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Smile, Smile, Smile! But Why?

We are subjected to constant demands to keep smiling. Why?

by Stephen Shenfield



2 min read

We are under a constant propaganda onslaught to keep smiling – or, in fancier language, to maintain a “positive outlook”. TV gurus and song lyrics drum the demand into our heads, and we echo them, telling ourselves things like “Mustn’t grumble!” and “Look on the bright side!”

The “keep smiling” agitprop goes back a long way – at least a century. In 1914 men were marched to the slaughter like docile lambs to the cheerful strains of Pack All Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile! And in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, another hit snarled: Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!!!

Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People appeared in 1936. His first two pieces of advice were: “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain” and “Give honest and sincere appreciation.” How can you always be honest and sincere if you have to be appreciative, whatever your true feelings may be? Don’t ask me!

The entertainment industry is celebrated as the pacesetter of nonstop smiling in the Irving Berlin song Theres No Business Like Show Business

There’s no people like show people. 

They smile when they are low.

The second verse elaborates: 

You get word before the show has started

That your favorite uncle died at dawn.

Top of that, your ma and pa have parted

You’re broken-hearted, but you go on.

From this I infer that you might be let off smiling duty if a parent rather than just an uncle has died. You might get a few days’ “family leave.” But when you return your smile must be firmly back in place.

Besides show business, smiling is a condition of employment in all service jobs involving contact with the public (and to a lesser extent in many other jobs). A waiter, air steward, hotel receptionist or croupier, for example, is expected to keep smiling, however irritating, rude or unpleasant a customer may be to him or her. “I am just not as good at faking that smile as I used to be,” bemoans one service worker. So why do we have to smile?

The song lyrics don’t really explain. Smiling is simply required by fashion:

Don’t start to frown; it’s never in style…

Just do your best to smile, smile, smile!

We are also told: “Smile and the world smiles with you.” In other words, look unhappy and the world will give you the cold shoulder. I suppose it’s true to some extent: I have enough troubles of my own, thank you, don’t burden me with yours! But what does that say about our way of life?

One curious rationale for smiling is the “urban legend” that more facial muscles are used in frowning than in smiling (exact figures vary). Smiling saves effort. According to Dr. David H. Song, the claim is false: a smile uses 12 muscles, a frown only 11 And exercising as many different muscles as possible is supposed to be good for us, isn’t it?

If you take Dale Carnegie’s advice and “don’t criticize, condemn or complain” about anyone or anything, then you will never develop a critique of the social system or an aspiration to change it. Ultimately, I suspect, that is what the smile propaganda is about. It serves the interests of those who do not have much to complain about themselves but who are natural targets of others’ complaints. That means: the most privileged and powerful section of society.

Tags: show business

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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