A reader writes: “I’m in the very early stages of female-to-male transition and wonder if smiling should be among the mannerisms I’m trying to change. I know that many men smile. For me smiling didn’t come naturally, however, and because of certain circumstances, I associate it with femininity and internalized transphobia.
“When I was a teenager my transphobic mother was disturbed by my masculine appearance, and kept telling me to ‘smile more.’ My father asked, ‘Couldn’t you have smiled?’ when he saw a photo of me. Strangers complimented me when I happened to smile. When I taught a class, a mentoring professor urged me to smile to my students. As a result of all this I did finally acquire the habit of smiling, but it was always linked to a sense that I was unacceptable as my serious self.
“If I teach myself to smile less, I may appear hostile and negative, which I do not want. On the other hand, I do not want my acquired ‘feminine’ smiling to ruin the rest of the male comportment I’m aiming for. Is there a middle ground, a recognizably male way of smiling?”
I have always thought that men smile less than women do, at least in Western culture, which is the culture with which I am most familiar, and I always thought that it had something to do with socialization.
I thought that men were taught to smile less because it was more important for them to appear serious in business (and in war), and that smiling would reduce their chances of being seen as tough competitors – in business, in war, for territory, and for a mate.
On the other hand, a smiling woman reflects her socially sanctioned role as caregiver – someone who can be approached and who will be helpful, friendly, and caring.
But I never bothered to look it up, and it appears that I might be wrong – at least in part.
A Yale University study found that women do smile more than men in general, but there are many variables. According to this study, women and men in the same position of power smile about the same amount. Men smile less than women do when they think they are being observed – apparently because they are trying to act out an expected gender role of not smiling.
And culture, age, ethnicity, and several other factors play a part in any differences between smiling men and smiling women. This study would indicate that to smile or not to smile in certain situations is completely a social construct.
However, an article published in the academic journal Physiology & Behavior hypothesizes that smiling is biology based and has to do with testosterone evolving to alter brain function to inhibit smiling. The reason for this genetic evolution has to do with males needing to intimidate rivals in order to effectively compete for mates.
If this theory is true, then I was right in my assumption that smiling was a detriment to competition, but I was wrong in assuming that it was social – according to this theory, smiling or not smiling would be hardwired.
There are probably dozens of other studies out there, offering completely opposing views on any smile phenomenon. But regardless of these studies, I think that it is assumed by many in Western culture that men smile much less than women, and my personal experience has borne this out.
I’m a smiler, even when I don’t feel like smiling. As a female, I was socialized to please, and I believe that smiling is a big part of that. I have a tendency to smile at everyone, even strangers I pass on the street or who I run into in public restrooms.
But when I transitioned, I quickly learned that men don’t smile when passing each other on the street – if they acknowledge each other at all, it tends to be with a little head jerk that I still haven’t perfected after fourteen years. I also learned that they definitely do not smile at each other in public restrooms, and that unless you’re feeling especially frisky or in the mood to get beat up, it’s probably unwise to do so.
The thing that I have noticed about men and women smiling (and my disclaimer is that this is strictly personal observation, backed by no research, and a generalization to boot) is that men tend to smile for a reason, whereas women tend to smile both for a reason and in general – just to be pleasant.
Regardless of any personal observations or research studies, if you’re a smiler, you should smile. If you’re not, don’t worry about it. Smile when you feel like smiling, and don’t when you don’t. There is a difference between a non-smile and a frown. Frowns and glares can appear hostile and negative. Relaxed, open, neutral faces appear as just that – neutral.
I don’t think that a smile is going to damage a masculine persona. People will think you’re a happy guy, and happy guys are attractive. There are certain social situations, such as meeting someone new or greeting people at a party, where smiling is mandatory. Other than that, a sincere smile is the best kind.
So I say smile when you mean it – except in the public men’s room.
What do readers think?