an overly cheerful executive keeps ordering me to feel great

A reader writes:

What’s the polite way to tell a coworker to stop ordering me to be happy? Recently, I had a very painful thing happen one morning before work. I cried on my way in, but by the time I got there I had cleaned myself up and looked normal, though I was still hurting. No one noticed I was any different, but one of my executives (she’s not my direct boss, but she is senior to me) is an overly cheery person. She’s the kind of person who will come by and tell someone to smile because “it’s not so bad.” Or, if she asks how I’m doing and I say “I’m okay,” she’ll say “Just okay?! Surely you’re fabulous, right?!” Even though I find her a tad annoying, I usually go along with her.

But I don’t know how to deal with something like that when I’m going through something in my personal life and I don’t particularly feel up to it. I can perform my job duties, remain pleasant, and keep my crying to a minimum (like I said, no one even noticed anything was wrong with me), but how do I tell someone to back off and stop urging me to be cheerful? Is there a way to say, without having to dive into details about my personal life, “I’m going through something right now, so could we lay off?” (Especially when that person is senior to me.)

Ugh to this and all who say it: “Just okay?! Surely you’re fabulous, right?!”

What is up with people who feel the need to order others around them to perform a visual representation of cheerfulness? Why can you not be absorbed in thought / thinking about something serious / reflecting on something upsetting / focused on work and not on shooting beams of sunshine into the room / grieving a death / feeling ill / worrying about your rent / worrying about a difficult assignment? Why are these people uncomfortable with expressions that are simply neutral/thoughtful/focused/tired/worn/human?

The men-ordering-women-to-smile version of this is particularly offensive in its sexism (and note that men rarely if ever tell other men to smile), but your colleague’s version of this is highly irritating as well.

Frankly, it would be a great service — to her and to everyone she interacts with in the future — if you did reply with something that makes it clear that This Is Not The Day For This, Jane.

Some options:

* “Sometimes I’m not fabulous, no.”
* “I just had some very upsetting news.”
* “No, but I’d rather not discuss it.”
* “I’m dealing with something I’d rather not get into.”
* “I’ve just had terrible news.”
* “I’m sure you mean well, but that’s a very difficult comment to receive when you’re in the midst of something genuinely upsetting.”
* A pained non-smile and raised eyebrows, paired with no verbal response.

If Jane genuinely does mean well and just has never thought through how her attempts at forced cheer are coming across, responses like these might jog her into reassessing the habit. But it’s also possible that some of these responses could alienate her and cause her to become snotty to you or to think of you as a problem (which is not great if she’s senior to you), so you’d want to factor that into your thinking about which might or might not work for your context.

{ 573 comments… read them below }

    1. jb*

      RIght. It’s bad enough that “How are you?” “I’m fine” is a basically-expected exchange even when you’re not fine, but to break that expectation in the other direction by demanding that someone be even more enthusiastic, is ridiculous.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I’ve been thinking about that ritual a bit as I have been under various stresses of late–but the people pumping my gas or ringing up my groceries don’t actually need to know that. Nor do they need to come up with some perfectly calibrated “I acknowledge your humanity, fellow human, but would not presume to enquire as to your emotional state.”

        If anyone tries to argue that “fine thanks” is inadequately peppy, though, all bets are off.

        (I sincerely treasure the Target clerk who recognized me from the day before and asked how things were going with my dying dog (I was going through tons of pee pads), rather than stick to the “how are you” script.)

        1. PJs of Steven Tyler*

          I’m sorry about your furry friend – we just lost ours in late April. He was almost 16, so pretty good, but still so hard. I totally agree about forcing people to be more cheerful when the asker doesn’t know what they are going through, and I always support anyone unleashing a little bit on those people. Like the girl who went door-to-door in the dorms to remind everyone to call their mom for Mother’s Day, and my friend had just lost her mom to breast cancer the previous fall/winter. Good going, jerk.

      2. Ruthie*

        “Fine” is an acronym for “Fouled up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional.” Thus, you can always say “fine,” in any conditions.

        As for being ordered to smile, if you have asked the person to stop more than 15 times or so, a somewhat risky response is to use one finger on each hand to pull the corners of your mouth up. (Just for giggles: the website I got this from recommended using your middle fingers!) A particularly ugly way to do that is to actually put the fingertips into your mouth before pulling up.

        1. JustaTech*

          Or you can bear your teeth in something that superficially looks like a smile but actually says “I’m about to rip out your throat with my teeth”. It’s not nice, but it does very clearly get your point across about how you feel about being ordered to “smile”.

    2. Liet-Kinda*

      And like….yeah, a lot of times, I’m just okay. I’m just okay today. I’m a little stressed about a weird issue with my car, I’ve got a trip coming up that’s semi-inconvenient but will be fun, I’m somewhat preoccupied with work, I hate that the sun sets at 4:30, my knee vaguely aches in a nonspecific way, and I’m eating an insipid salad bar salad for lunch. But I like my job, this tea is good, and there’s some good beer in the fridge for when I get home. I’m okay. But f*ck right off with fabulous.

        1. Liet-Kinda*

          Wet spinach, canned beets, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, and “herb grilled chicken breast.” It was the culinary avatar of meh.

        1. Liet-Kinda*

          Everybody over 35 is picking up what I’m laying down there. It’s not even pain. It’s just a vague reference to discomfort that has no particular physiological origin or correlation to an incident, and it’s not even enough to make you take ibuprofin. It’s just like…kind of there, for no reason. And then it goes away, sheepishly. For a while.

          1. JulieCanCan*

            Story of my [body’s] life!! Like, when did I become the person that complains about achey hips and sore knees after a 3-mile hike?

            In truth, I thought I’d be the person to never feel the effects of aging. I assumed it would only happen to other people. Kind of like when I was 6 and thought I was going to live forever – totally convinced and no doubt about it, and anyone who didn’t believe me was a weirdo.

            1. Artemesia*

              It is always a shock isn’t it. I am not just plain old and every problem that can be fixed is one where the fix is likely to cause more misery than living with the broken whatever. I remember when I came back from the doctor with a diagnosis of a problem that my lifestyle, diet etc should have protected me from. My husband said ‘yeah — you can exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep and yet, you too are going to die.’ Until recently I think deep down I didn’t believe that was ever going to happen and now I am at the point where that is the next likely big thing in my life — either that, or he will beat me to it.

        2. Venus*

          I have to admit that my occasional knee pain almost disappeared when I realised that it was always after my cat sat on the lower part of my legs (when I put my feet up on the coffee table). After that I didn’t stop her, but I did pull the table up closer to me and place a cushion under the knees. What irritates me is the length of time it took me to figure this out!

          1. TardyTardis*

            I found out that trying to do some very mild knee bends with weights results in my right knee going “Die, beyotch”. And that sometimes it goes out anyway, for no reason. Sighs…

    3. SherSher*

      I have RBF…. this is just how I look… all the time. I am not mad. I do not need to smile or cheer up. I am fine. It’s just my face.

      1. Sunny*

        A while back I started thinking of RBF as “resting bunny face.” Bunnies always look disapproving, and it removes the problematic B word.

            1. RabbitRabbit*

              There is, and there was a book too. They closed up shop but “Disapproving Bun” is a website that’s active and honors the old site.

      2. TardyTardis*

        I used to be like that as a child until I made an effort to at least make the corners stay up a bit, and now I can achieve Neutral instead of Clinically Depressed for my natural resting face.

    4. Amber Rose*

      Same here. I have no idea what to say in response. I’ve stopped saying OK at all, actually, because I find it so hard to deal with. Now I go with “I’m doing well thanks.” It seems to head off that kind of thing, though it feels awkwardly formal.

      The few times I tried using “fantastic” I just got people asking me what was so great, which usually is nothing. Nothing is fantastic, everything is meh, I’m just trying to get through this small talk so I can get to my work. -_-

      1. henrietta*

        I default to “Not dead yet!” which always puts the person asking on their back foot long enough for me to make my getaway.

        1. KHB*

          My go-to reply is “Hanging in there!” said with just enough exasperation in my voice to convey that they really don’t want to know.

          1. Not Maeby but Surely*

            “Hanging in there” and “living the dream” (said in an upbeat tone, but oozing sarcasm) are pretty much the only way me and my coworkers respond to “How are you?”. Almost no one wants an honest answer, seriously. On that note, there are times when I’ve asked the asker, “do you want an honest answer to that?” Usually only said to people I have a good rapport with.

            1. Annie Mouse*

              I like to go with “Peachy keen.” The vintage vocab throws people off long enougbh for me to escape/go back to work while they struggle to figure out whether I was being sarcastic or not.

            2. MusicWithRocksInIt*

              Ugh. Used to have a coworker who would say “living the dream” in a completely non-sarcastic way. It was the nails on the chalkboard of my soul. I was at a b*tch eating crackers place with him already though, so I cannot say how annoying it was out of that context.

          2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            That’s my goto too! Or, “how’s it going?” – “it’s going”.

            My workplace is going through a weird life stage, if I say it’s great, no one will believe me. No one here is doing great right now.

            1. rldk*

              One of my favorite things about French was that this is the literal translation of the most common exchange. You can add “going well” or “going ill” but the default remains just “going”

          3. JSPA*

            “as well as can be expected,” and go right on to the next topic. Most people take the hint, or say “you and me both.”

            1. Crooked Bird*

              My ex-boyfriend used to say “Better than I deserve.” It was a weird religious thing (it was our shared religion but there was a reason none of our community took it that far, dude!…)
              I mean, real conversation-stopper, that.

        2. AKchic*

          My default has always been “I’m here”. I can smile, deadpan or something in between depending on my mood, but “I’m here” generally conveys exactly what I want to say and exactly how I mean/feel when paired with whatever facial expression I choose. You can always throw in “…aren’t I?” at the end for some sarcasm, but it’s generally not necessary.

          It took me a long time to convince myself that I don’t owe anyone an explanation or justification for my own feelings / emotions. I’m an adult and I don’t have to explain myself. I’m allowed to have feelings and actually feel my feelings as long as they aren’t interfering with the work I’m doing (that’s what I tell myself, people can modify this as needed).

      2. Juniantara*

        I’ve begun to default to “keeping busy, keeping busy”, which doesn’t require me to explain my emotional state and naturally leads to work-related follow-ups rather than personal ones. Keeping the tone pleasant and wry instead of stressed (in the same tone you would say “just fine” or “doing well”) and immediately followed with “how about you” seems to work.

      3. Lars*

        My go to is “doing”

        As in “how are you doing today?” “Ah, I’m just doing”. Maybe it’s the deadpan delivery but it usually cuts that out for a bit

        1. Auntie Social*

          I like Ralphie Parker’s “Don’t bother me, I’m thinking.” But what I want to say is “You think you’re helping, but you’re not.”

    5. Greg M.*

      oh god, I actually told my manager I was no longer answering her asking me how I was because she kept doing that crap.

      she took it to mean not to ask how I’m doing. Which that alone would have been fine, except I then got “see I didn’t ask how you were doing” each time. What do you want? a cookie?
      I had to explain to her several times the difference.

      To be frank though it’d be nice if people would stop asking me how I was doing in general, I work retail and get asked it 30 times a day.

      hey, by the way, that’s the kind of comment that seems to attract people to tell me to get a new job, feel free to not make that comment.

      back to the topic at hand. there is nothing wrong wtih being ok. Heck, some days I’ll fight tooth and nail just to be ok. just let me be ok. harassing me about being “just ok” DOES NOT MAKE ME BE BETTER THAN OK.

      1. This Daydreamer*

        “Oh, I’m just having a fantabulous day! My head hurts. My back hurts. My feet hurt. I was just yelled at for store policy for the third time today. My backup cashier apparently can’t hear my calls for assistance. My manager reminded me again that my card levels are below target. And you just suggested something should be free because it didn’t scan. Now, for the fourth time, so you want to run your card as debut or credit?” *creepy grin*

      2. Jalrugby*

        It a social lubricant like “pls” Andy “thank you”. I am not saying u have to be peppy and such 100% of the time but u should be woke to social courtesy. Ppl are not expecting an honest an answer. “Fine thx” is enough

        1. Christine*

          You’re not paying attention, Jal. Mild pleasantries aren’t the issue. Being harassed because he isn’t replying enthusiastically enough, however, is the issue. It’s social courtesy not to harangue people into responding the way you want them to respond.

        2. Maintaining*

          Actually, people should not ask a question for which they don’t want an honest answer. “How are you” is just poor form unless it’s someone you haven’t seen in a long time, and you are prepared to respond to their answer in a sincere manner. If you feel the need to rate a person’s answer, don’t ask in the first place. It’s just a national bad social habit.

      3. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        What I hate, hate, hate is the drive-by “How are you” when you are both walking down a hallway in opposite directions and as you pass someone they ask how you are doing. But by the time they get it out, they are past you and you are saying “fine” to someone’s back, and then are left feeling vaguely rude because you didn’t have time to ask how they are doing – and isn’t that the social expectation? But also annoyed because what the heck did they want out of that exchange? For some reason it happens so much at my new job and wow I hate it. Can’t we just walk down the hallway without this song and dance?

        1. Mentalrose*

          That’s very common where I live, the drive-by. The accepted response to it seems to be a “Hey, how ya doin’?” in return and thus the social obligation of acknowledgement has been fulfilled without being forced to stop and expend energy on it.

        2. Kes*

          Ahaha this bugs me too – I want to respond to their question and reciprocate it as you normally would, but there isn’t time, so it just feels slightly awkward to me as a situation every time

        3. I Work on a Hellmouth*

          I think maybe it’s become so ingrained as a Polite Greeting Thing to Say that sometimes it just pops out when it’s actually not the best choice. Kind of like how sometimes you accidentally say “Good morning!” when it’s actually well after lunch?

          (Also, I am right in the middle of re-reading Soul Music and your username made me giggle.)

    6. Jake*

      I just always say”great” in the most deadpan way I can when people ask.

      Conveys the same point as okay, but leaves less openings for that response.

      Worst case, I respond with a shrug to the people who say I don’t sound great.

    7. Snickerdoodle*

      Ugggghhhhh. The creepy guy on vanpool (who has subsequently been removed from vanpool) once asked me how my day was, and to my “Okay” sniveled “What can we do to change that?” I didn’t reply but thought “You could STFU; that’d be pretty great.”

          1. Karen from Finance*

            And because I didn’t understand either reference, my brain defaulted to just playing “Everything is Awesome!” from the Lego Movie on repeat instead.

            1. Amber Rose*

              That also works. :D

              Of course, the song I usually wanna sing in response is GFY.
              Hey. Hey buddy. Guess what. Got a fun message for you.

          2. Jennifer Juniper*

            How about this creepy little ditty from summer camp?

            Keep on the sunny side
            Keep on the sunny side
            Keep on the sunny side of life
            You’ll never feel the pain
            As we drive you insane
            Keep on the sunny side of life!

      1. Is pumpkin a vegetable?*

        I have a co-worker who, in the months after she was first hired, would reply with, “Still waiting for my first bad day!” REALLY?? She doesn’t say it any more. Ha.

        1. Decima Dewey*

          There’a guard at the main branch who tells everyone “Today is the best day of my entire life!” Humm. And you’re spending it doublechecking checkout slips against the number of items people are carrying?

          1. Indigo a la mode*

            I appreciate the teenage chartreuse-haired barista at my Starbucks who always tells me excitedly that he’s having just a grande.

            And when I pay him, he always returns my card with “Thanks a latte!”

            Cheesy as hell, but it’s nice to know he’s having a good time and it always makes me laugh.

            1. JulieCanCan*

              I actually just laughed out loud. Outside walking my dog alone, reading AAM, and lol’ed at “Thanks a latte!”

      2. Ellex*

        Professor Elemental’s “Splendid” is my go to. Nothing more disconcerting than chap hop from a pasty white British guy in a pith helmet.

    8. Dankar*

      The ONLY people I say this to are my partner and my mom. And that’s because I know if they’re saying “okay,” then they’re definitely feeling down.

    9. DarlaMushrooms*

      My mother does this to me, so when co-workers aggressively ask me that I automatically answer (in a friendly tone of voice), “What’s wrong with that?” It returns the heavy-lifting back to them and they usually don’t try it again (my mother is another story).

    10. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      This letter reminded me of a former coworker, who answered “how are you?” with an RBF and a cheery “Freakin’ wonderful!” Worked great.

      1. BookishMiss*

        People ask me if I’m ok BECAUSE of my RBF. I usually go with, “yep, why?” And then when I get, “Oh, well, you looked…” I give a cheerful “oh that’s just my face.” They stop eventually, and if they don’t, I just pull ridiculous faces when they look my way and we both laugh.

    11. Amy*

      Sometimes I reply with fantabulous….it shuts people up. Or as well as can be expected! Say something stupid back!!!!

    12. PetticoatsandPincushions*

      As someone in customer service, I always go for a quick and slightly upbeat “Fine thanks, and yourself?” said all in one breath. It turns it around on the other person too quickly for further interrogation haha

    13. Polaris*

      Fortunately my co-workers are not too nosy, because I’d be severely tempted to answer questions like this with utterly brutal honesty. “Yes, just okay, which is a step up from my previous crippling depression, and you asking me is just another reminder that my brain doesn’t work the way I want it to. For me, just okay is really good.”

  1. Murphy*

    Ugh. Eff this. That’s so obnoxious.

    In my annoyance in the face of already being upset, I’d probably clap back with, “No, I’m actually not fabulous, thanks…” which probably isn’t the nicest, but may put a stop to it…

    1. Jennifer Juniper*

      Next time she does this, say “Good morning Jane! Happy Monday! I am so excited to be here and be working with my wonderful team! T-E-A-M! Together Everyone Achieves More!”

      If that doesn’t send her running away screaming in terror, I don’t know what will.

      Bonus points if you vomit cheerfulness all over her before she gets her coffee.

          1. Jennifer Juniper*

            Every. Single. Time. I try to smile when I’m not feeling happy, someone calls me on it! And my effort is never appreciated.

            Oh, right. People really do like me better when I’m actually being myself!

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        Love this.

        Actually I’d probably just say “fabulous” every single time she inquired from this point forward. Just avoid the hassle if possible.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          “Fabulous” has too many syllables to say while looking away and smiling. I’d say “Great”.

    2. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I was accosted by a Very Positive Person at work once – he was even called our Corporate Cheerleader, ick. This was maybe an hour after I learned about an old friend’s suicide. Normally I could deal with his fist bumps and Life! Is! Awesome! and ‘Make it an awesome day!’ blather, but not that morning. I said, ‘Well, no, VPP, I am nowhere near being wonderful this morning because…’ He interrupted me, with a frowny face of concern, because NOTHING could be so awful. You know, because our day is what we make it, and I could easily make it Awesome!

      Yeah, I let him have it. I told him exactly why I wasn’t smiling and asked how he would make suicide awesome. Get back to me on that, would ya? For the time being, I would mourn my friend and he find someone else to cheer up.

      Well. It got around the office that I took apart our Corporate Cheerleader, ‘who was only trying to make you smile, SheLooksFamiliar!’ Turns out most people there just loved the guy, and I had to do some fence-mending to protect my reputation. To be fair to VPP, he didn’t hold a grudge. And I just learned to smile and agree with whatever he was spouting, and then he’d go bother someone else. Awesome.

      1. AnotherKate*

        Oh my gosh, what a horrible experience! I’m so sorry you were working with a bunch of hyperpositive sociopaths. “Just trying to make you smile” is not even a reasonable thing to do–why on earth should anyone else care if your face conforms to an expression of joy? They aren’t interested in whether you’re actually happy; they just want you to LOOK happy so they can not bother thinking about difficult things.

        I really hope you don’t work there anymore.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          Thank you, AnotherKate, and thankfully I don’t work there anymore. I think you hit the nail on the head, too. Looking back, I can see there was a mild Stepford Wives thing going on. As long as everyone stuck to the script, all was well – PMA-Napoleon Hill-type stuff. Way too much of a good thing. Again, ick.

        2. Jennifer Juniper*

          I’ve actually terrified co-workers by trying too hard to be positive and enthusiastic about being loyal to the company. Facebook friends actually saw through all the “I’m so grateful!” garbage I was pulling as well. I was the last person to know I was actually clinically depressed.

          1. By any other name*

            Right? Trying so hard to be upbeat and pro-company can really do a number on you… I was shocked by my own reaction when old-boss told me they were cutting my position to part-time and I was SO RELIEVED because it meant I had to find another (fulltime) job. I walked out of the meeting thinking, “Oh thank god, I can LEAVE!” I really thought I loved toxic-workplace despite its faults… Turns out I love my what I do, but I am so much happier doing it at new-not toxic-workplace. And I like myself a lot better too! Sometimes I can’t believe how toxic my own behavior was becoming in that environment.

      2. On Fire*

        We had a couple of those people when we got new management several years ago. Every. Single. Time. you saw them, it was hearty handshakes and HOW ARE YOU DOING???!!!1! and all that. Then they did a company-wide employee satisfaction survey. They expected sunshine and puppies and unicorns.

        (Narrator voice: they got thunderclouds and alligators and Balrogs.)

        On my survey, I specifically mentioned the “forced camaraderie” and fake friendliness. I don’t know if I was the only one to mention it, but pretty soon after the survey, the greetings became much more … appropriate? Of course part of that may have been that the surveys revealed how much everyone hated the new management. I have it on good authority that those who tabulated the results ordered the papers shredded and the entire effort to never be spoken of again. I left the company not too much later, and now there are fewer than a dozen of those original employees remaining (out of 150-200 staff).

        1. emmelemm*

          “ordered the papers shredded”

          OK, that made me laugh. It was so awful that the evidence must be destroyed.

        2. Coder von Frankenstein*

          I don’t know why, but “thunderclouds and alligators and Balrogs” made me burst out laughing.

          Maybe it’s because my own workplace tends to be pretty high on itself, too, and the idea of some VIP opening up an employee survey and having a Balrog leap out of the computer just makes me grin.

      3. Rhymes with Mitochondria*

        I did this to a grocery store clerk right after we had a death in the family. Not a long tirade, but a short and sweet “My dad just died. The funeral’s tomorrow. I *am* sad, and I don’t need to flip my attitude and make it a great day.” Poor teenager was just the last straw in a tough, tough week FULL of people telling me to smile through it because (insert religious belief that is apparently supposed to completely and immediately alleviate grief if you have enough faith)

      4. Aggretsuko*

        Somehow I am not even a tiny bit surprised to hear that story ended with YOU being in trouble and having to smile and agree.

      5. c-*

        I hate that he was the one in the wrong but you had to be the one coddling his feelings, because heaven forbid that a woman dares to be “mean” (aka assertive) to a “nice” guy who was rude and idiotic to you.

      6. Ilikechocolate*

        Something similar happened to me when I was an 18 year old student but with a slightly better outcome. One of the teaching assistants was super positive in an annoying way he was always telling people to “cheer up” “smile” etc. I let it slide because he did it equally to men and women and I just regarded is as an annoying quirk.

        Until it wasn’t. I went home one weekend to see my friends and family, on the last night I hung out with an ex boyfriend, we dated as high school students and had long since broken up but stayed friends. The tuesday of that week my phone started blowing up. It turned out on Monday night he had collapsed and died, apparently he had a brain tumour that wasn’t diagnosed, no one knew about it and he seemed fine on the Sunday when I saw him. I was obviously devastated but I went to class anyway as we had a test I couldn’t miss.

        I probably looked awful, a couple of my class mates asked if I was OK and I told them what happened and they were sympathetic. Then the teaching assistant comes in and does his standard routine. And i absolutely screamed at him. I must have been loud because the head of department who was teaching next door came in and demanded to know what was going on. I burst into tears, the teaching assistant was confused. Finally I told him what happened.

        The head of department (who was pretty awesome) dealt with it in pretty much the best way. He told me to go home and he’d let me make up the test next week. He also told the teaching assistant that he knew he meant no harm but trying to police people’s emotions can open all sorts of cans of worms and it wasn’t wise thing to do.

        Next time I saw him we both apologised and moved on. To be fair to the teaching assistant he was about 23 and it was his first job I don’t believe he ever meant harm he was just overly enthusiastic.

        It was kind of crappy of your department to all side with the VPP, you should never scream at someone but sometimes allowances should be made in times of grief, especially if its out of character. I still hate being forced to smile though. I love my job, but I don’t go around the office smiling all the time (apart from having a serious case of Resting bitch face) it would be so weird. Lack of smiling does not mean a person is miserable and smiling doesn’t always mean they are happy (and most people look creepy when they fake a smile).

      7. Donna Freedman*

        My 19-year-old daughter became very suddenly, very critically ill with Guillain-Barre syndrome. In a couple of days she went from a strong, healthy college student to being 99 percent paralyzed and on life support. I flew down to be with her and wound up spending about two and a half months living in hospitals.

        One day when I made a dash to the store to buy food for the week, a perky, middle-aged male grocery bagger looked at me and said, “Aw, come on, smile! It can’t be THAT bad!”

        And boy, did I let him have it. By the time I was done he was pale and sweating and practically in tears. “I didn’t mean…I didn’t know…”

        I said something along the lines of how he had no way of knowing what people are going through, and that he should stop telling them their lives aren’t really so bad. Besides, it’s not his business to manage other people’s emotions. We all get to smile, or not smile, as we see fit.

    3. RabbitRabbit*

      I’ve done something like “oh no, thank you though,” as if I’ve been offered a slice of not-appealing cake and turning down the option to have it is understandable. It sounds polite and doesn’t really address the questioner’s point but still may be enough into confusing them into dropping the the issue.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        That’s a wonderful response, and I’m stashing it for the next time someone overdoes it with me. Thank you!

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I’m a big fan of a deadpan “No.”

      Also maybe leave her a copy of Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided.

      1. knitcrazybooknut*

        Love that book, and all of her books. That one really hit home for me. Have you read Bait and Switch? Depressing account of all career advice summed up as “Be positive and you’ll get a job!”

  2. Shark Whisperer*

    Personally I would just burst into tears out of spite and then run away to the bathroom, but I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.

      1. Clorinda*

        Someone will do that absolutely for real, not as a planned or deliberate response, one of these days. I’m a little surprised it hasn’t happened already.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      My therapist would recommend doing that. It worked for her with marital nagging when she was single.

    2. Amy*

      I lost my mom a couple of years ago and was actually doing this if someone asked how I was. You’re welcome to borrow my excuse for the duration.

      1. Auntie Social*

        I did this to someone in the grocery store in my home town. We *were* just burying my mother when some fool tried that happy face stuff. I told him that you don’t try that “smile!!” carp on three women in black suits—get a clue! And what aisle are we in—paper goods, to deal with the people at the house—and there are cases of water in the cart. You don’t have to be Sherlock to figure this one out. Lauren (daughter) shook her head at him and went “Oh, dude. . . .”

  3. Karen from Finance*

    I like the pained non-smile!

    But I’m weary that some of these might make her double-down. Suggesting that something’s been going on might encourage her to pry, for example. If it was a colleague, I would seriously considering having “a talk” about how it’s not appropiate to not people have the emotions they want to have.

    That’s why I like the non-smile. If done jusssst right it can make her feel really awkward by itself and she should back off.

    1. Karen from Finance*

      Also, “ugh” to the societal expectation some people have that one should be cheery 24/7.

      I don’t usually trust the people who are.

      1. ragazza*

        Yup. I started reading this book of essays by Heather Havrilesky, “What If This Were Enough,” and she touches on this expectation that we should all be HAPPY and positive and #winning all the time. That’s not how life is, and to have to pretend otherwise is so toxic.

        1. BookishMiss*

          Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich also touches on this, and is wonderfully cathartic and illuminating.

        2. GingerHR*

          Such an interesting area. We have been sold this idea of perfection and happiness, but it’s unrealistic. Even when everything is going well, constant happiness is exhausting. Contentment is much better to aim for – it can include happiness, but also has an implicit air of compromise, which for most of us is our reality.

        3. Ellex*

          I’m very fond of a quote from one of Denis Leary’s stand up shows: “Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt you eat the cookie you go to sleep wake up and go back to f*cking work the next morning, THAT’S IT! End of f*cking list! ”

          Am I happy? Sometimes, yes. Not all the time. Not perpetually. Happiness comes in small doses.

      2. London Calling*

        Er. slight amendment there, KarenFromFinance. The societal expectation that WOMEN should be cheery 24/7. Especially obnoxious when policed by a woman

        1. Le Sigh*

          That’s 100% true. But I also think it speaks to the this country’s overall obsession with always improving, always being happy, finding eternal personal fulfillment, etc. The “oh smile” bullshit is more of a problem for women, but in general we’re just irritatingly obsessed with being happy.

          Basically, Chris Traeger on “Parks and Rec” is the perfect representation of this.

    2. BookishMiss*

      I like the non smile. I also tend to just utter expressionless deadpan. If something is hitting me particularly hard and I’m trying to keep hold of my emotions, even making a “wtf is wrong with you” face can crack the facade and lead to the infamous stomp and cry.

    3. Adele*

      Pained smile is fine but I would be tempted to go for the very sarcastic really big smile-with-the-mouth-but-not-the-eyes and then turn back to my work immediately.

    4. Snickerdoodle*

      Yes; not smiling can be VERY effective, especially when instead of a blank expression you throw in a little “Did you really just say that?” side eye.

  4. Rachel*

    I’m sorry this is happening. I had something similat happen at my last job, and every day I just wanted people to leave me alone and let me live my life. But it was the kind of “let’s all be one big happy work family where nothing ever happens” type of place, so it didn’t stop (until I quit ;) )

    Best of luck!

    1. JulieCanCan*

      OMG this makes rage bubble to the surface for me. At a freelance gig, I was CALLED INTO HUMAN RESOURCES because I wasn’t being “as cheerful as they were used to me being” and they were worried it would effect the other 2 people in my department negatively. She said she noticed “I didn’t look like myself” and was concerned.

      I had received some bad news on my way to work and over the course of my 50-minute commute, I cried almost all my makeup off my face so admittedly I looked like shit. But I pulled myself together and was fine by the time I walked to my desk (except I had no makeup on). I was working as usual and didn’t do anything differently – I was simply being quiet – head down, focusing – to keep my mind occupied. No unpleasant conversations or attitude, just working and not chatty.

      My supervisor must have said something to HR because there’s no way HR would have even known anything about it otherwise. I had no real response and said that I suppose I had been a bit quiet and didn’t realize that it could be effecting anyone else (while internally rolling my eyes). I didn’t feel it was anyone’s business to have to explain why I looked bad. I started thinking more about it afterwards and got pissed off, because seriously, WT actual F? Going to HR because a team member is “being quiet and looks crappy”?? I racked my brain trying to think of what that conversation must have been like: My supervisor: “yeah, so, I wanted you guys in HR to know that Julie looks simply awful today and isn’t talking a lot.” HR: “well, is she giving you attitude? Is her work suffering? Is she not the right person for this 3-month role?” My supervisor: “Wellll, nooooo…..but she’s got no mascara on and is just…..just….just sitting there WORKING. I mean, can you please have a talk with her? I think it’s bad for the team.” HR: “I totally agree and of course I’ll talk to her!”


      It’s an understatement to say I was joyous when that contract ended. It was a bizarro world.

  5. Aunt Vixen*

    Scene: A college dormitory. A freshman student, AUNT VIXEN, is, unusually for her, dressed in black from head to toe. As she walks along the hallway toward her room, she is unable not to cross paths with a relentlessly cheerful NEIGHBOR.

    NEIGHBOR: Hi Vixen!
    NEIGHBOR: Hey, who died?
    AUNT VIXEN: My grandfather. Thanks for asking.

    AUNT VIXEN does not linger to see whether, as she hopes, her NEIGHBOR learns anything from this exchange.

    1. Turanga Leela*

      I did this almost verbatim. I apologized for not having handouts ready, and before I could say more, someone said, “What, did your computer die?” I wasn’t even trying to be snarky, but I was too tired to say anything except, “No, my grandfather.”

    2. The Original K.*

      I had a similar exchange with a cashier,

      Cashier: “Smile! It can’t be that bad.”
      Me: “I just left my grandmother’s funeral, actually.” [I was wearing black, had clearly been crying, and looked wrung out. My grandmother’s funeral was exhausting, on top of the grief.]
      Cashier: [gulp] ” … Sorry. That’ll be $1.49.”

      1. BookishMiss*

        Customer:you being so rude!
        Me: so are you. I just put down my dog. What’s your excuse?
        Manager: O_O
        Customer: mumbles and runs away

        1. JulieCanCan*

          OMG I love this!!

          (Not about your dog, I’m very very sorry about that. But telling off an obnoxious customer must have been so satisfying)

      2. Bea*

        I was at Trader Joe’s buying wine and crackers and cheese for a small memorial the day after my grandmother died. The cashier was like “are you throwing a PARTY?!” and i said “no.” He said something else about how it LOOKED like it was for a party, and I didn’t answer, I kind of half smiled but didn’t really want to talk. And he kept pushing it, he must’ve asked me about my “party” 4-5 times. I finally was like “look, it’s not a party, my grandmother died yesterday and I’m just trying to feed the people who’ve been dropping in to check on us, I really would appreciate it if you’d stop calling these funeral snacks party food. He looked like he was going to cry, he felt so bad. He was just trying to be friendly and cheerful and didn’t know how to read his customers. And I was grieving and kind of hollow and exhausted after sitting and holding her hand for the days and nights leading up to her death and just couldn’t use my words and it escalated into this situation where we both felt awful about it. He chased me down in the parking lot and gave me a huge bouquet of flowers.

        1. On Fire*

          My dad died at about 5 p.m., and when the various family members finally left the hospital, some of us went back to my house to begin planning the funeral and just, well, unwind and collapse. None of us had eaten in hours – Mom hadn’t eaten all day – so on the way home from the hospital I called a pizza place and ordered pizza and drinks for everyone. When I arrived to pick it up (half-dozen pizzas, a few 2-liters), the guy did basically the same as Bea described. “Having a party?” “No, just a family … meeting.” “Oh, that’s a party.”
          I didn’t feel up to explaining, so I just did the pained smile, paid and left.

          1. Ellex*

            If someone told me they were having a “family meeting”, a “party” is pretty much the last thing I’d think of.

        2. Jennifer Juniper*

          I would have thought he was calling me an alcoholic with that repeated emphasis on “PARTY!” Of course, I am also quite weird….

        3. Lynn*

          I really hate that Trader Joe’s requires their cashiers to comment on your purchases. It’s too personal and I’m not your friend. It goes beyond friendly into invasive.

          1. Jennifer Juniper*

            That can be extremely problematic! What if someone has nothing but feminine hygiene products in her cart? Or, someone who is self-conscious about their weight can read commentary about their purchases as body-shaming.

    3. Karen from Finance*

      I love you for this.

      I once had a full-blown argument with a stranger on the street who told me to smile when he saw me crying out of stress. It’s at once my proudest and my least proud moment.

      1. Où est la bibliothèque*

        I’m pretty I was possessed by the spirit of someone with a lot more sass and confidence than I have when I shouted back at a ‘smile’ guy “YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE!”

        1. Ann Nonymous*

          Too bad I can’t attach a picture here, but I saw a great come-back from a woman when a man told her to smile: she lifted up the sides of her mouth with her middle fingers.

      2. teclatrans*

        Yeah, I got one of those “Smile! It can’t be that bad!” on the day I learned a good friend had died. I took great, vicious pleasure on telling that man just how bad it was, and that I was damn well gonna look sad. I doubt he learned a lifetime lesson, but I do like to hope that he stopped his smile harassment for at least several weekds.

      3. Just Another Techie*

        I’ve done that too. Once, when I was grieving over a stillbirth and in terrible pain an asshole at the RiteAid where I was trying to get pain medication told me to smile, it can’t be that bad, and I just shot back with “Yes it can. My baby died today.” Another time was a TSA asshole who threatened not to let me on the plane unless I smiled. I was flying for my grandfather’s funeral so I told him “Sure, you can turn me around. But then you’ve gotta call my Granny and explain to her why I’m not there to hold her hand while the family lays my Papa to rest.”

        I get told to smile a lot. It’s infuriating. Not every day is a huge calamity, obviously, but even just ordinary job or car or house stresses can wear on a body, you know?

        1. galatea*

          Another time was a TSA asshole who threatened not to let me on the plane unless I smiled.

          What the WHAT?? even outside the terrible circumstances, this person is an entire horse’s ass and a half

    4. BadWolf*

      A couple of months ago, I very nearly asked my coworker if he was going on a job interview as he was dressed up and we’re a jeans/t-shirt place. He then told us he would be out later that day to attend a funeral.

      Awkward narrowly avoided!!

      1. Anonymous Engineer*

        On the flip side of this coin, I once used “I have to go to a funeral” as my cover story for being dressed up for an interview.

    5. Lis*

      I once told a customer (who was also a friend outside work) to cheer up whats the worst that could have happened and he replied that it was the anniversary of when his childhood friend had fallen in front of a car when a group of them had been rough housing by a road and been killed and then several years later the brother of the dead boy killed himself on the same date. Needless to say l never used that line again, ever. I said sorry and in a very unprofessional manner just went the other side of the bar and hugged him for ages. I regret being that person.

    6. PB*

      My husband had a similar experience once, when he was walking around looking sad.

      Random Person: Wow, who died?
      Husband: First my dad, then my grandmother.
      Random Person: haha! No, really.
      Husband: [deadpan] Really.

      1. Observer*

        At least RD didn’t say “are you sure?” >rolling eyes<

        I'm having a REALLY hard time wrapping my head around this. People say thoughtless things but generally back off a bit when smacked with reality. This is just a whole other level of awful.

    7. NW Mossy*

      My brother, on the phone with a relentlessly cheerful telemarketer shortly after the death of our grandmother:

      TELEMARKETER: Hi, I’m calling with a great offer for [grandma’s name]! Can you put her on the line?
      BROTHER: Well, she’s kind of dead at the moment, so if you give me your name and number, I’ll take a message.
      TELEMARKETER: You’re sick!
      BROTHER: Maybe you won’t call here again then.

      1. LilySparrow*

        After my aunt died, calling her health insurance:

        Me: Hi, I’m the executor for the estate of Customer. I’m calling to notify you of her date of death on ___. Do you need a copy of the death certificate?

        Rep: Who am I speaking with?

        Me: I am her next of kin, Lilysparrow.

        Rep: Is there a reason why you’re calling instead of the customer?


        Rep: I need to speak with the customer to make changes to the account. Can I speak to her, please?

        Me: Not unless you’re a medium, dude.

        1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

          Ugh. My brother in law’s mother died a few years ago, so he called her cell phone company to cancel the contract and advise them that she’d passed away. Later on, when her phone was stolen and used to make a lot of expensive calls the company demanded that he pay the bill because his mother didn’t call to cancel herself.

        2. MarsJenkar*

          I’m pretty sure there’s a story or two like that on NotAlwaysRight. Apparently you’re not the only one who’s dealt with that.

    8. UghThatGuyAgain*

      One of the most satisfying moments of my life was telling the grocery store employee, who stopped me in the middle of an aisle to tell me to smile because it was a “beautiful day,” that I wasn’t smiling because MY MOM JUST DIED! YOU SHOULDN’T GO AROUND TELLING PEOPLE TO SMILE LIKE THAT! YOU DON’T KNOW THEIR LIFE!

      He raaaaaaaaaaan.

    9. UghThatGuyAgain*

      My go-to response is to deadpan/look faintly puzzled and go “Huh? My face just looks like this.”

      Bonus adaptability for when people ask if I’m pregnant (I’m not pregnant): “Oh, no…I just look like this.”

      Return. Awkward. To. Sender.

      1. JulieCanCan*

        Bonus adaptability for when people ask if I’m pregnant (I’m not pregnant): “Oh, no…I just look like this.”

        This is why NO ONE should ever ask a woman if she’s pregnant unless they are witness the crowning of her baby’s head. Or unless they see a foot if it’s breach.

        I don’t say anything to a 9-month, about to pop, in labor woman about her pregnancy. Unless I’m in the delivery room with her, it’s simply “Nice day today, isn’t it?” Nope, I don’t even notice that giant basketball- shaped stomach of yours.

      2. Hey Nonny Anon*

        I’ve done that- someone at work asked if I was pregnant again (despite it being 16 years since the last time I was pregnant) and I replied “No, just fat.”

        1. GibbsRule#18*

          Shortly after I got married my creepy neighbor congratulated me than asked “is that a bun in the oven [shudder] I see?” My reply was “No, I’m just fat”, but I was thinking “Hey a$$hole, I’m 54 years old and don’t have a uterus-what do you think???” What I should have done was kindly advise him never to ask that question of any woman unless a)the baby is crowning and/or b)she’s your wife.

    10. Angeldrac*

      Not quite the same, but a bit:
      A year after my grandfather died, we all took my grandmother out for dinner to support her and show her some love, and remember my grandfather. A couple of us had brought my grandmother some flowers which were on the table. The bloody joker clown of a waiter did magic tricks and tried joking with us all evening, never clocking on to the fact that none of us were responding favourably to this or encouraging his efforts (we should have had a quiet word with him earlier on, but we kept expecting him to get it and stop). Then, the kicker, he brings out my grandmother’s dessert with candles and half the restaurant staff starting to sing happy birthday. My father and sister did an almost football style interception and harried them away to explain what our evening was actually about. Thankfully, my grandmother seemed to miss that particular bit.
      Recounting it now, 11 years later it’s hilarious, but it just was not at the time.

  6. Amber T*

    Uughhh I’m all for positive mental attitudes (PMA!) but that doesn’t always mean “be happy.” Sometimes life is tough, and (general) you have every right to be sad/frustrated/concerned/not happy/etc. You don’t have to poop rainbows and butterflies all the time.

    I’m all for making it awkward for her. She sounds like the type of person who would push you to tell her ALL of your problems, then at the end of it say “oh that’s not so bad, at least it’s not X!”

      1. Karen from Finance*

        Things I like about having had cancer:

        1. The past tense
        2. Getting to make obnoxious people feel bad.

        – at least it’s not cancer
        – nah that was last year *deadpan look*

        1. Kathryn T.*

          “At least it’s not cancer!”

          “Oh, no, I have cancer too, so … this is on top of the cancer.”

    1. LadyL*

      I feel like maybe the Pixar movie “Inside Out” should be required viewing for everyone, because I thought that movie did an excellent job demonstrating why you need all of your emotions, just just “Happy”.

      Humans are born will deep and complex emotions, why on earth would you want to flatten them out to just one?

      1. Mockingdragon*

        I was going to comment exactly this. That movie was AMAZING.

        The scene where Joy is trying to comfort Bing-Bong is my absolute favorite part. Because she’s not just a little irritating – she’s INSENSITIVE. And it’s played up in all its discomfort. It’s so clear to the viewer (well, at least to me) that she’s doing more harm than good, and we’re so relieved when Sadness takes over and actually shows some thought and compassion.

        1. Harper the Other One*

          I ADORE Inside Out for emphasizing this. And if my then-5-year-old could understand, adults should be able to!

    2. JulieCanCan*

      I have an issue with RBF or BRF or whatever initials are used to indicate that I look like a b*tch while simply feeling neutral in my head. And when I do smile causally, it looks like a smirk due to semi-weak muscles in my left cheek. I’m told I look like a wise-ass when I am just feeling happyish……A big wide grin will be symmetrical and “normal”, but a causal “smile hello” or “smile when conversing pleasantly” apparently has a “I’m about to say something sarcastic” look, which I can’t do a lot about and is a bit unsettling to me in general.

      This, in addition to being told once by a COO that he “doesn’t like my face,” have made me quite self conscious when first meeting people or speaking face to face with folks I’m unfamiliar with. I’m actually pleasant and friendly in general (at least publicly!) so as soon as people know my personality, I don’t worry about my facial appearance when dealing with them. But it’s certainly on my mind when I’m interacting with people I don’t know well. I’ve heard “What’s wrong?” more times than I can count when my mind has been completely and utterly empty of thought, lol.

      1. JulieCanCan*

        Sorry I don’t know why or how I replied to the comment I did, when my comment is so unrelated and random. Lol . I thought I added a new comment to the main letter – I have no idea what I’m doing. Geesh.

        1. JulieCanCan*

          Ooh – I meant to reply to KR’s comment below about RBF. That’s what happened.

          * Need Sleep *

          Sorry guys.

  7. KR*

    Literally so annoying. I deal with a lot of ongoing anxiety and periods of depression. And I have Resting Bitch Face. So if I am not actively smiling I am either Dealing with Something or just not feeling especially joyous.
    Also annoying when I have a smile on my face or am in a good mood and someone gives me a hard time that I am not smiling widely with teeth showing. Like dude I’m just existing here. Chill.

    1. Q*

      I have given male coworkers the finger for telling me to smile. Of course I went home and told my husband it might be reported to HR, but oh well. I just have no patience this type of behavior anymore, or the idea that women need to appear pleasant and nice at all times like robots. We’re human and we experience a full range of emotions that can be displayed at any given moment.

      1. anonymouse*

        Yikes. Giving people the finger and reporting it to HR are overboard responses and make you look crazy.

        1. Où est la bibliothèque*

          I think Q means that there was a chance the male coworkers would report to HR.

          And as somebody who likewise finds the “give me a smile” phenomenon that women encounter agonizingly frustrating, I get the flip-the-bird impulse 100%.

        2. Sabine the Very Mean*

          Q said she flipped the bird and wondered if it would go to HR from the bird-recipient. She looked fed up and made a mistake but declaring that she looked crazy may be a bit too far. I cannot stand being told to smile. In my last job, I can see resorting to this if I didn’t’ quit first. Why is it not the random man telling a random woman to smile who is looking crazy?

        3. sin nombre*

          She didn’t report anything to HR — you read that wrong — furthermore I strongly disagree that this makes her look crazy or that that’s an appropriate or constructive thing to say here.

        4. Jennifer Thneed*

          Quick: are you male? If so, you don’t actually get to have an opinion on a woman’s response to this horribly common and quite invasive behavior.

          1. Dot Warner*

            I’m female and I think it’s completely inappropriate. Don’t flip people off at work unless you’re trying to get fired.

      2. Flinty*

        Soo…I actually have always thought that I should be pleasant at work at all times. Not necessarily actively smiling, but still, pleasant and cordial. When my depression and anxiety rear up, my goal is for no one to be able to tell that anything is different (and for the record, I’m a woman.) I definitely don’t think that people should go around interrogating others about their emotions, but I also wouldn’t give someone the middle finger or go around being grumpy because this is my “full range of emotions.”

        1. Où est la bibliothèque*

          You’re allowed to act neutral if that’s what you feel. You’re allowed to sometimes want to keep human interaction only to what is necessary for work.

          You’re definitely allowed to reply to something obnoxiously invasive like somebody telling you to smile with a simple, open refusal. It’s genuinely awful the way society tries to corral women’s emotions.

          1. fposte*

            But the simple, open refusal should be couched in a way appropriate for the venue. At work, flipping off your co-workers isn’t appropriate for the venue, and indicating that your co-worker should eff themselves is not a proportionate response to being told to smile. (It also probably makes the Smile Director feel wronged rather than wronging, which is my main objection.)

            Q, at least, knew that it could get reported and decided it was still worth it, so she weighed the cost. But I really wouldn’t recommend people flip each other off at work.

            1. Où est la bibliothèque*

              I also wouldn’t flip somebody off, absolutely. But I will say “yeah…don’t tell women that.” And I’ve said “I have a name” to coworkers who call me sweetie. Not angrily, but not ambiguously either.

              1. fposte*

                Those to me are absolutely work appropriate. I think it’s absolutely fine (recommended, in fact) to make it clear to the Smile Police that they’re out of line–there are just some ways that are more suited to work and some more suited to other places. (And it’s not like Q is going to hell for flipping the bird at her co-worker or anything; I just wouldn’t put that top of the list for workplace responses.)

                1. Jennifer Thneed*

                  I suspect that wasn’t a first offense on the part of the co-worker. Just like with LW’s, I’m going to go with “Q was there and knows how bad it was or wasn’t”. For me, it would have to be pretty bad to flip someone off, but if I tell you I flipped off a coworker, well, it WAS that bad.

        2. Socks*

          Yeah, I generally agree, although I do think that the obligation to be pleasant is a little different when someone else has initiated the rude behavior. So like, I actually do think that, to the best of our abilities, it is polite to at least try to make any social interaction we have a positive one. I’m sure this is a cultural thing, and this isn’t a strongly-held conviction of mine, I just think it’s a good thing to do. Like, obviously if you cannot muster a remotely positive facial expression, then, well… you can’t! That’s fine. Or, you know, if you’re having a really deep and emotional conversation, then of course that’s different. But if you’re just feeling neutral, I think it is better/more polite/nicer/a mild social obligation to smile at people during quick and casual conversations, not unload negative emotions at them, etc. So… yeah, a very wordy way for me to say that I generally agree with you.

          But you don’t really owe politeness to someone who has just crossed the line of social boundaries themselves, and I think anyone who actually tries to police your mood has just forfeited their right to a positive interaction. They’re the one who made it unpleasant in the first place. So, while you still probably shouldn’t flip them off at work just for practical reasons (consequences if your boss sees or you are reported to HR or whatever), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling them out for being insensitive, or making them feel uncomfortable, or whatever. If they wanted you to stick to the social script, they should have stuck to it themselves.

          1. Mockingdragon*

            I’m also seeing a difference when the person being told to smile isn’t not-smiling AT someone. If I’m in a funk, I’ll still throw a smile to someone I’m talking to or making eye contact with to reassure them that I’m not upset with them. But if I’m sitting at my desk working, I’m not going to actively try to smile at no one, and a person walking past and seeing me not-smiling would be way out of line to ask for it. (which I understand you agree with, I just thought your comment was a good segue point to that thought)

      3. Jake*

        I’m genuinely fascinated by this as a male that was told to smile dozens of times a year at the beginning of my career.

        1. fposte*

          I think women get it more across the board, especially from strangers in public, but I agree it’s by no means exclusively women. I suspect that status and age do matter a lot here generally, and I’m not surprised that it was the beginning of your career when you were getting it.

          1. Où est la bibliothèque*

            There’s also sometimes a weird thing where it’s not just somebody telling you to change how your face looks, but, like the executive in the letter they are actually telling you to be happy, right now, because I want you to.

            Like your emotions are anything but your own. I find it repulsive.

            1. fposte*

              I think a lot of the time it’s learned as a way to indicate good wishes; it’s “I want happiness for you.” But in some–what would you call it, folk dialects?–it morphed into this cutely commanding thing. And when you’re on the delivery side, the progression is, I assume, clear to you, in that you’re trying to spread the joy you feel those about you and this is the way people you have worked with or lived with do it. But on the recipent’s side it’s a whole nother kettle o’ fish.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Oh my nemesis… I *HATE* the phrase resting bitch face. It’s just my face. The way people interpret it is out of my control. If I’m in the zone working with a computer, why would I smile at the monitor?

      And then there’s “You need more sleep, you’ve got such circles under your eyes!” ….said to me during allergy season many years. I’m not tired, I just get those when I have allergy-triggered sinus headaches. Lucky for my professional demeanor, it would hurt to roll my eyes at that time. ;)

      1. willow*

        I get the circles, and the squints, from allergies and also from intermittent insomnia. I throw it back on the commenters as my having done “active listening” – “So what I hear you saying is that I look like crap.” The backpedaling always brings a smile to my squinty dark-circled RBF.

      2. Cindy Featherbottom*

        Thank you!!!! I tend to have a very serious look on my face when I am concentrating and I get asked all the time why I’m not happy/smiling…the computer doesnt care if I’m smiling, Susan…..

        1. Où est la bibliothèque*

          “It’s not resting bitch face. It’s active bitch face. Now get out of my doorway.”

      3. Michaela Westen*

        I *hate* the tired thing! I was tired for years and years. Growing up I was sick all the time from unmanaged allergies and still had to go to school. Had to work *and* go to school from age 16 onward (until I decided college wasn’t worth it on my nth try).
        It’s always obnoxious strangers, too! Who the f do they think they are, making personal comments? So rude! My health, life, and state of tiredness are *none of your effing business!*

      4. JulieCanCan*

        OMG I have purple under-eye circles that have been there SINCE BIRTH. My dad even said recently that he used to wonder if I was always tired as a baby, then after a few years he realized the “purple half-circles” under my eyes were just part of my face.

        I usually use concealer so others wouldn’t be frightened (lol) but on the days when I forget to cover my undereye circles, EVERYONE tells me I must be tired or I need more sleep or am I sick or do I feel OK or did I have a rough night? It’s kind of funny. I will even admit to once or twice intentionally NOT covering the undereye purpleness to look under the weather so i could leave work early without anyone questioning the validity. And sadly, when I said I needed to leave because I didn’t feel well, my boss said “Yes, absolutely. Please go home, get some sleep. You don’t look well at all.” I was semi-horrified but semi-thrilled that I had such a sneaky yet easy way to look sick when actually feeling 100% fine. I mean, is it a good thing or a bad thing? A little of both I suppose. : /

        1. Auntie Social*

          My paralegal friend wipes off some of her makeup and most of her lipstick around 4:00 each day, so when some associate comes looking for someone to work late, they all see Laura looking tired and go “no, not you, have a good evening”. I tell her this is the litigation version of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.

  8. Mbarr*

    :( I do this and I didn’t realize how annoying it could be. I don’t mean to boss people into being happy – it’s more of an attempt to get a genuine conversation rather than the usual, “How are you today?” “I’m good thanks.” rut we all tend to reply with.

    I’ll definitely try to be more conscientious next time!

    1. LadyByTheLake*

      Thank you for recognizing that this is a serious problem Mbarr. It is incredibly intrusive and irritating.

    2. Ana*

      Could there be better ways to start a conversation? Often in business settings, “How are you?” is an ineffective conversation starter, because all to often either there is nothing to say beyond, “Fine, thank you for asking.” or there really is nothing to say that should be said at work or to the questioner.

      This isn’t directed to you personally, but a genuine concern/question I have about the over usage of, “How are you?” as a conversation starter.

      1. LadyByTheLake*

        If the idea is to start a conversation at work, I would suggest “what are you working on?” or “What’s going on today?” or something like that. Actually ask a question about work. Telling people what emotion they are supposed to be displaying would not appear to be a great opener — particularly since it is so irritating and so often directed at women.

        1. Sabine the Very Mean*

          I’m the type who always knows when something is contrived or otherwise forced. Few things are more uncomfortable for me than knowing someone is trying to engage socially but are being indirect about it by trying to find a backdoor approach to do so.

        2. Michaela Westen*

          For social conversation, “do you have plans for the weekend?” or “done anything fun/seen any interesting movies lately?”
          or if you don’t want to ask about plans, maybe “seen anything interesting lately?” which could invite talk about movies, books, internet articles, music shows, plays…

      2. BethRA*

        I don’t think it’s usually meant as a conversation starter, though – at least not in public settings (as opposed to it’s use among friends and family). It’s really more of a polite greeting. “Hi fellow human, I see you.”

        I get the desire to to not seem superficial, but it’s almost always used in a context where even if you knew the person well enough to have a deeper conversation, neither side is in a position to do so because The Things that Need to Get Done..

      3. Jennifer Thneed*

        I think that “How are you?” is fine, because it’s a way of saying “Hello, I have walked up to you and now I’m standing here in front of you”. And “Fine, thanks for asking” is a fine response. Most people won’t go all “Just fine? That’s isn’t good enough!” at you, because they understand that what is really means is “Hello, you are standing in front of me and now we will conversate”.

        People addressing social pleasantries as literal statements are throwing sand into the works. They probably think they’re just being original or something, but we have social rituals for a reason, folks, and lots of things we say are not literally true and shouldn’t be treated as though they are.

        1. Ana*

          For my reply to the above commenter, I wasn’t referring taking the social nicety of “How are you?” as literal, but to those who are using it as a conversation starter. It isn’t meant to get an answer beyond “Fine, thank you.” in polite circles outside family and friends. If a person wants to get people out of the rut of replying “Fine, thank you.” as the commenter I replied to or the LW’s boss appears to want, then it is not the way to start a conversation. Use it as a seque to another question that is appropriately more involved or just ask a different question. I don’t mind “How are you?” as a conversational nicety and it has a place in society. Just think about what you really want if you’re getting touchy with the common response of “Fine, thank you”.

      4. Avasarala*

        I really prefer an actual greeting. Like “Hello” or “Good afternoon.” Then the other person can answer with “Hello” as well and nobody has to pretend to inquire about anyone’s mood, or lie about how good or bad they feel.

    3. checkert*

      Unless you are personally close to someone, the answer to ‘how are you today’ is, and should be, a vague answer. Socially, it is not meant as a genuine conversation on feelings, it is a simple greeting much like ‘how about this weather’ or ‘how about that game’. Quick, amenable back and forth. Sure, if the person is feeling passionate about something they are free to respond in kind, but NOT responding passionately is far more common and, in the case of strangers or casual acquaintances, expected.

      1. LadyByTheLake*

        Agree — “how are you?” “I’m fine” are sounds that we make when greeting someone. It is a canned call and response. In other cultures it might be “salaam alaikum” or “Wie gehts” or whatever. It isn’t a conversation opener.

    4. Dittany*

      Think of it this way: If you were having a bad day, would you be cheered up by being castigated by a casual acquaintance for being insufficiently perky?

    5. epi*

      I think it can be OK if you make it clear you are genuinely interested in how the person is doing, not telling them (even without meaning it literally) that they have to cheer up or change their face. When someone actually feels down, they take the literal meaning of “cheer up”.

      I have had classmates or coworkers genuinely say something like, “Everything OK? You’ve been making that intent face for… a while.” Even if I didn’t want to talk about it, I don’t think badly of them for it.

      People telling me I need to smile, or that I never smile, or that I *should* cheer up, or whatever, come across as criticizing even though I’m sure many of them did not mean it that way. Also, in situations where there was a public-facing element to what we were doing, they were essentially telling me I was bad at my job!

    6. First Time Caller*

      A great all-purpose version of this is “Hey, what’s new?” if you really want to encourage more conversation. It leaves the door open for someone to bring up whatever they want — new project at work, something non-work, etc.

    7. Marissa*

      I like “what’s been on your mind lately?” as an alternative to “how are you?” if you’re attempting to get a genuine conversation going!

      1. EPLawyer*

        Umm no. If I get “what’s been on your mind lately” you might not really like the answer.

        If you want to start a conversation about work, as noted, ASK ABOUT WORK. What do you have planned today? Any meetings? Something work related. Do not try to get into people’s heads or emotions unless they invite you in.

    8. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

      I totally get that you get that you want to break the rut. I feel like you genuinely care about how people are doing and don’t expect a perfunctory answer.
      I am also someone who answers “How are you?” with, “Okay,” 90% of the time and I won’t change my answer for anyone because it’s true.
      One thing I think you should consider is that the how are you/fine rut is not really a rut, it’s a socially important acknowledgement. With this exchange, two people have shown they care about each other’s well-being with minimal emotional cost. (Think of emotions as a limited currency we spend, as in the concept of emotional burden. After all, when people engage in emotional interactions beyond their capacity, they become mentally exhausted.)
      Instead of your current goal of having a non-standard exchange most of the time, focus on having genuine exchanges when the person being asked how they are doing is receptive to more in-depth dialogue.
      1. You are asked. If someone asks you how you’re doing, give a short answer that reflects your true feelings. This invites the other person to have a real conversation with you. Make sure you let it happen naturally. You want to be known as a genuine person with whom you can have a real conversation, and definitely not as the person who will trap you in a ten minute chat when you only wanted to day hi. (This will result in people avoiding saying hi to you, the opposite of what you want.)
      2. You ask someone how they are. Give your usual greeting, then really listen to their answer. Verbal and non-verbal cues will suggest at their willingness to have a conversation. Reading these cues correctly is a lifelong study, but the best indicators that they want to chat are that they ask you a question in return, or that they stick around for your answer. (i.e. they don’t just say “fine thanks” and walk away.)
      Lastly, give your knew strategy time to work. Before you become known as the genuine person who’s always receptive to a chat, you must first become known as the person who used to tell me to be happy all the time but no longer does.
      This will take some time, but it’s worth it.

    9. Rainy*

      Statistically speaking, some of the time your attempt to get a genuine conversation is falling on the ears of someone who has just received TERRIBLE NEWS.

      Someone said “smile, it can’t be that bad!” to me in a shop about three weeks after my husband died.

      So, yanno, sometimes it actually CAN be THAT BAD.

    10. Rachel Green*

      If you want to have an actual full-blown conversation with someone, then ask something specific to the person. I’m much more likely to engage in a conversation with someone who asks about my personal interests. “How is your tennis team doing this season?” “What are your plans for Thanksgiving?” “Read any good books lately?” “Did you see that article about elephants in the NY times?”

    11. pony tailed wonder*

      I have often told people that I am not contagious when they ask me how I am. I tend to have lingering coughs and my face and demeanor often reflect the less than optimal health. A side effect of saying this is that people end the conversation quickly and leave so if anyone wants to borrow that, feel free.

    12. Observer*

      You’ve gotten some good feed back. A general rule – If you want to actually get a genuine conversation going do NOT negate what someone just said to you! And Do NOT make assumptions about how bad things may or may not be.

      Both are totally antithetical to any sort of real conversation.

    13. Socks*

      People are really piling on you! Jeez, I think it’s safe to assume you got the message that you should stop doing the thing, since you said, in your post, that you would try to stop doing the thing :/

      A potential alternative: I like when people (mostly cashiers, I feel like?) make small talk by asking how my day’s been going so far, because that’s a little more specific, and more open to response than the canned “how are you?” “fine, you?” interaction that, as other people have noted, is more of a greeting than a conversation starter. “How’s your day been going” or “been up to anything interesting today” or something along those lines is nice, because, if I don’t want to get into it, I CAN still give a non-answer. But if I want to engage in small talk, I can respond with, like “just finished a bunch of homework”, or “excited to get out of town this weekend” or “finally finished cleaning my apartment, ugh” or whatever. You give people the option to engage, whether they’re having a good day or not, but also the option to quickly move along if they’re not in the mood to chat at all- and it also doesn’t require you to necessarily know anything about that person, so it also works for strangers or acquaintances. It’s nice, I like that, I think that’s a good way to handle it.

      1. Scarlet*

        I really didn’t see any piling on. People just agree that they should stop doing it and have made helpful suggestions.

      2. Mbarr*

        Agreed with Scarlet. People weren’t piling on. :)

        And the cashier conversations are specifically how I started doing this – when *I* was the cashier. I’ve toned it down in recent years, but still, good for me to know that this *can* annoy people. Most of the reactions I get are laughter, but now I wonder how many people weren’t smiling, but actually baring their teeth. Oh well! Lessons learned!

      3. Rainy*

        I think it’s actually kind of helpful for people who are doing stuff like this to hear about the consequences for the other party. Often I think it’s tempting to think “I mean well and even if someone has a legitimate reason to have a bad day, I’m not REALLY making it worse”, and it can help hammer home the real effects of this “well-meaning” speech.

    14. C Baker*

      Just another jumping off point, sometimes people don’t want to get into a real conversation with you, or anybody. If they do, you’ll find something to talk about.

  9. Turanga Leela*

    OP, if you’re up for it, the most satisfying, STFU-esque response to this kind of thing is to flatly say what’s going on. “I’m actually not so fabulous, Jane; my grandmother died last night.” And then if she wants details, you can still say you don’t want to talk about it and just want to do your work.

    1. Kathryn T.*

      I have a friend who was sitting at a bus stop staring numbly at the world when a fellow traveler said “Aw come on, whatever it is, it can’t be THAT bad!”

      She answered, “My two year old daughter has incurable brain cancer. She’ll be dead in a year. I’m trying to figure out how to tell my husband.”

      As she told me later, “Almost the worst thing about it was that I was so poleaxed by grief that I don’t even remember his response. In my heart, I like to believe he was instantly eaten by a giant bird of prey, sort of like a physical manifestation of his eternal shame.”

        1. Kathryn T.*

          It was, and is, a heartbreaking situation. They did get more time with her than they thought — they got three good healthy years followed by two agonizingly terrible months — but there’s nothing about pediatric brain cancer that is even remotely OK. I wish I had a lovely Hallmark bow to tie around it but alas all I got is “love people, be kind.”

  10. Amtelope*

    Sometimes you can divert this stuff by answering “How are you doing?” with “Fine, thanks, how are you?” She’ll still say “I’m fabulous!” but it’s easier for that to be the end of the encounter. Alternately, try answering “How are you doing?” with something about work — “I’m looking forward to getting started on the teapot report!” “I’ve got a lot of teapots to inspect today, so I’d better get down to it.”

    But, arrgh. So frustrating. Let a person not feel great!

    1. RabbitRabbit*

      This – I deflect like there wasn’t actually a real question asked but I am still performing standard autopilot greeting exchanges.

  11. I'm so sorry*

    When a strange man driving a pickup truck with other male passengers asked me why I wasn’t smiling, I told him: Because I’m on my way to the doctor, and she’s going to tell me I’m having a miscarriage.
    He then tried to say, bless your heart.
    This was spring 2008, and I told him he was why I was voting for Hillary Clinton.

    1. Kuododi*

      I had a similar situation long time ago. I was calling in to arrange time off from work on the unit where I was an inpatient counselor. The co-worker who was on the phone with me kept asking why I sounded so serious….(all I asked was for him to transfer me to the nurse manager)…. I responded…” I was just diagnosed with cancer… how are you doing today? Lots of stammering and apologizing before my call was transferred. Sometimes these situations are absolutely wretched. Blech!!!

    2. Anon From Here*

      No lie, I’ve been asked-told twice in my life by random dudes on the street to smile, and both times I was literally on my way home from a funeral. So I told them so.

      1. Cosette*

        Random people, PARTICULARLY, do not get to say this. No one should, to be clear… but Randos… nope nope nope. (And then if you don’t respond at all, you are a B-itch…. sigh)

      2. ThankYouRoman*

        JFC! Very bad not good stuff happens every single day, I’m so sick of the people who swear “it’s not that bad!” Yes. Death. Illness. Disasters. They are THAT BAD!

      3. AsItIs*

        Was walking down the street with a friend who had just a very close relative, when some complete stranger told her to smile. Her retort: “My [relative] just died. But don’t worry. When you die, everyone will be f____ smiling.”

    3. HR*

      This happened to my friend. She stopped at the pharmacy to buy something on the way home from delivering her baby who did not make it. His exact words were, “smile! whatever happened to you couldn’t have been that bad.” I really wish I was with her and could have throat punched him.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I hope she told him off! Seriously, at a pharmacy? Where sick people are coming for medicine???

  12. Katniss*

    OP, it sounds like you probably don’t need a reminder on this, but I know we (especially women) are trained to put the feelings of others above our own feelings and needs, so I’ll say it anyway as a mantra to keep in mind when dealing with this:

    You are not responsible for her discomfort. If people not being 100% cheerful around her at all times makes her anxious, that isn’t your responsibility or fault. That’s on her to deal with.

  13. Nanc*

    We must know sorrow in order to recognize joy.

    I hope things are better for you and your co-worker Learns a Lesson!

    1. Marthooh*

      This is such a useful way to put it!

      “We must know OK in order to recognize super-duper.”

      “We must know fine thanks in order to recognize fabulous.”

      “We must know meh in order to recognize maahhhhvellous.”

  14. Q*

    I am known to have a serious look on my face when thinking or concentrating, and my male coworker liked to walk by and tell me to smile. Today was his last day and he just left the building. Is it snarky that I noticed no one on my team went out of their way to say goodbye or get out of their seats other than saying, yeah good luck, see ya? Apparently I wasn’t the only one irritated by him. Buh bye.

    1. Michaela Westen*

      I like the honesty. In my dept. people will be all over them, saying good-byes, miss them, taking them to lunch, and not mean it.

  15. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I’m generally the direct sort of person, but if you’re feeling too fragile for that, perhaps you could loop in your boss for some assistance. Something like “hey, I have some stuff going on outside of work and I’m doing my best to keep it separate, but it’s hard when grandboss comes around and tries to force cheerfulness. would you be able to intervene and ask her not to say things like that to me for the time being?”

  16. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

    Alison’s options are superb. I thought of a couple more.

    A humerous option: “There will come a day when I am fabulous, but today is not that day.” Respond to any pushback with “Today is not that day,” ad nauseam.

    Fairly neutral option. Look at her quizzically, as though she asked you to do something bizarre like stick out your tongue. Say nothing and move on.

    More serious option: “As the great Stanley Kubrick once said, ‘when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful’. ”
    He was talking about why he didn’t use drugs, but I think his words are perfect situation.

    1. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

      I mean “I think his words are perfect for this situation.” Oops.

  17. HoneyGrim*

    Thank you for the phrase “perform a visual representation of cheerfulness.” I’ve had people tell me to “smile!” my whole life and that’s exactly the description I needed. It’s like someone is telling me (or any of us to whom this happens) that we only exist as some sort of set dressing for their life, and they don’t approve of the style. I do my best not to let any stress or unhappiness show (not always easy when you suffer from anxiety and depression), but even my neutral face isn’t enough for some people. Ugh, indeed.

    1. SherSher*

      I am pretty good at the poker face, particularly at work where how I am doing isn’t any of their business as long as I am doing my work and not contemplating shooting the place up (I am not). I also have Resting Bitch Face. It’s what I look like. It’s my face. Get over it.

  18. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    “Yup, just ok. Is there something you need from me?”

    Grrr. I’m often the one who will say an over the top “fabulous” to a random “how are you?” but when someone tries to tell me to feel or respond a particular way, I get very feisty. If they need me to have a friendly customer service face because I’m in a public space, that’s a good check-in for me, but my cranky is my own and I don’t have to explain it.

    If Ms ExcessivelyHappy still wants me to be happy, that’s her agenda, not mine. She can have it.

  19. The Original K.*

    “Just okay?! Surely you’re fabulous, right?!”

    UGH, she sounds insufferable! Like, has she never had anything bad happen to her?

    1. Michaela Westen*

      It sounds like denial. She’s trying to make everyone pretend everyone and everything is fabulous so she doesn’t have to deal with reality.

  20. Tuckerman*

    “Wouldn’t it be mortifying if you said that and it turned out the other person was going through something horrible like a miscarriage?” Say nothing as she stammers awkwardly.

    1. Parenthetically*

      I genuinely think, if you want to change a person’s mindset, something like this is the way to go. You can say it super gently, like a teaching moment. “Hey, Jane, I think you’re such a nice person that you’d be totally horrified if you said that to someone and it turned out they’d just gone through a tragedy. I feel like it’d be better just to let people have whatever emotions they have, you know?”

  21. Drew*

    I once responded to “You look like you’re having a bad day. What can I do to help?” with “You can leave me the f**k alone,” so I am feeling this letter so hard.

    I’ve had to train a few coworkers (and bosses) that trying to cheer me up doesn’t work. If they just let me work through my funk, it’ll pass in an hour or two. Poking at me to get to the root of a bad mood, or even a not-fabulous mood, is the surest way to send me right into being pissed off for the rest of the day.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I’ve walked out of stores more than once when an overly cheerful salesperson would not leave me alone.
      I’m so glad my co-workers don’t do it to me.

    2. Gumby*

      I don’t interpret “what can I do to help” the same way as “pretend to be cheerful to make me more comfortable.” I would have taken that as a genuine attempt to be considerate. While in many cases there *is* nothing someone else can do to help, the offer seems well-meaning and would not annoy me. Is there a reason you had such a strong reaction to it? Is there something I’m missing here?

      It’s not an offer I would make to anyone I didn’t know well, but I would be much taken aback and insulted by that response and it would, frankly, harm my relationship with them regardless of what they were going through at the time.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        To me it sounds like it was the most annoying person in his office saying it, or someone who didn’t know him well enough so it seemed presumptuous.

      1. WellRed*

        Yeah, I sympathize but if you’re unhappy, please don’t assume everyone is a conspiracy to p*ss you off. Take the day off. Geez. Also, to the commenter above who was called out for being rude, if you were genuinely rude, you don’t get a pass. However, if the customer was being obnoxious, thats another story.

    3. Parenthetically*

      Wow. There’s “my emotions aren’t a corporate decision” and then there’s “gods help you if you dare offend me, back away or get cursed at.” You’ve come down on the wrong side, I think.

  22. Non-profiteer*

    Recognizing that this particular situation does not have the gender dynamics that they often do, I still offer this: if you haven’t watched season 1 of Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix, I highly recommend. Doesn’t matter if you’re not into superheroes – for one, Jessica is kind of the opposite of a superhero, for two, the show is a really good exploration of female victimhood, PTSD, gender dynamics, etc. All hooked around the command for Jessica to smile. All I can say without spoiling is: the ending is INCREDIBLY cathartic if you’ve ever been in this situation.

    Here’s a spoiler-free article about this particular theme:

    1. Close Bracket*

      Since I don’t have Netflix, would you post the spoiler? Bc it kind of sounds like Jessica just smiled, albeit without humor.

      1. Owly*

        She was being literally mind-controlled at the time of the smile, which isn’t the spoiler but hopefully makes the comparison make more sense.

      2. Non-Profiteer*

        Okay, I’m going to post the spoiler, so SPOILER ALERT:

        The villain she deals with the whole series is able to manipulate people and control minds, to the point of making people commit murder. He does it to both genders but his favorite is taking on women as pet companions and making them do his bidding – which he did with Jessica. She spends the season figuring out how to overcome him, and when she confronts him the last time and he can’t control her, the last thing she does before she kills him is cocks her head at him and says “smile!” I think you can see the clip on YouTube.

    2. Cassandra*

      Also notable for some AMAZING non-smile smiles from series star Krysten Ritter. (If AAM were a .gif zone I would so post .gifs.)

      If nobody had posted about this series I would have had to, so thank you.

      (No, I will not effing smile when I found out yesterday that my spouse and I are divorcing. This did not actually happen, but I only narrowly escaped it.)

    3. Detective Amy Santiago*

      BE AWARE though that the show deals with a fair amount of potentially triggering material.

    4. curly sue*

      Fair warning that the series can be incredibly triggering for those who are sensitive to sexual violence and scenarios revolving around consent. I got through one and a half episodes and then had to tap out hard.

    1. Où est la bibliothèque*

      Honestly, this would rub me the wrong way most of the time. And there are times when I’m not okay, okayness is not in the cards for the near future, and an optimistic platitude is just going to make me feel bad.

    2. Dittany*

      That’s a relatively non-obnoxious way of doing that, but I’d still steer clear unless the person seems really down in the dumps. When you say things like that, a lot of the time the person won’t hear “I’m expressing concern for your well-being and my best wishes for your overall happiness”; they hear, “You’re not performing to my specifications.”

    3. ElspethGC*

      To be fair, “I hope it gets better” is a lot more okay than “How dare you not put on performative cheerfulness for my benefit?”, which is what OP’s manager is doing.

      1. Queen of the File*

        I agree (especially if I’m close to the person), although even with this phrasing I would still feel like my okay wasn’t good enough for them. I’m fine with being just okay!

    4. Claire*

      So, why do you do that? What are you hoping to achieve? I mean, it’s not the worst, but if I’m dealing with the knowledge that my grandpa is going to die any day now (most recent time I had someone be obnoxious about my neutral response to “How are you?”), it’s not getting better any time soon – and you’ve just made me think about that fact when I was trying to just get through the day.

      1. Socks*

        Not the same person, and I don’t actually do that, but I could theoretically see myself doing it if I weren’t aware how much it could backfire. If I did say something along those lines, I’d be hoping to improve the person’s mood through well-wishing, not because I demand that they perform happiness for my enjoyment, but because I tend to assume that anyone would rather be feeling good, than feeling neutral or bad. That’s about it. It’s not super deep. It’s meant to be nice.

        I also know not to DO that, because, for all the reasons people have mentioned, it probably won’t work and has a high probability of making things worse, but that’s where I think the thought likely comes from, at least for people who aren’t just being sexist or whatever.

      2. Parenthetically*

        I mean, I say this as someone who just posted a script upthread about gently reminding people that folks around them may be going through a hard time and to small-talk accordingly, but IMO a comment like this falls so far down on the innocuous side of the spectrum that it’s not really worth addressing in the moment unless they’re using it as a segue into dictating your emotions to you.

        “Hope it gets better” is a benign, even kind, wish.

      3. CastIrony*

        I’m just very socially awkward and inept, but it alarms me when I swipe people’s cards in to eat at my job (a cafeteria), and most people have an exchange that goes like this:
        (Fifty people go through)
        Me: Hi, how are you?
        Fifty people: Good.

        (Fifty-first person goes through)
        Me: Hi, how are you?
        Fifty-first person: Okay.
        Me (is genuinely concerned that they aren’t doing as well as the other fifty that said “good”): Just okay? Well, I hope it gets better!
        (Fifty-first person doesn’t seem offended because I don’t know any better, so I think the transaction went well and as intended)

        I’ll stop from now on, but still, I want to show that I care about them.

        1. C Baker*

          You know, for a lot of people, the answer to “How are you?” is a ritual. Some people respond with “fine”, others with “good”, and others with “okay” – but none of those responses have anything to do with how people are feeling. They’re just mouth noises.

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        Yeah. I’ve been battling clinical depression. OK is… OK! Not depressed! No suicidal ideations today! #winning

        1. Elizabeth*

          Totally agree, Lynn.

          I’ve dealt with self-harm, suicidal tendencies, severe depression, abuse, etc.

          So, if I say I’m okay (as in, I literally haven’t tried to kill myself once today and I don’t think I will), then that’s pretty damn good for me. And if you say “Just okay?”, you really cheapen that for me.

  23. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I take the Miss Manners approach to this idiotic encouragement.

    Coworker: just smile!
    Me: why? Is something amusing?

    I’ve stunned many men into silence with this question.

    1. Parenthetically*

      I loved the girl who filmed all her cat-callers on a walk through NYC, who responded to “Smile, mama!” with a very aggressive, “Say something funny!”

  24. ErgoBun*

    “A pained non-smile and raised eyebrows, paired with no verbal response.”

    This is my go-to favorite — largely because I’m bad at keeping my responses off my face. It works very well. Return Awkwardness to Sender, with silence!

    1. Snickerdoodle*

      I have no poker face; I don’t think keeping responses off my face is an option. A glare badly covered by an awkward grimace is the BEST that would happen. Seriously, what do these jerks expect?

    2. Yay commenting on AAM!*

      Situations like these make me glad I wear glasses, so I can peer over the top of the frames at people in a, “Really?” expression.

      1. Joielle*

        Yes! Sort of off-topic, but this is my favorite way to deal with catcallers on the train. Looking over the top of the glasses with an extremely disappointed facial expression seems to be offputting enough that most of them will back right off, haha.

    3. LQ*

      Yeah for me this one has been my go to, because a few times when this has happened it’s “If you make me open my mouth to speak words I’m going to burst into tears and neither of us wants that so please back off and ask about work so we can press on with the day.” Which apparently gets conveyed pretty well in my horrible pokerface.

      (Also I take off my glasses and put my head in my hands. My boss saw this once and pulled the door to my office closed, he later explained that Impossibly Cheerful Person was walking around talking to everyone and he wanted to make sure I didn’t have to deal with it. It was a good decision for her and I.)

  25. Anon From Here*

    I’m reminded of the possibly apocryphal story that McDonald’s got its “I’m lovin’ it” motto from an employee who had used the phrase sarcastically to a manager who was trying to get them enthusiastic about work that day.

      1. CastIrony*

        As a Mexican-American who grew up on Spanish-speaking channels, I confirm this to be true, but that being said, in my memory, I don’t know if it has the same feel as “I’m lovin’ it” when combined with the jingle.

    1. kiwimusume*

      This makes my day. I was a McDonald’s worker when they unveiled it and while I have to admit in hindsight that McDonald’s New Zealand did make a good effort (they had live music from local bands at the launch and gave us all a Nokia brick phone to use for the rest of the time we were working there) there was definitely some hilarious enforced perkiness involved. Hearing that it’s the new WGASA made me smile big enough to satisfy the “Surely you must be fabulous!” crowd.

  26. whistle*

    “Just okay?!”
    Yep! (Said in either an upbeat tone or a matter of fact tone) “Correct.” also works

    “Just okay?! Surely you’re fabulous, right?!”
    “Nope, just okay for me today” (Also said in either an upbeat tone or a matter of fact tone.

    1. Snickerdoodle*

      UGH. I started responding to “How are you today?” from smarmy guys with “I’m kicking ass!” They stopped asking.

  27. animaniactoo*

    “Actually it is that bad and it’s taken everything I have to be “normal” right now, so I’m sorry – but more than this is simply beyond me right now. I hope that’s okay?”

    also: “Surely you’re fabulous” – “If you define holding it together enough to be “okay”, yeah, I’m fabulous. I’m sorry, I know you mean well, but while I don’t want to go into it – I can’t give you fabulous today. I hope that’s okay?”

    And if she tries to delve for details “I’m sorry, I’d rather not go into it and I just want to focus on getting my work done, I hope that’s okay.”

    The key to the inquisitive “I hope that’s okay?” is getting her buy-in. Should you need her buy-in? Of course not. But people like this tend to want to be the “sympathizer” types and you want to play to the side of her that will be just as satisfied as she would be to have cheered on your happiness and felt that was successful. So the goal is to maintain as civil and level-headed a tone as you can, because you don’t want to give her anything more to react *to* – if possible (you can’t control her, only what you give her from your side) – when she answers that.

    But the non-inquisitive “I hope that’s okay” is more in the territory of “here’s the boundary, I’m being super-nice about how I define it” – and make sure to divert to another work-related topic immediately afterward.

    You might also see if you can work in some low-key pushing back on days when you don’t have something going on.

    “Surely it’s not that bad?” “You know, it’s really not, but I reserve the right to remain a bit grumpy about it!” (tone: somewhere between grumpy and laughing) “Surely you’re fabulous” “If I were fabulous I’d be training to be the next Michael Phelps. Alas, since I can’t do that, I’m pretty happy holding down “Okay”.” (tone: somewhere between regret and laughing).

    If you could get away with it, I’d try the kid-parent haggling scenario – you know, the one where the kid asks to stay up an hour later, parent gives in to a half hour later, kid pushes for 45 minutes and parent says “1 hour earlier”?: “Okay” “Fabulous” “Pretty miserable actually!” (said cheerfully)

    1. Armchair Analyst*

      Perhaps instead of, “I hope that’s ok?” you could try another variation: tell her how to respond.
      “Today isn’t great so far but I’m doing the best I can, I know you’ll understand and let me get to work now. Thanks so much for being so understanding!”

      I like your suggestions, I’m trying to “yes, and…” them.

  28. ooo*

    Our philosophy teacher in high school used to say, “People who are happy all the time are mentally ill.” He meant this kind of person, and I don’t think he was wrong.

    1. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

      I’m sure real mental illness never takes this form. If only my clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder was clinical exuberance instead!
      I am open about my illness so if someone doesn’t accept my “I’m fine” response, I very well could say, “Since I’m clinically depressed, fine is actually pretty fucking fabulous, thank you.”

      (Sidebar but what if it is real, but the condition never gets medically diagnosed because it doesn’t impact people’s lives beyond irritating everyone they know by minimizing their experiences… hmmm…)

      1. nonegiven*

        *(Sidebar but what if it is real, but the condition never gets medically diagnosed because it doesn’t impact people’s lives beyond irritating everyone they know by minimizing their experiences… hmmm…)

        “…and that’s when I stabbed her, Your Honor.”

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I’d argue that it would be more accurate to say people who “act” this happy all the time are probably suffering from mental illness. Mostly because it sounds so performative and it wouldn’t surprise me if they are compensating.

      1. Armchair Analyst*

        Yeah I think “Obviously not as fabulous as YOU are!” is an ok response here. The Annoying Person obviously wants everyone to be as cheery and chirpy as s/he is. Try stopping it by noting that THEY are cheery and chirpy…. of course it won’t stop it All, but it might stop it For Now.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Love this, I would also use, “No one is doing as fabulously as you!” She probably won’t even notice that you did not answer her question, OP. This opens the door to, “Well, I fabulous this morning at 6 am.” Or “I plan on being fabulous at 3 pm today.” You could constantly change your answer but have the word fabulous in there some where.

          I have had some people answer me with “What is your question?” or “Do you need something?”

          But honestly she sounds exhausting. I think I would roboticcally answer “fabulous” each time.

          People like this leaving me shaking my head. It’s all about how things appear, what is actually going on is irrelevant. Additionally, these are the last people in the world to call to help with an emergency. They have no clue how to handle an urgent situation. I am thinking of a person in my life who is called “a light weight” behind her back, she is all smiles and happy. In other words people doubt her ability to make a strong contribution to just about anything. If the smallest thing goes wrong, she goes into meltdown which includes screaming on her part and being unable to reason with her.

      2. ooo*

        Agreed, Detective — I meant it was performative in a sense, and I took my teacher to mean he did too. As a mentally ill person (who just CRUSHED IT at therapy this week), I feel like dogmatic devotion to positivity, such that you demand it in others too, is about avoiding something.

    3. LilySparrow*

      I figured he meant that being happy every moment, always, would require you to be so deeply in denial that you were detatched from reality.

  29. Nita*

    I like the “I’d rather not discuss it” response. Seems like a reasonable way to stop the onslaught of cheeriness without inviting more prying.

    And ugh, that is annoying. An admin at my office is like this, and I seriously don’t get how anyone can be so cheery all the time. Last week I was on my way out the door and happened to sigh. She was covering front desk and let out the biggest “OMG, Are You OKAAAAY? You just SIGHED!!!” It had been a horrendous week, and I was late for my train, but I didn’t want to discuss this with her. I just wanted to go home. My eyebrows went up into my hairline and I just said “Everyone is allowed to sigh!” while stepping into the elevator. Maybe not polite, but true…

    1. Drew*

      “Just sad that I have to leave this wonderful place with all of its super caring people!” [doors close]

  30. BatmansRobyn*

    I’m a generally cheery/high-energy person but my default response to stuff like this is, “It’s been a Day” [with enough emphasis that people hear the capital letter]. Usually a little grimace helps too.

    1. DKFM*

      The other day I was at the grocery store picking out some M&Ms in the checkout line, and the lady in front of me said, “you know, they have trail mix over there (points), it’s much healthier!” I looked at her and said “It’s been A Week.” She started backpedaling pretty fast.

      1. tangerineRose*

        A Haxian Wow at the trail mix lady. I’m glad people haven’t generally commented on my groceries. So rude!

        I almost want to tell her “When I feel shamed about my eating habits, I want more chocolate!”

  31. epi*

    I get that it sounds satisfying to educate someone or make it (even just a tiny bit) weird for them to say something so rude. But honestly, I usually say or do the minimum cooperative-seeming thing to end the conversation, even if it’s just a deflection; privately revise my opinion of that person’s people skills; and just move on. When I’m really feeling depressed, even the perfect comeback doesn’t feel good; it just makes me feel like the mean one.

    This behavior sucks, but it also sucks to go around alienating people because no one will tell you to fix something you are doing. That’s the social karma I believe in.

    Just as it’s not my responsibility to perform cheer for randos, it’s also not my responsibility to educate someone who just hurt me or to break the cycle of someone else’s bad behavior when I am already feeling bad. Pick the option that feels the easiest for you in the moment, get away, and get back to taking good care of yourself. That person will just have to deal with being thought of as rude until they find out the hard way, from a meme or something.

    1. Glomarization, Esq.*

      I’m going to tend to agree here. It’s fun to think about how great it would be to go all Daria or Wednesday Addams on Chief Fabulous Officer here, but on the ground there is no reason to introduce rudeness, or respond to unreasonableness with rudeness. Witty come-backs followed by a turn on the heel and exit-stage-right are the stuff of sitcoms, not cube farms.

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        I actually went Wednesday Addams by accident when working the general election. A co-worker was talking about her fears that Donald Trump would start World War III. I tried to look on the bright side and said, “At least we’d all die quickly.”

        NOTE: This is actually true. Where I live would be nuked first if World War II started.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I can see what you are saying and that is how this person is allowed to continue on doing this annoying thing.

      I do think it’s fine to say something like, “you say that a lot” or “yes, you have mentioned this”.

      Really though, if she is only going to accept one type of answer she should not bother asking.

  32. V*

    I totally agree in principle.

    Would you say there’s an exception to this if the person is in a greeting or customer/visitor facing role? A similar thing happened to me once where I had just found out my grandfather died and ended up getting reprimanded for not greeting visitors cheerily (I wasn’t in a greeting role but I did sit near the front door where people walked by). In that case, would it be better for someone in such a role to take the day or at the least like 20-30 minutes to really pull themselves together?

    1. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

      Personally I say the principle is the same, as no one can be “on” all the time no matter what their job is.
      However if it’s a customer telling you to smile I think I’d give a fairly diplomatic response.

    2. Queen of the File*

      Yes, I think there are some circumstances where you do actually have to perform a minimum cheerfulness routine for people. I used to work at a call centre and we were told to take 10-20 minutes to clear our heads if our day was getting in the way of being pleasant to customers. They didn’t expect we were going to be genuinely happy all day, but we did have to pretend :)

    3. Antilles*

      There *shouldn’t* be, because it’s absolutely absurd that companies think their greeters should always be filled with endless fake cheer.
      But in the real world as it is, yes there is an exception for people in greeting or customer facing roles. Most companies *do* have a widespread expectation that their greeter or customer-facing roles are endlessly cheery and optimistic. Or, at the very least, ’emotionally neutral but polite’.

    4. Jen*

      If I had an employee who just found out a relative had passed (or some equally upsetting news), I would certainly say giving them the day off (or longer depending on the closeness of the loved one or seriousness of the issue) would be the least that I could do.

    5. Perse's Mom*

      Ideally, the day off so you can at least start processing your emotions.
      If you MUST go to work, ideally having someone else cover the Cheer-Chair and moving you into a more private space for at least a day. Odd, unexpected things can cause emotions to run rampant and a good boss would be understanding of that.
      And if they can’t do that, not being a jerk about you actually having emotions other than HAPPY is pretty much the least they should be able to do.

  33. Holly*

    I would err on being softer with your response if solely for the sake of your career, but still send a message. Something like “not today, but maybe next time!” or “sadly no, but i hope you are!”

  34. SherSher*

    Typically, when a co-worker responds “ok” in a way that I sense they are not really even “ok,” my go to is not to tell Shirley she is fabulous… but instead to say something like, “I hope it gets better…” or something else fairly benign to let them know I care but I am not prying.

    1. Roja*

      Yeah, I usually say, “Aw, sorry, hope things get better soon” and then leave them alone. If we’re close I might add an “let me know if you need anything” but that’s rare.

  35. AR*

    My boss does NOT tolerate people looking less than cheerful. It’s her opinion that in the Marketing department, you are always ON and therefore should not allow any expression to cross your face that indicates you might be mad, sad, or annoyed.

    Working for her is exhausting.

  36. Michaela Westen*

    Oh, God. Thank God I don’t have to work with that.
    IME people who do this are all about what *they* want. They want everyone to be cheerful to cheer *them* up. Or so they can stay in denial that life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Or because they want attention.
    Unfortunately my people skills aren’t up to giving advice on this. If it was me I would avoid her as much as possible and just smile and nod when she speaks to me.
    I wouldn’t risk giving her an info on what’s going on with me, because IME she would try to argue and say it’s not so bad, or get annoyed that you brought her down/out of denial. I would not talk to her about anything not work-related, ever.

  37. nora*

    In the last three weeks I’ve had to deal with an unusual confluence of painful issues, ranging from a terrorist attack on people in my religious community to a close relative getting their second cancer diagnosis inside of a year. Additionally I had a freak accident and broke my foot in three places and (totally unrelatedly) had a minor wound on my scalp get visibly infected, resulting in a large bald spot (seriously). Things have been stressful! When people at work ask me why I look so down I just throw side-eye, point to either my cast or my wound, and hobble away. I mean, come on.

  38. Cobol*

    OP I hate to say grin and bear it (and it is super shitty), but in my experience people like Jane will never see the errors of their ways. The risk of saying something and having her put you in the category of malcontent outweigh any benefits.

    I don’t have highs and lows (or more accurately I do, but not to the extent of others) and I tend to be less expressive and the number of times people have told me I’m not enjoying things is mind bogging. There have been several times where it’s a person doing it over and over and even telling them that it’s offensive has not worked.

    1. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant*

      Ah yes, the “your feelings don’t exist unless you perform them” school of thought. -_-

  39. Lucille B.*

    I legitimately thought this was going to be about our 401(k) contact who ends her emails with “Make it a great day!”. Make me!!

    1. Snickerdoodle*

      I would be sorely tempted to route all her emails to spam, dust off my hands, and declare Mission Accomplished.

  40. Jessa*

    I have a neighbour who constantly tells me to smile and my response is always “if you want me to smile, tell me a joke.” He never knows what to say.

  41. anna green*

    * “I’m sure you mean well, but that’s a very difficult to comment to receive when you’re in the midst of something genuinely upsetting.”

    This is fabulous. The best way I’ve seen to respond to that type of comment.

  42. Jen*

    UGH this reminds me of someone I worked with previously. She was always asking me if I was ok (in a super shocked and concerned tone as if she just saw me laying on the floor bleeding) and when I would respond with “yes, I am fine, why do you ask?” she would say things like “you look like you’ve been crying” or “you look like you don’t feel well” or “you look like you are upset” etc… this was never the case. I guess when I am concentrating, I look ugly? Not really sure, but finally one day I had just had it with her and when she mentioned that I looked like I was ill and had been crying I said “I really wish you would stop constantly commenting on my face. Honestly, it is making me feel very self-conscious”. She was pretty taken aback and said she was just concerned and I said that although I appreciated her concern, telling someone who is perfectly fine and in a good mood that they look like they are ill or crying, is basically telling them that they look ugly since nobody looks wonderful when sobbing or not feeling well. She said she was sorry and would knock it off and I felt so relieved like finally she was going to knock it off… and then a few mins later I caught her talking about me to someone else in the office telling them that “I am in a bad mood and that something is troubling me and she is concerned” AHHH.

    1. Arjumand*

      OMFG. That to me would be grounds for justifiable homicide. Or at least, thinking about it while glaring at her and snapping a pencil.
      Some people are just stupid.

    2. Michaela Westen*

      See, that’s the thing with such people. No matter what you do, they’ll never take responsibility and will always put it back on you. IME the only way is to not engage. Smile, nod, and never say anything unless absolutely necessary.

  43. I Work on a Hellmouth*

    Shortly after my father passed away (like, two or three weeks after), I had a new manager come in (I was working at a different Hellmouth at the time) who could not understand why I was not all sunshine and sparkles 24/7. I was able to do my job, be pleasant, and function, but I was very subdued and very, very sad. Sometimes I would have to go have a small cry in the bathroom if something made me think of my dad, or if it was a day where I had to deal with my older technically-my-brother-legally-I-guess (my dad adopted me and my younger brother, his much older kids had never been pleased about that), splash my face with water, and get it back together before heading back to my office. I had let her know that my dad had just unexpectedly passed and I was okay but some days were sadder for me than others. After she had been there for about a month I overheard her tell a coworker that after almost two months I should really be over it and that clearly there was something wrong with me.

    I guess the lesson I learned was that super perky people are not always super empathetic?

    1. London Calling*

      Too many people who have not yet suffered a bereavement think it’s like TV or films – there’s a death and then two minutes later life continues as normal. I feel sorry for them – they are going to find out the hard way that grief doesn’t have timetables. The other thing, of course, is that we live in a culture where talking about death is for may people absolutely as taboo as talking about sex used to be. People don’t die – they ‘pass,’ or ‘are lost.’ Anything to avoid saying the word ‘died.’

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Totally agree. She probably has never experienced a major loss, so probably has no idea what a broad subject grief actually is.
        Hopefully, that coworker either said something to her or went back later and said something to her.

        I mentioned upthread that sometimes super perky people are the last person anyone wants around in the time of crisis. They can’t handle it. Sadly, a huge part of her job as a manager is how well she can handle things when things go awry.

      2. Parenthetically*

        Just today I was listening to an interview on NPR with Paul Conroy about Marie Colvin’s final hours in Homs, Syria, and was struck by how unflinchingly he spoke about her *death* and that when he found her she was *dead* — he used no euphemisms and it was somehow simultaneously jarring and refreshing.

      3. Michaela Westen*

        I usually say “passed” not because “died” bothers me, but because I’m concerned it will bother the person I’m talking to.
        I had two cats who got old and passed in the last two years so I’m usually talking about them. I don’t know if it’s different when it’s about pets.
        Actually saying “died” about my cats would bother me a little. “Passed” seems more accurate.

        1. I Work on a Hellmouth*

          I just use them interchangeably. I guess, now that I’m thinking about it, I probably use dead or died when I’m talking to my family/boyfriend/close friends, and say passed away more when I’m talking to people I am not as close to.

    2. IrishEm*

      A former manager of mine told a colleague who had just found out that day that her uncle had passed away, and who was being quieter and more subdued than usual that “death comes to us all, you have to be tough”. I found out about this a few days after the fact or he would have had death visit him there and then. We worked retail, and she had requested non-customer-facing tasks until the end of her shift and he didn’t like that.

      Mind you, he also used the threat of letting a zero hours contract girl go so he could harass her sexually with impunity so he was just Like That.

      I’m sorry for your loss, it sucks when your Dad passes away. *hugs if you want them*

      1. I Work on a Hellmouth*

        Aw, thanks. Yeah, it’s been a few years now, but it pretty much always sucks. Losing a parent is like joining the world’s crappiest club, you find out that only other people in the club fully get it.

        That former manager sounds like a prime candidate for the Throat Punch Club.

  44. 353*

    I (as a teenage male) had (older female) customers tell me to “Smile!” multiple times at my high school/college jobs.

    In AskAManagerland, I gather this simply reaches “highly irritating,” but not (unless genders were reversed) “particularly offensive”?

    1. I Work on a Hellmouth*

      I mean, I think it’s equally patronizing. Why do you think people would rank the behavior differently?

        1. I Work on a Hellmouth*

          Not… really? Or at least, not as plainly as you maybe think it was?

          You basically said “I gather that here Y and X are valued differently?” and I said “Why would you think that people here would think that X and Y are valued differently?” “It was stated above” isn’t the most illuminating answer.

          1. 353*

            “The men-ordering-women-to-smile version of this is particularly offensive in its sexism (and note that men rarely if ever tell other men to smile), but your colleague’s version of this is highly irritating as well.”

            I find this pretty clear that one version is deemed offensive while another simply irritating.

            1. Swordspoint*

              “…particularly offensive in its sexism.” Translation: it is the sexism (which has been well documented; you can find this easily with a basic search) that makes it PARTICULARLY offensive. No one is arguing that it is inoffensive when the genders are reversed. It is. But the sexism it’s rooted in takes it to another level, because it is based on the sexist assumption that women owe men a pleasing appearance as their scenery.

            2. Jennifer Thneed*

              Right. You, personally, can be offended (and that’s a reasonable response). But labelling the behavior as offensive overall when directed at women has to do with the universality of women’s experiences. If you ask around, you’ll probably find that not many of your male friends have experienced it, but all of your female ones have.

    2. Q*

      Noting that a behavior is frequently gendered and sexist does not preclude it happening to people of all genders, and does not assert that it is less of an issue when it does. But that’s a nice straw man you’ve got there.

    3. SusanIvanova*

      It’s additive: you’ve got “customer to employee” and “older person to younger person”, but not “men think they’re owed smiles from women”. I’d still put it on the offensive end of the scale.

    4. Close Bracket*

      If you really want to know, why not submit it as a question to Allison so we can talk about the dynamics at play? I suspect your real goal is to shut down the discussion by diverting it to a different topic.

      1. 353*

        Incorrect suspicion. But I do wonder why Alison brought up sexism when none is referenced in the letter, especially as she often asks commenters not to assume things writers haven’t said.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Because men telling women to smile is such a well documented and sexist phenomenon that it’s hard to talk about this similar thing without acknowledging that.

          Men telling women to smile is rooted in systemic sexism and power dynamics. That’s why it’s more offensive.

          1. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

            I was the target of the “Smile!” order so much when I was younger that it became an official pet peeve of mine. I am a woman. I didn’t realize it was a documented phenomenon. Interesting.

            1. Jennifer Thneed*

              And this is a perfect example of a phrase from the late 1960’s: the personal is political. In other words, you’re experiencing something that results from larger society, but you thought it was just you because you don’t see it when it happens to others.

          2. JamieS*

            Has there been unbiased studies definitively showing men tell women to smile more often than women telling men, men telling men, or women telling women?

    5. Stopasking*

      353 I’m a guy and have been told to smile, lighten up, it’s not so bad, etc. so I can relate. But if you read this blog much, you should know that it’s centered on women. And if you say anything like you said, you will be immediately questioned and your opinion dismissed by others including the owner of the blog. Her blog, her rules. But really frustrating.

          1. NerdyKris*

            How do you think it’s centered on women? It addresses workplace issues, most of which are gender neutral. If you mean because Allison uses “she” as the default gender, do you also assume blogs that assume “he” as being centered on men?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s not “centered on women.” It acknowledges sexism as a very real and significant part of many work and life dynamics. I suppose if you don’t find sexism to be a severe and pervasive problem, it might feel overly centered on women. It’s centered on humans.

        1. Stopasking*

          I wasn’t clear when I said that. I meant that most of the commenters appear to be women. That’s all. I never said sexism wasn’t a problem. It’s of course a big issue in the country and even more so in the world. What I’m annoyed about is this…I read this blog just about every weekday b/c it’s interesting to read the crazy stuff that happens to people. Every now and then you address something that has happened to me. This issue, and that of having my ideas taken, is something I, and many others, including men, have experienced. For me it has been a pet peeve since I was a kid. I don’t know why it happens to me, but it doesn’t feel good. I know it’s not sexism. But it does happen. And I feel like my feelings are being dismissed here b/c I’m not a woman. My feelings, and that of others who have mentioned this, are real and should not be dismissed as not important b/c we are the wrong gender. Maybe that’s not the intent, but that’s how it’s coming off to some of us.

          1. I Work on a Hellmouth*

            When someone says “Save the rainforest!” they are not saying “Eff all of the other trees!” When someone says “Save the whales!” they aren’t saying “Dolphins are clearly far lesser sea mammals and we are dismissing them.”

            I don’t think anyone would tell you that being told to smile isn’t patronizing and irritating. I don’t think anyone would (or is) saying “Nah, brah, that doesn’t happen to dudes.” I also think that there’s probably a pretty healthy mix of genders here. It kind of seems like maybe you just really want to pick some arguments.

            1. Stopasking*

              Are you saying I shouldn’t have commented at all? Is this not a comment section of a blog? I responded to 353 and then a lot of others jumped in, some saying nasty things. If no one had responded to me, that would have been the end of it. Just b/c we have a difference of opinion doesn’t mean I’m trying to start arguments. I’m commenting in a comment section. That’s all.

      2. 353*

        I know. Racial inequality is also well documented in the workplace and rooted in power dynamics, but it’s not brought up nearly as often as sexism (especially when there’s no basis in the question).

        1. c-*

          This goes both to you and Stopasking: the letter is not about you, dudes. The blog is not about your feelings.
          You’re both adults, you don’t need the whole commentariat smoothing your ruffled feathers. Please go take care of your feelings on your own, it’s not the job or the responsibility of the women of the world to do that for you.

          1. Stopasking*

            No. My opinion is just as valid as yours. I won’t be told by you to sit down and shut up, which is essentially what you are saying.

        2. Michaela Westen*

          IME the older-person to younger-person dynamic is just as oppressive as sexism. I got a lot of that when I was young. No respect and everyone telling me what to do. It sucked!
          Since it’s customers who don’t know you or your life – when I have strangers behaving inappropriately I know they don’t know me or my life and are assuming things based on their experiences, so it’s easy to just say “whatever” and forget them. Maybe that would work for you?

          1. Kate*

            Actually, you should just move on to another blog, or stop coming to the comment section if it bothers you. There are plenty of places on the Internet that are centered around the notion of male supremacy where your passive aggression might be better appreciated.

            1. Stopasking*

              So, you don’t like my opinion, so I should just shut up and leave. Not leaving. I have been reading this blog for a long time, not going anywhere.

  45. Jenn*

    I know we talk a lot about men feeling like they can tell women to perform cheerfulness, but I have to say that I’ve only ever received these kinds of comments from women.

    1. Close Bracket*

      Women are not magically immune to gendered behaviors by virtue of being women. Plenty of women perform patriarchy just as well as men. In the case of policing expressions, it’s true that men virtually never tell other men to smile, and it is also true that women rarely tell male peers to smile. The target is just as gendered at the speaker.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        If a man is serious or frowning, he’s a go-getter, achiever, doing important work, etc.
        If a woman is…

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I have mentioned here before that women would be wise to look at how they may be perpetuating some of the issues women face. I am not clear on if OP is male or female. One of the first things I thought of as I started reading was does this woman tell men the same thing. If not, why not.

      1. tra la la*

        I have a friend who has been Spoken To at his (almost all women) workplace for not being cheerful enough (he’s a quiet, serious guy and this is a place that has started posting videos of the whole group jumping for joy). I (a woman with RBF herself can’t help thinking that equality should maybe mean NO one gets expected to be cheery window dressing?

  46. This one here*

    There used to be a monitor who’d be at our office for a week or so at a time. He was relentlessly cheerful.

    One of my sisters was murdered in May of 1991, by a stranger who was attempting to rob her; it was a random thing. When, a few weeks later, Cheerful Guy asked me how I was doing, I supposed it was in relation to that, and I replied “Oh, I’ll get by.” CG said “Oh, come on, you can do better than that.”

    I composed myself and said “Oh, I guess you didn’t know that my sister was murdered on Mother’s Day.” He apologized, and also started paying attention to people’s answers to “How are you doing?”

  47. Goya de la Mancha*

    “Livin’ the dream” has become my canned response to this type of forced cheerfulness. It makes the person feel like they’ve done their duty to shove sunshine and sparkles up everyone’s behind, but they might not know that last night’s dream was a nightmare ;)

  48. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

    Am I the only person imagining Kevin and Lauren from Welcome to Night Vale? Believe in a Smiling God! (and be productive for the good of the company!)

  49. Master Bean Counter*

    There are two ways to handle this situation. A person has to as themselves, do I just want to keep interactions with Ms. Cheery short as possible or do I want her to stop?

    Short as possible:
    MC: How are you?
    Me: Fine as frog’s hair. or something equally as cheesy or unexpected.
    MC: Smile!
    Me..does the dead eye smile that slowly fades.

    To make her stop:
    MC: How are you?”
    Me: Good.
    MC: Not fabulous?
    Me: Why do you say that?
    MC: Smile!
    Me: Why?

    Basically turn into a four year old and ask why for everything.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      It’s funny because I was thinking along the same lines, answer with a question. “That seems really important to you, why is that?”

  50. Exhausted Trope*

    Coworkers like that are truly a pain in the a__. Makes me just want to shout at them, “shut up shut up shut upppppp!!”

  51. nnn*

    In addition to any combination of the other suggestions, does your employer ever have, like, mental health initiatives or workplace wellness initiatives or “best place to work” reviews or anything like that?

    If so, you could mention what a stresser it is to have to constantly perform feeling not just fine, but “fabulous” in order to not get interrogated by people who are senior to you, and how this is so much harder than your actual job duties.

  52. HailRobonia*

    The comment about “men rarely if ever tell other men to smile” is 110% true. It’s like when men try to defend cat-calling or similar behavior saying “it’s not sexual, it’s just a compliment!” Oh really? So if you saw some guy looking nice and handsome and dressed well you’d say “hey dude, looking good!”

    1. sin nombre*

      This is literally the only mention of America/Americans/US/USA/USAians on this comment thread right now. AFAICT we have no idea where the letter writer is from. Are you on the wrong post?

  53. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    I loathe being told to smile, and I’m a pretty smiley person. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if a coworker told you “don’t smile,” or “make a confused face,” or “make a surprised face.” Unless you’re a school photographer, telling people to smile is not in your job description.

    1. nonegiven*

      I even hate the DMV telling me to smile for the photo. I’ve tried. If I don’t smile, I get an ID I have to carry for 4 years with RBF. If I do try to smile, I get an ID that looks like I’m having a stroke, and I have to carry that around for 4 years.

  54. JB*

    “What is up with people who feel the need to order others around them to perform a visual representation of cheerfulness?”

    I know this was a rhetorical question, but I’m going to take a swing at it anyway.

    People like this don’t know how to provide genuine leadership. They are shallow, superficial people who don’t know how to genuinely listen or empathize with others. It’s great that these people are optimists, and I’d surely rather have one of them than someone with a sour attitude. The problem is that they’re incapable of providing genuine leadership, so they insist upon superficial displays of ‘happiness’ as a substitute.

    An effective leader would be able to explore why the person is upset. If it is a problem that they can fix, they would do their best to make sure the employee is supported and properly resourced. If it is the employee’s personal problem, they would at the very least offer their sympathy. High-performing organizations are places that care about their employees and help them do their best. Someone who want the *appearance* of success without the investment it requires is probably incompetent and definitely wasting everyone’s time.

  55. Elizabeth*

    I have a mantra that I try to live by–Do no harm but take no shit.

    I think it will serve everyone well if you use it.

  56. Jo*

    Oooh this would annoy me too and I’d feel like saying ‘No, I’m not f***ing fabulous’. I’m quite quietly spoken and sometimes when I speak it comes out as a mumble or sounds like I’m not that enthusiastic about what I’m saying, and one time a manager said something along the lines of ‘Alright Jo?’ And I said yeah and they imitated the way I’d answered and said ‘try to look a bit happier’ in a scornful way. Most people aren’t cheery all the time and we don’t always know what’s going on in someone’s life, so it’s best not to comment! Despite this I’m sure your coworker meant well and didn’t mean to upset or annoy you, she probably just didn’t think about how her comments might come across if things weren’t actually fabulous! If it happens again I would use the phrases Alison suggests while keeping in mind your coworker is probably well intentioned if a bit annoying!

    1. Michaela Westen*

      When I was working for the worst person I ever met, she said to me, “Can’t you act happier and more enthusiastic?” I said, “I’m not a very good actor.” She never did that again.
      She was all about pretending she wasn’t a toxic dumpster fire.

  57. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    OP, when I was just out of college at my first job in a law firm, I got a formal write-up through HR for not SMILING enough as I was walking around the office, in those words. So I feel your pain. When I was younger, I used to get a lot of people, including complete strangers on the street, ordering me to “Smile!” As I got older, it stopped happening, thank the gods. It’s rude and insensitive to do this type of thing.

  58. Southern Gentleman*

    I read this blog almost every day, and I obviously enjoy it. I keep coming back because I learn something new most of the time, but I’ve noticed a recurring theme: People get mad, offended, hurt, so often when other people are just trying to be nice. We can’t ask co-workers about their hair or their pregnancy or why they’re on crutches now when they’ve been in a wheelchair since we’ve known them.
    It is DIZZYING to try to keep up with all the boundaries we’re not supposed to cross. So many people who write/ comment here find offense in the most innocent/ innocuous circumstances. For an older person who has been in the workforce for decades, this really throws off the equilibrium; because you just don’t know what will set somebody off. Moreover, speaking just for myself, I feel like a jerk for saying nothing if someone seems to feel better or look better. But, now, I just don’t do it. Does that make me a better person and a better co-worker? Maybe so.
    I hope this isn’t so far off-topic that the moderator become agitated.

    1. sin nombre*

      We can’t ask co-workers about their hair or their pregnancy or why they’re on crutches now when they’ve been in a wheelchair since we’ve known them

      Sounds like you have been super intrusive with your colleagues for a long time! Glad you’re stopping!

      1. sin nombre*

        in seriousness…I don’t really know what you’re referring to about “asking co-workers about their hair”, but health issues are super personal, and you should assume that if someone wants you to know about their health issues they will tell you, and not that you are entitled to know just because you are curious.

        1. Socks*

          I suspect it’s something to do with black women’s hair, and the growing awareness among nonblack people that we should not get all weird about it (asking if it’s real, commenting on it being ‘exotic’, asking to touch it or just touching it without permission, questioning their decision to straighten or not to straighten it, etc.)? That’s the only hot-button hair issue I’m aware of lately, anyway.

    2. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant*

      It’s not dizzying, as long as you’re capable of stepping into another person’s shoes and reasoning a little bit about how your behavior might make them feel.

      I hope this isn’t so far off-topic that the moderator become agitated.

      That is a weird and uncharitable characterization of Alison you’ve got there…

      1. Socks*

        I dunno if that’s the best metric, just asking people how they think their behavior would make others feel. It’s like when you ask men how they’d like it if women hit on THEM all day, and they respond that they’d be flattered, because they never really get spontaneously hit on at all in real life. Or white people who complain they can’t use racial slurs, because THEY aren’t offended by being called “cracker”. You’re right that this isn’t super hard if you can step into the other person’s shoes, but I think that’s probably where people get hung up; they THINK they’ve put themselves in the other person’s place, but they are clearly missing some key information that would allow them to really understand the other person’s position. The real trick for those people to remember is “whether or not a behavior would bother you, it is clearly bothering this other person, and if you’re not a self-centered jackass, that should matter more to you than arguing about whether or not that reaction is justified”.

        I don’t think I know of a good way to force people to internalize that either, though… I mean, I’ve had that come-to-jesus talk with people before, but only, like, people I knew well. I don’t know how to apply it to random people who think it’s okay to insist that you have a FABULOUS day.

        1. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant*

          You’re totally right that “how I would feel about this” is not necessarily the same as “how Fergus would feel about this” or “how a generic person would feel about this”. I guess you do need Advanced Empathy for that, so maybe it’s beyond the capabilities of our “gentleman” friend.

          So we can start easier, with Jen’s post from above about “are you OK, you look terrible”:

          It’s an excellent example of a series of rude comments that would never have been uttered if Jen’s coworker had thought things through for even a single second.

      2. Undercover Lady Lawyer*

        Never thought of Alison as responding in that manner. Words I would’ve used – calm, measured, thoughtful, reasoned, appropriate. Could be wrong here, but I’m thinking agitated is code for over react (you know, like women folk do).

      3. Ann O.*

        I don’t agree because not everyone wants the same thing. Some people DO want to be asked about their hair when they’ve changed it or their weight loss when they’ve worked hard to achieve it or for their illnesses and injuries to be noticed and commented on.

        There’s often not a one-size-fits-all for behavior and sometimes people are going to get read a person wrong or mix up which person responds best or be opposite of the default culture.

        1. Observer*

          Sure, not everyone wants the same things. But there ARE certain general principles. One of those is that you actually pay attention to the other person.

        2. Michaela Westen*

          You pay attention and try to pick up nonverbal cues. You use what you know from previous interactions to get a feel for how they want to be treated. If in doubt, be safe and try not to cross boundaries.
          If there are urgent circumstances that require moving into sensitive territory, explain why you’re doing that.

        3. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant*

          If you’re excited about your new haircut or weight loss and want to talk about it, you could always bring it up in conversation rather than awkwardly waiting for someone else to bring it up…

    3. Dee*

      People get mad, offended, hurt, so often when other people are just trying to be nice.

      The important thing is not your intent, but rather your effect. “Trying to be nice” is not an all-purpose excuse. I think if you know people well, you have an idea of which topics and comments are appropriate and which are not. And if you’re wrong about that a lot, maybe take a look at your assumptions.

    4. Â*

      Thank you for this. I also read this blog daily, and this evening at dinner – well before I read this post – I was complaining about this very thing to my spouse. I feel strongly that people should treat each other with respect and decency. I want to see a lot more of that in the world, particularly with regard to the racism and sexism that are so deeply embedded in our society.

      And yet… people are individuals. Not everyone feels the same way about every interaction. In fact one person doesn’t feel the same way about things from day to day! On one day the clerk at the checkout counter is a Friendly Banterer. The next day they are an Evil Meanie who failed to notice my internal state. Now I am now offended by their intrusive friendly banter. They should have known better than to interfere in my business, damnit. What the actual F were they thinking?!?!

      People have become ultra hypersensitive. This arises from good intentions: Let’s all treat each other better. I agree, let’s!! But despite those good intentions I think the overall trend towards hypersensitivity is doing more harm than good. We no longer offer people the benefit of the doubt. We expect others to read our minds. If you don’t see the world through the same set of assumptions and understandings as I do, that’s clearly because you’re wrong, gauche, or uneducated – all of which make you an a$$hat and an idiot. We no longer have room for people to screw up and learn from that. We don’t give any credit at all for good intentions. There is little recognition that communication is a two-way street and that sometimes the person on the receiving end also has a responsibility in the breakdown. Sometimes people do indeed take things the wrong way. (I expect I will get handed my head for this comment, but yes, that is an Actual Thing.) This trend towards hypersensitivity is a society-wide thing, and this blog is one place it gets considerable airtime. Not all of the time, but often.

      Don’t get me wrong. Damaging patterns of sexism, racism, classism, heteronormativism, etc. need to be stamped out, full stop. But as a result of our new ultra hypersensitivity, we are actually fighting MORE than we did back when I was a Baby Â. WAY more, for you youngsters out there. Our intentions to treat each other better are noble, but they are leading to divisions, anger, arguing, and bad blood. This hypersensitivity is tearing the fabric of society apart right when we need to be knitting ourselves back together.

      To quote the Dalai Lama, “My religion is kindness.” I hope we can all find a bit more of that in this troubled world.

      TO BE CLEAR: this is *not* about the letter writer’s situation, but rather about the broader social context. Her grandboss sounds like… the opposite of hypersensitive. An expectation of relentless cheer is unrealistic, irritating, and particularly tone-deaf coming as a ‘command’ from a senior manager. UGH. OP, you have my sympathies. A deadpan response and a “Nope, not fabulous today!” will do quite nicely, I expect.

      1. Observer*

        I don’t think you are correct. I’m not sure that we actually ARE fighting more. But, the fighting that I am seeing is NOT about hyper-sensitivity, but about two types of things. One set is stuff that was ALWAYS a problem, but people are finally speaking out about it. eg Women are (sometimes) finally feeling free to push back on the tons of personal comment they get. They were ALWAYS uncomfortable with a lot of them (I know very few women who ever like the constant scrutiny of how they looked and the need to “justify” why they looked “bad”; they just accepted it as the not-great status quo.)

        The other set is people complaining about how everyone is hyper-sensitive, too PC etc. eg All the people who get bent out of shape that they “don’t mean anything” when they use some slur or other. Maybe we’ve gone too far with some of this, but the VAST majority really did need to stop. Sorry, it’s not “needlessly PC” to recognize that it’s not just words like N** and C** that are problematic. But other pejoratives that are heavily gendered, ethnic or historically lobbed at a specific disadvantaged group are also a significant problem. If people stopped arguing about that, it would reduce the temperature considerably.

        1. Â*

          Observer, I agree with pretty much all that you say apart from your first two sentences. I, too, am glad that people are feeling more freedom to speak up about behavior that has never been OK. That is progress! And I firmly disagree with the people who claim all of this is “needlessly PC” – which was not a term I used at any point.

          What I take issue with is how quickly the conversation jumps to anger and vitrol, which I DO see as frequently needless (though not always!), and which contributes to a general atmosphere of divisiveness that is hurting at least as much as it helps, if not more.

          Being a member of two groups that have endured long centuries of abuse, I understand from personal experience the anger and frustration that comes along with having to fend off the daily onslaught of insensitivity and boorishness. And yeah, sometimes we all lose our cool. But losing our cool is becoming the new cultural norm. Blowing a gasket seems to be the new commonly accepted reaction to innocent ignorance as well as intentional idiocy. That’s really not helping us, either as a society or as historically marginalized people.

          And yes, we really ARE fighting more. At least where I live, public discourse used to be a great deal more civil. That civility too often came at the cost of certain groups of people quietly and unfairly absorbing other people’s horrible behavior, and I am glad that pattern is surfacing so it can be disinfected by some sunlight. But that sunlight needn’t be accompanied by storms of fury, and I would argue it shouldn’t be. At least not at the current rate of frequency.

          Righteous anger, appropriately applied, is a critical tool for social change. Let’s not waste it – and risk eroding its value – by invoking it with every minor infraction.

          You are free to disagree, of course. I appreciate your respectful comment. THAT is what I would love to see more of!

          1. Observer*

            I hear what you are saying. But it doesn’t seem to apply to what Southern Gentleman is complaining about. He’s complaining that there are “too many rules” that are “too confusing”. Like “WHHYYY can’t I ask people about their hair. No one used to mind!” Except that people DID used to mind. They just lived with it.

            Sure, blowing him away when he asks “Is that REAL?” or “Can I touch that?” or “Isn’t it a lot of trouble to keep your hair neat?” is not a good idea. But, complaining about how hyper-sensitive people are because they are objecting to is just . . .grating.

            1. Â*

              OMG those kinds of questions are *awful.* I couldn’t agree more. And on some days, you just lose your patience with $–t like that. Rightly so.

              I didn’t read Southern Gentleman’s comment that way, though. Maybe I misunderstood, but I read it more as “wow, I am really walking on eggshells now about exceptionally simple things that used to be normal like ‘Hey, you changed your hair! Looks nice!'” Yeah, I get where some people would find that intrusive, some of the time. Others would find it a way to make friendly, polite conversation. My impression is that’s the level at which he was talking about this.

              I have certainly seen people jump down each other’s throats for less, and I agree with Southern Gentleman that it feels like SO MANY OF US are walking on eggshells around each other now. I remember a time when there was more decency and civility and general daily kindness. And fewer eggshells.

              I read a great article today and learned a term I hadn’t run across before: outrage culture. That’s really what I’m objecting to. The link is in my username. You might also look for the companion article on why this guy (white male vet & congressman) gets a public apology… and marginalized folks so rarely do. Excellent counterpoints in that one if you can find it.

              We’re derailing so I’ll stop here, but not before mentioning how much I’ve appreciated this conversation. Thank you.

    5. Observer*

      Actually, it’s not dizzying at all because it’s not about a list of rules but a very few GENERAL PRINCIPLES.

      1. Never tell someone how to look or feel. It’s never been ok.

      2. Never make comments on how bad someone looks or their (probable) pregnancy unless you are fairly close or the other person has made it clear that it’s OK to do something. This has never been ok. In fact, this was something most of my cohort knew before we got out of High School.

      3. Only comment on the appearance of someone you are not close to if the following apply
      * You can do so in a fairly general way
      * No orders and suggestions accompany it (eg NO to “you should wear that more often.”)
      * In a fairly low key way
      * There is no moralizing
      * No questions other than “Is there anything I can do?” and ONLY if you would actually be willing to do something
      * It’s positive OR the change is fairly drastic AND you don’t pry. eg “I’m glad to see that you’re out of that cast.” or (to take you Wheelchair to crutches example) “I hope that being able to get out of the wheelchair is a sign of good things to come.”
      None of this is all that new. The only thing that is somewhat new here is that more people are actually speaking up about some of the items on the list.

      4. Skip comments on people’s weight unless you are close to them and KNOW that they are ok with it. As with #3, all that’s new is that people are finally beginning to acknowledge out loud how rude it is.

      5. Unless you are close with someone and know that they are open to discussing X, skip specific personal questions. And do NOT argue with or challenge their answer! eg Someone talks about their kid, it’s ok to ask “How is kiddo doing?”. Or a general “Did you have a good weekend?” If someone responds “not so great” you do NOT get to question or argue with them. If you have a good relationship you can provide an opening for them to talk IF THEY WANT TO. I don’t remember a time when this has not been true both in the workplace and socially.

      Yes, I’ve been in the workforce for decades, too.

  59. Southern Gentleman*

    These were real examples from the blog; but, to your point, isn’t there something to be said about working with people every day for years and being interested in their lives? Are you saying it’s “super intrusive” to care about people and ask about major events in their lives? Here in the deep south, that’s just a way of life. We’re not a bunch of soulless robots.

    1. Amber Rose*

      If they have shared a specific event with you, then they are opening the door to you inquiring about it in the future.

      If they haven’t shared with you, assume they don’t want to.

    2. The Gollux (Not a Mere Device)*

      If you genuinely care about people, that should extend to cooperating when someone says “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I’d rather think about work than about why my feet hurt.” If someone wants to talk to you about their pregnancy or health problems, they can volunteer that in response to “Hi, how are you?” or “how’s your week going?” But those questions don’t demand personal information, the way asking “how did the gynecologist appointment go?” does.

      “Gentleman” has famously been defined as “a man who never offends anyone unintentionally.” If things I’d been doing in order to be friendly and express caring were offending them or otherwise making them unhappy, I’d want to know, so I could change my behavior. (Both geography and gender disqualify me from being a “southern gentleman,” but that doesn’t stop me from being kind.)

    3. Anon for this*

      Honestly? I might be revealing myself as some kind of sociopath by saying this, but I don’t really want people to be interested in my life without a good reason. Discussing my true feelings with close family and friends is quite enough for me; getting all touchy-feely and emotional with professional acquaintances would be exhausting. And I tend not to trust people who I perceive to be pushing others to open up to them prematurely or too much — I’ve encountered people who acted kind and charming in the beginning but turned out to be manipulative.

      If you think you’re close enough with a work colleague to discuss their life events (especially their more painful ones), they will probably tell you about them.

      1. Amber Rose*

        I don’t discuss my feelings with ANYONE. Friends and family don’t even hear much of it. I hate being asked “how are you feeling?” It’s the worst question in the universe.

        So you’re not alone. And I don’t think it’s sociopathic necessarily. Not everyone is super in touch with their feelings, and not everyone trusts others with them even if they are. For all the good people in the world, there sure are a lot of horrible ones.

    4. Undercover Lady Lawyer*

      Y’all, he’s right, here in the Deep South super intrusive is a way of life. Also, endemic “the good ole days.” Bless his heart.

      1. nonegiven*

        *super intrusive is a way of life

        To get more information so they can talk about you behind your back.

        Also southern

    5. I work on a Hellmouth*

      Whoa. Hey. I’m in the Deep South. Please don’t do that. Please don’t generalize like that. People being overly pushy or snoopy in the workplace is rude regardless of region. No one is a “soulless robot” because they try to respect boundaries… or because they HAVE boundaries.

      Also, I think you’re applying a lot of implied draconian structure to what are very fluid things. Some people are delighted to talk about their pregnancy”. Just don’t push it if they’re not. Totally okay to politely ask how someone is doing, totally not okay to push them to give you the emotional response you want. You can see the differences there, right?

    6. restingbutchface*

      Soulless robots = behaving with consideration for other people’s feelings?

      Sir, you can ask nearly anything if you’re kind, curious and willing to learn. The idea that we live in a PC universe where free speech is limited and you have to be careful with every word is just not reality. Look at your president’s Twitter account. Just be kind. That’s it and if that’s impossible, it says more about the person who refuses to try to be kind than anyone else.

    7. Elizabeth*

      Southern Gentleman, I had to respond because…I’m from the deep south too.

      And you’re right, it is a way of life down here to barge into people’s business. But that doesn’t mean it should be.

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pushed to say things I am uncomfortable with because it’s “expected” or “they’re just trying to be nice.”

      And, if you, like myself, are a private person, well then you’re rude and uptight. And you probably don’t go to church every Sunday either.

      It’s just…nauseating. I understand what you mean about not being sure about boundaries, so it’s good that you’re at least aware of that. But don’t assume someone wants to talk to you about something personal just because you care or they’ve known you for a while. Unless they bring it up themselves or they’re clearly very open to the conversation, just err on the side of caution and don’t mention it.

    8. Observer*

      Are you really saying that “ordering people to smile or look cheerful” and “demanding that people be fabulous” actually equate to “being interested in their lives”? I would say the reverse, to be honest. If you are genuinely interested in a non-voyeuristic way, then you do NOT do that.

      Also, people have different levels to which they want / need / can have others “interested” in their lives. There is a LOT more to be said for respecting that, than insisting that everyone needs to know everything about everyone else’s lives.

  60. IrishEm*

    Remember that episode of HIMYM when the gang dissected The Captain’s unerving smile? I do that exact scary smile when I’m having a bad pain day or customers are being little entitled snowflakes :D (I wish I knew which symbol equates to murder eyebrows, because the colon-capital-D is the perfect bottom half of that expression, the way I do it). I love it because I can’t be scolded/complained about for not smiling because my teeth are showing and my lips point upwards at the corners but I seriously look ready to do murder from upwards of the nose. Ah, plausible deniability. I got through So Many Bad Days using that look, including dealing with “You need to smile more” feedback from management and coworkers. Not sure if it helps LW, though, but I definitely empathise.

    As a chronic pain sufferer I get asked as part of small talk how I am, and if the person asking me knows I’m a spoonie I’ll ask them “How am I by your standards or mine?” Because it addresses the fact that they want me to perform wellness and that I can do it but I am tired of it. And that there are different (very different) standards of being fine. My “Fine, yeah,” is pain at about 5/6 out of 10, theirs is no pain at all. Love the double standards of my existence. Maybe you can say something like “I’m fabulous by my own standards”.

    1. Coder von Frankenstein*

      The customary murder-eyebrows emoticon is the greater than sign:


      And that kind of smile is a perfect response to enforced gaiety.

      1. IrishEm*

        Thank you! I wasn’t sure if it was the curly bracket }:) but that seems like a vampire/demon emoticon :D

    1. restingbutchface*

      I’m irritated that I missed this important point and got sidetracked with a debate on how much smiling is appropriate.

      OP, I hope you’re okay, sending you good thoughts.

  61. knitcrazybooknut*

    I like to use the Daria deadpan, and ask, “Excuse me?”

    Perhaps whispering, “Do you know something I don’t know?”

  62. Kathlynn*

    Sympathys, I had an assistant manager tell everyone in writing that we needed to smile, even if we aren’t happy, because it will make us happy. As someone who needs to take medication to feel happy (thanks chronic depression), it really pissed me off. I’m sure I changed it to “look happy” but I did keep from writing my “you’re an abelist ass” rant.

  63. Old Cynic*

    I had a grand boss once who would ask how I am. My usual go-to answer is “good, thanks, you?” He always responded “GOOD?? not GREEEAAATTT?” and my ornery nature started varying my answer from “good” to “meh” to “alright” to anything else I good think of other than “great”.

    It became the highlight of my day for my 5 years there.

    1. VictorianCowgirl*

      When I was younger, I was nicer. Now, this lady would get nothing but a raised eyebrow from me. At most, a quick non-smile, maybe. Probably not.

      Never underestimate the power of the eyebrow.

  64. Quake Johnson*

    Genuine question: Do other people truly have “happy” as their default emotion?

    When you walk down the street, when you’re in a cafe, when you’re in the grocery store, etc… everyone isn’t smiling. Most have blank expressions or neutral faces, so why do some people think telling one other person to smile when dozens of people around them aren’t is okay, or even logical? I don’t get it.

    Anyway OP, I’m sorry your dealing with her and I love all of Alison’s suggestions. I really hope she takes whatever you choose to say to her to heart.

    1. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant*

      I sure don’t. My default is pretty neutral, unless there’s something I’m just so excited about that it spills over into the rest of my day (and that’s just talking about how I feel — an outside observer wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell).

      I’ve sometimes been a bit self-conscious when walking down the street and suddenly remembering a joke — if someone were to see me suddenly smile or laugh while walking alone, it would look a little weird. Like the “Smile!” problem in reverse.

    2. Kathlynn*

      Honestly, there are people who are so constantly happy they creep me out and make me not want to be alone with them. But then my background is not full of happiness so *shrug* and their level of happiness is not the same as say, being happy-content. Or “omg I got good news happy”

    3. Amber Rose*

      I sure don’t. That blank look on my face is because I’m in neutral. Being happy always sounds exhausting, and also kind of crappy? Like, good things happening have less meaning if you’re always in a state of joy. When I look back on like, trips or special events, a good chunk of the memory is how excited I was at the time. If happy is your default, then what makes things stand out anymore?

    4. ThankYouRoman*

      I’m genuinely a happy person. I start most days counting my blessings.

      This was brought around by my dad being diagnosed with cancer, oddly enough.

      HOWEVER I am batshht craycray and know it isn’t the default. It’s my way of fighting periods of deep depression that’s haunted me over the years prior. I do not downplay others natural neutral emotions at any given time.

      I also truly care about others and can tend to feel when others are upset. So the last thing I do is needle them with nonsense. Batshht craycray I tell you.

      1. ThankYouRoman*

        *My dad being ill shook me awake in that “life is fragile AF, I’m not going to waste it, my dad needs me to be positive.” NOT TRYING TO MAKE IT SOUND LIKE I WAS HAPPY HE HAD CANCER!!!!

    5. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      Why do people do this? I can only speak from personal experience, but I was ordered by men to smile frequently when I was a *young woman*, both men I knew and strangers. I was also verbally harassed by male strangers (sexual comments, catcalls, etc.) and had multiple incidents of inappropriate physical touching by male strangers while riding the subway. I was followed by male strangers on the street. So why did this happen? I think you can guess.

    6. Socks*

      I don’t have “happy” as a default emotion when I’m just going about my day (lol depression lol happiness), but I almost always feel genuinely happier when interacting with other people, at least. If I’m talking to you, a random work/cafe/grocery store person, I am probably smiling by default. I smile at people pretty much any time I make eye contact, honestly, so unless someone is actually observing me without me noticing, I AM probably smiling by default. I think that’s probably the closest you’re gonna get to someone who’s happy by default. I just… like interacting with people, generally, and I wanted to provide that other perspective, since you asked- I don’t think that changes anything about the OP or how totally out of line the overly cheerful exec is, or anything.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I like interacting too. However, people who are trying to force cheerfulness in themselves or intimacy with me put me off. When someone I don’t know well, or at all, starts asking personal questions my defenses go up. Why are they asking? What are they going to do with the information, use it to get too close, or manipulate or abuse me? (that’s what I grew up with)
        When I was young I hadn’t been socialized to think I had to be nice to everyone and I’m glad because unless it was a boss, I would run or tell the person to f*ck off. It usually worked!

    7. chickaletta*

      I do sorta. I don’t go around with a grin on my face for no reason, but in general I have an optimistic outlook on life. As shitty as life gets sometimes, I know it won’t last and there’s a way to make it better. I see life as an adventure, and I’m comfortable with change.

      But in my comment below I also mention that my mom wants everyone to be happy all the time, which is highly annoying. I hate that. There are times when I’m not happy, when I hate my life, and when I think other people suck. That’s ok.

      There’s a difference between being happy and telling everyone else to be happy.

    8. Anonymous Engineer*

      My default expression when walking down the street, through the office, in the grocery store is – well, I don’t know what it is, because my brain is concentrating on whatever task I’m working on at the moment, plus probably running through the rest of my to-do list and how to prioritize my day/week/month, oh yeah, Self, don’t forget you told so-and-so you’d do such-and-such, etc. so I’ve never stopped to think about what my face looks like then. Probably looks like “no wonder she’s got all those forehead wrinkles.”

    9. Rainy*

      I have what I tend to refer to as a fortunate nature, and I do tend to be pretty happy as my baseline state (after coffee anyway!). But I certainly don’t expect anyone else to be the same! And being told to perform happiness for someone else is pretty much the best way to make me INSTANTLY FURIOUS. :)

  65. justcourt*

    “I’m a human being, and I experience the full spectrum of human emotions. And my emotions are formed based on circumstances in my life, not the orders of an patronizing, obnoxious, and overly-intrusive boss.”

    That’s what I would like to say, but I would probably say nothing and then internally resent her for the duration of my employment.

  66. ThankYouRoman*

    “Just okay?! Not fabulous!?” can rot right along with “they’re in a better place” when you tell someone a loved one passed away. I’m sick of “good intentions” being treated like they’re still not damaging to others.

    You know what they say about the road to hell being paved with them.

    As a socially awkward beast, you’re social awkwardness is never an excuse to be a flippant Pollyanna. Ick. I’m so sorry, my advice would be to just stonewall the person.

  67. Bowserkitty*

    I’m going back and forth in my mind if this would be something you could mention to your boss, depending on their own level in comparison to this Exec. At the same time, this feels like something you could use one of Alison’s responses to (all fantastic). Sooooo I am a little torn, because while asking your boss could be beneficial, it could also seem trivial to them.


  68. VictorianCowgirl*

    When I was younger, I was nicer. Now, this lady would get nothing but a raised eyebrow from me. At most, a quick non-smile, maybe. Probably not.

    Never underestimate the power of the eyebrow.

  69. Tertia*

    I’d be inclined to go with a blank look and “I beg your pardon?” followed, if necessary, by “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.” But that’s probably not a good option if you’ve shown understanding of the question in the past.

  70. chickaletta*

    Does anyone have parents like this? My mom seems to think that bad stuff only happens in the movies. For example, two weeks after my divorce she asks me if ex husband would still like to come over to their house for Sunday dinners, as if nothing had changed… Took my sister and I years to realize it’s ok to have negative feelings about other people and events in one’s life.

    1. London Calling*

      My elder brother was like that when I divorced my husband. ‘But you still keep in touch, right?’ er no. He had an affair, had the pair of us doing the pick-me dance for 2 years and then tricked me into selling the marital home with a promise of a ‘new start.’ Why ON EARTH would I want to stay in touch with that pustule on the human backside?

  71. restingbutchface*

    I’ve never been so happy to be Northern (English), where “alright?”, “aye, not so bad” is a perfectly appropriate call/response. Frankly, if anyone said they were fabulous, it would be seen as sarcastic or just weird.

    I couldn’t control myself if someone kept pushing me to be overtly cheerful all day. I tend to see this happen more with women too – this is the office equivalent of calling, “cheer up love, it might never happen”, but more obnoxious.

    1. London Calling*

      I live in SE England but I think I’m spiritually northern – my habitual response to ‘did you have a good weekend?’ is ‘yep.’

      1. restingbutchface*

        Good weekend?/yep, you?/yep = perfect Monday morning interaction. It’s just a way of acknowledging we are human beings, if we can do that in five words then boom, we’re all winners, let’s move on.

        I sound so grumpy but I’m not, I just get tired of forced social cheer. Also I am grumpy.

  72. Bookworm*

    I find these overly cheerful, overly positive people really creepy. I’ve had them as bosses and as instructors and they really weird me out.

    There is such a thing as “toxic positivity” and I do think in different circumstances some of these people (meaning the ones I’ve dealt with) really are only a step or two away from a rampage.

    1. Tertia*

      I find these overly cheerful, overly positive people really creepy.

      It does make one wonder what dark and empty place in their psyche they’re trying to fill.

  73. Not So Super-visor*

    Late to the party, but this reminds me of a lesson that I learned when I spent a semester in Hungary in college. The Hungarian professor went off on a tear about the thing that he dislikes the most about Americans is how fake we all are. If someone asks how we’re doing, we always respond with “fine.” What does “fine” even mean? Surely, you can’t be fine all of the time?? His opinion was that if he cared enough to ask you were that you should care enough to give him an honest answer.

    1. Elizabeth*

      I think I’d like that professor very much, heh, and I’d tell him all about how not-fine I was.

      Unfortunately, here in America, people aren’t genuinely interested in how you’re doing. It’s just a form of greeting, to which you are expected to give a satisfactory response so they can move on with their life.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        I think most of my colleagues would care and try to help if I told them something was wrong. But it’s not worth disrupting them unless, you know, the world is ending.

  74. E*

    Telling people how to feel is wrong, they’re individuals entitled to their own feelings. A more appropriate response when someone says they’re not “awesome” or whatever is to say “I hope tomorrow is better” or something similar. But it’s clear from the initial letter that this coworker doesn’t have a lot of regard for letting folks have a less than perfect day.

  75. Spoonie Life*

    I am in constant pain due to several chronic conditions.

    I would have NO PROBLEM telling a boss like that that fact.

    (It helps that I’m a white male with a professional job and tenure, aka can’t be easily fired, and that my job requires me to rotate to different offices/cities every couple of years, obviously. I know I’m speaking from a place of considerable privilege.)

  76. Retailrat*

    I had one of these in my job, except he was the area manager and so very loud. One day when I was in a lot of pain, had been told some life changing news, had been off sick and was about to have a disciplinary because of being off sick this ray of bloomin’ sunshine decided to shout “Why don’t you smile?”

    So I told him, in no uncertain but polite terms why I wasn’t.

    He came back the week after with a box of chocolates for me and never said those horrible words in my hearing to anyone after that.

  77. Ellex*

    True story: I was walking into a gas station convenience store and was…well, not a in good mood, but not in a bad mood. I wasn’t in any mood, I just wanted some tasty cheap cappuccino from the convenience store. As I was walking in, a guy walking out told me I’d be prettier if I smiled more. I replied, “You’d be prettier if you shut up, but I don’t think either of us is going to get what we want today.”

    Proudest moment of my life. For once l’esprit d’escalier showed up on the spot instead of two days later.

  78. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

    I’m just never particularly cheerful about anything. It’s just not my personality. I’d be highly irritated by anyone saying this to me.

  79. GatsbytheGreatCatsby*

    This happened to me last month. I was in the office the day after my cat died completely unexpectedly and was very upset, though held myself together. My boss and close coworkers knew what happened and were being very sweet. I was at my desk and doing my work when the CFO comes by and launches into “You look so gloomy! Is it because it’s gloomy outside, you’re usually so cheery, come on smile!” and I turn to her and bluntly say “My cat died yesterday so yeah I’m not really feeling like smiling”. Wasn’t my finest moment but tbh, I feel she was being rude too. There’s a way to ask someone if something is wrong without calling them out for not smiling!

  80. Anonymous Sociopath*

    When someone does that to me (constantly, like in the post), I give up and am actually honest with them, but in a contradictory way. Imagine in an overly-cheerful tone, looking someone dead in the eye and saying “I’m completely miserable, thank you! I’m likely to be miserable all week because my life really sucks right now, but until then, I’ll just have to deal with it. What can I do for you?” If I get a response such as, “Oh, it’s not really that bad!” I get very serious and intense and say, “Well, I’m likely to *die* in about (80-my age) years. It doesn’t get much worse than that, does it?” While ridiculous, it completely throws people off, because they stop listening at “die”. They often come back later (because, you know, they can’t help it) with a much more reserved tone. Then, I’ll do the usual such as, “I’m fine” and they’ll take it at face value. If they don’t come back, I approach them (when I’m in a better mood) to repair the damage. YMMV.

  81. Orange You Glad*

    Even if I’m in a good mood, the second anyone tells me to smile or cheer up or something, I will immediately frown and grow upset. It’s a natural reaction I can’t control.

  82. TakingTheFifth*

    Ugh! I work with one of those (and was raised by one). My co-worker also writes cheery phrases from self-help books on post-its and sticks them to peoples’ computers. I just glowered at her until she stopped trying it on me.

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