it. Little girls who don’t smile much are often considered unfriendly, which can be tough at younger ages. We comply because we want to fit in, and because, to some extent, we’ve absorbed the gender norms around us.

    1. Hi Alesia! Yes, they are growing up so fast! My older two started kindergarten at the beginning of the month, and my youngest is now considered to be an older toddler. Thanks for stopping by!

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