I never knew just how much I rely on smiling in business exchanges. It happens less now, but I when I purchase something from the secret pulperia (a pulperia semi-hidden behind a wall) and the owner doesn’t smile, I wonder if I insulted her, was rude, or if my purchases were annoying. When she does smile, I walk down her steps content, even if she’s out of the tortillas or tajadas I requested. This type of interaction repeats everywhere: the produce stands, the school supply store, and the supermercado where the clerks tend to look rather bored, though that’s probably just their resting faces. The clerks and owners are polite, but there’s no smile to accompany their Buenas/Hola or Gracias and, despite repeated exposure, I replay the interaction, looking for my offense, searching for the smile.
Articles, discussion threads, and studies about cultural differences often cite the “friendliness” or “politeness” or “smileyness” of the U.S. population (just google “culture” + “smiling”). Depending on the author, this is either praised as welcoming or disparaged as sign of the culture’s falsity. In my previous life, when I read these articles I would think of frozen-faced flight attendants as they waved me off the plane or the grumpy check-out person who definitely did not smile while helping me, the supposed British stiff upper lip or the rumor that Germans have no sense of humor … but I wouldn’t really understand what the author was talking about. People in the U.S. smile too much? Yes, some are bad at faking it, but what does “too much” mean? After all, I come from the land of smile therapy.
Now I think I understand, at least a little. As much as the disinterested facial expression causes the furrow between my brows to deepen into a canyon, why is it reasonable to expect a smile during our business transaction? I need something, s/he supplies it. Why does s/he need to appear thankful, and why do I either when it comes down to it? Does this transaction give either one of us significant pleasure? In the day-to-day, probably not. It’s about supply and demand. Let’s keep it honest and not muddle it with emotions. I find working in customer service, particularly in a store, face-to-face with customers, exhausting. I have to fake enthusiasm for a stranger and her/his purchases for 8 hours. Really, while I wish the customer no ill will, I rarely could care less. I’m there because I need money and the customer is there because s/he needs what I happen to be selling. I and the store I’m in are no more than a convenience. Yes, I’m happy to have a job and I will serve you with the courtesy you deserve as a human being, but why am I required to make it personal? Does it have something to do with the U.S. prioritizing industry and money over humanity? I’m sure there is a profit margin attached to a smile, or what appears as a smile, because a genuine smile can’t be imitated. (Accept no imitations, folks!)
Despite my burgeoning awareness, I continue to seek out the smile. I frequent the same licuado stand because the young man always smiles during our exchanges. I doubt our secret pulperia has better prices than my usual produce stand, but the young girl who occasionally helps me can be so goofy, thus I buy bananas. In the States, I will return to a store if the clerks smile, even if the prices are slightly higher. That’s my reaction to an upturn of lips or baring of teeth, but what is the reaction of someone used to a less smiley culture? A culture that doesn’t equate smiling with competency and courtesy? (There have been reams written on this topic and my question doesn’t merit notice, so I’d rather ponder and navel gaze than research at the moment.) Conversely, I am slightly more comfortable with not accompanying my Gracias with a smile if I’m not feelin’ it. I’m less afraid that I will be found rude.
Besides, smiling causes wrinkles, and who wants that? Hmm…maybe cultures that smile less are secretly obsessed with appearing youthful. No, that’s the U.S. Never mind.
(No, I really don’t care about wrinkles. Well, not much, yet.)
Shake your ta-tas,
P.S. Having a mouth close up at the top of this post may not be the best decision.
P.P.S. Feeling a little bit of the goof today, in case you couldn’t tell. And while we’re on the topic of goof and smiling, Miranda rarely fails to evoke my genuine smile.