When I realized I was going to write this post, I initially thought this issue was something that just recently started happening. Then I started thinking back on situations that I would highlight and nope, this has always happened…I’m finally annoyed enough to share.

The short version: Don’t tell me to smile!

The long version:

Take a few minutes to google “don’t tell me to smile”. There are plenty of stories and projects on this subject. The reasons extend into various aspects but there is frequently a common theme…smiling makes women prettier and that’s what we should be. So it’s perfectly acceptable to tell a woman to smile.

Why I think it happens in the worst case scenario:
This has happened, and not just once, a complete stranger has walked up to me (airport, restaurant, etc) and proceeded to say “Smile (in an encouraging/requesting tone)”. In my early days, I would comply. Now, I ask why? These actual responses are awesome: “Your day can’t be that bad”, “Smiling makes everything better”, and the biggest winner “Because you are too pretty not to smile”. You don’t know me or what I’m thinking/feeling for that day.  Why do I owe you a smile? Why do I need to smile but every man also at this place is fine to have any expression on his face he desires. I’m married but even if you thought this was a good pickup line and figured I’ll try anyway, trust me…it’s not!!!

Why I think it happens even with good intentions scenario:
For those that know me personally or really anyone that has even interacted with me, they would easily describe me as an extreme extrovert. There is no question that I love people. I love connecting and engaging with people. I love laughing and hanging out with people. I want things to be memorable and fun. These are the moments when I let my personality become quite large and free (humorous, loud, etc). Then there are moments that I’m serious or intentionally not drawing attention to myself, etc. Both people new and old to me will frequently ask me “are you alright?”, “everything good?”, and yes occasionally… “smile”, etc.

In my earlier days, I would quickly respond with “I’m good” and move on. Later, I half-joked and half-accepted that I have bitchy resting face, which does make people wonder if I’m mad about something. Lately, I am still responding with “I’m good that’s just my face” but internally, struggling to not be annoyed.

Let me be clear – I’m annoyed with them and myself too. I don’t want to feel like if I’m not “performing” then everyone gets to assume something is wrong. Yet, I know that the intent is genuine to check in on me. But to be honest because of the worst case scenario – I’m bothered that it might be a little of that too.

So where does this leave a lady – capable of both a large outgoing and quiet internal demeanor – has bitchy resting face – and tired of having to explain that there is nothing wrong even when I’m not smiling? Truthfully, I’m not sure. One step, was to decide to write about this on this blog because as leaders (humans) we have biases. If you are making assumptions about women based on whether they are smiling or not, notice the behavior and correct it. If you are making assumptions about your women leaders based on whether they are smiling or not, notice that the thought doesn’t enter as much (if at all) for a male leader. Personally, I think my response to strangers will be my response to everyone now “Why?”. This fits with being curious with what prompted them to ask.  Maybe there is something else that I’m doing that I could help this situation. Maybe they can learn. That would certainly be better than me just being internally annoyed.
What other steps could be taken?
Tricia Broderick

Tricia Broderick

Tricia Broderick is a leadership and organizational advisor. Her transformational leadership at all levels of an organization, ignites growth of leaders and high performing teams to deliver quality outcomes. Tricia has more than twenty years of experience in the software development industry. She is a highly-rated trainer, coach, facilitator and motivational keynote speaker. Beyond her extensive knowledge and skills, her biggest offering is inspiring people to believe anything is possible.


  • Renee says:

    This left me well and truely laughing although that may not have been your intention!
    It’s so true right! I’ve also got a natural ‘bitchy resting face’ or as my husband calls it ‘hit by a bus resting face’ and I’m also relatively outgoing (most of the time) so I totally relate to your post!
    I generally now keep the ‘hit by a bus face for work’ and keep the happy face for friends and family… now when I smile at work I’m asked … ‘are you ok, give us a bus face’ …. ok I’m just kidding but you get what I mean.
    Just let our faces BE people!!! ????

  • Stephanie Norton says:

    I love this post – thank you for bringing it into conversation! The super-optimist in me wants to think it’s simply a way to connect. “Smile” – in like – “I’m happy and I want to share my happy with you.” But, the realist in me knows there are negative connotations AND negative intentions. It’s frustrating. I like your idea to ask “why” – it’s engaging – and if that was the intent, you may just meet someone interesting (again the optimist in me). …and I suppose it’s more grown-up than sticking your tongue out at them when they ask! (another option) Ha!

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