One of the nicest compliments I have ever received was from a friend I saw every day, for hours at a time, for an entire month, who told me I was the happiest person she knew. Great compliment. Hearing it made me even happier. That’s what compliments are for. That’s how it’s done.
Here’s how it’s not done. Happy people don’t know they’re happy unless they have bad days once in a while. The day the loved one who has been the happy person’s tiny and then not at all tiny companion for twenty-one years gets on an airplane and moves thousands of kilometres away tends to feel like a bad day. Yes, the day my brave and brilliant son moved to Ottawa all alone for an internship was a rough one for me. Hours after he left, I must have been dragging myself through my errands looking like I had just lost a best friend, because I had.
It was time to take my car to the tire shop to have the lug nuts on its new tires retorqued. The process is typically quick and painless. Oddly, this time, the tire technician started hollering at me. I didn’t hear him clearly but I could have guessed at what he’d said, the same way I guess in audiology booths and anytime anyone says anything out loud to me in Chinese. If I was right, it would mean this nice man who was making my car safe must also be a doofus. I didn’t want that and I gathered my hard-of-hearing status around myself and didn’t respond. Then he stepped closer, loud and grinning, unignorable. It was as I had feared. The poor doofus was saying, “Wouldn’t kill ya to smile, would it?”
No, it wouldn’t have. However, I do tend to be a bit more discriminating in making choices than simply choosing from the entire range of what would not kill me. “I don’t need to smile right now. Thank you,” I said. It was impossible to say it without sounding haughty and prim and I rushed to ask him a tire question so we could converse normally and just be pleasant without harassing each other.
I didn’t say, “Dude, I have a right to my feelings. Back off.” I didn’t offer him the justification I’ve just made here about giving up my firstborn son that morning. It’s private and I shouldn’t have to pay with explanations in order to, as we now say, exist in public, not even while sad.
I’m not going to go nuclear feminist on this, though I could. There is a widespread, widely-known problem of men exerting control over public spaces by policing the facial expressions of the women in them. The issue was raised in the national media in the context of a law school moot court competition just this week. When the man with the wrench approached me about my face, he was part of this problem. It’s real.
But sometimes, it feels like this is struggle is especially mine. It rises from things more personal about me than mere gender. I inherited my grandfather’s face, a certain kind of Irish face which I love on him, on my baby brother, on my ginger nephew and on my middle son to whom I passed it along, but which doesn’t play so well on a woman’s head. On me, Granddad’s wise and trustworthy expression plays as nasty and not trying hard enough. Ever since my grade six teacher first complained about it to my mother, men and women who do not know me will sometimes stop me to let me know my sad-looking-not-sad face is a problem for them. There is always something of an assertion of power in these comments but I do allow that they are usually also meant as a sort of overbearing kindness—as if their special insight will liberate me.
Well, like I said in the beginning, this is not how it’s done. The number of moods improved by letting someone know their face is unpleasant is precisely none. Instead, try something like the response of another friend of mine. “Who says you look sad?” he demanded. “You’re not sad, you’re great.” Right there—that’s how it’s done.