The other day, a regular patron came up to me at the desk.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Let me see that smile.”
I get this line from this man a lot, and sometimes I’ll laugh it off, but today I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it’s the increase in casual misogyny I’ve experienced lately, but I just did not want to do that.
“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked.
“Let me see that smile.”
This is the point where in the past I’ve smiled a little because it gets him to go away, and really, it doesn’t do me any harm, right? But not today. Today I gave him a deadpan stare for several seconds.
“Okay, or not,” he said, and walked away. Like I’d denied him something he deserved.
And for several minutes after that, my thoughts spiraled. Should I have just smiled? Would he complain to my boss about the rude customer service he received? Never mind that he (and many others, but that’s a story for another post) makes me incredibly uncomfortable throughout every exchange we have. It was only a smile…
Except, here’s what I wanted to say to him:
“Sir, my job is to help you conduct research; help you find your next great book, movie, or CD; and help you use our computers, copiers, and scanner. If you have a question about any of those things, I’m happy to help you. But my job is not to perform for you. And I’d appreciate it if you treated me with the respect of a professional whose job it is to help you in a courteous manner, not to look or act a certain way for your benefit.”
But I like my job, and I like having a job, and I can’t come up with responses like this on the spot. (It’s why I’m a writer. I’m much better when I have the time to sort my thoughts out.)
So, okay, this is just another story of casual misogyny in the workplace. Nothing new or extraordinary. And that’s the problem. This happens all. the. time. And every time we give in so he (or she, though it’s most often he) will go away, we’re telling him that he can do that. That it’s his right to demand we smile for him.
And as long as we keep smiling on cue, we’ll keep being asked to do so.
Lest you think I’m a cold-hearted jerk (or any of the stronger language Internet trolls will use to describe women who ask to be treated with basic human decency), I’d like to think I’m pretty pleasant. My managers and co-workers would tell you I provide excellent customer service. But being asked to smile (or being called “sweetheart,” “darling,” etc.) makes me want to scowl and tell them I’m not their sweetheart/darling/etc.
I don’t have a neat conclusion to this story, except to say that I’m tired of smiling on cue, and tired of worrying I’ll be viewed less favorably by my employers if I stand up to this kind of treatment.
Readers, I’m sure you have experience with this. How do you handle casual misogyny in the workplace? I welcome your thoughts, stories, and civil debate in the comments.