nobody said you need to smile
On the whole, I'd have to say I'm a fairly happy person. Scratch that. I'm an expressive person. It doesn't take a lot of effort to know how I'm feeling, as it's usually written right across my face like a human emoji. Seems pretty normal, right? That's what I thought too, but after I lived abroad, I realized that smiling and how we convey emotion is heavily influenced by local culture. I'm not saying that people aren't biologically hardwired to smile when they're happy, I'm saying that people can feel those emotions, but there are different rules about when, where and with whom we express them.
Coming from the Midwest, it's common knowledge that you smile and say hello to every person you pass on the street, regardless of how you're feeling. And if you don't, people assume you're cranky or antisocial or something is terribly wrong with you. I'll admit that there have been days in the friendly aisles of my local grocery store when I've smiled and greeted someone even though I really didn't feel like talking to people that day because that's just how we do things here. Just smile through the store and then when you get to your car, you can scowl and huff all you want... until you meet someone at the corner of an all-way stop where you'll then smile and wave.
When I studied abroad in Prague, I quickly realized that was not how much of the rest of the world operated. Most of the Czech people I saw in the city adopted a similar neutral or even slightly angry (to an outsider) expression that we here in the States affectionately refer to as "RBF." I'll let you fill in the acronym yourself because we don't swear on this blog. Very rarely did I see people smile at or greet strangers. It turns out that smiling at a stranger roughly translates to a flirtatious gesture that says, "I think you're cute, let's get a cup of coffee," rather than, "Good morning, it's nice to see you, even though I don't have a clue who you are." Obviously things are a little more nuanced than that, but you get the gist. Talk about culture shock. After a few weeks of awkward encounters and irritated looks, I finally got the memo.
Though it was definitely off-putting at first, I grew to love the concept of RBF as a national facial expression. Especially as a woman, I feel that I have to be friendly to everyone simply because I'm in public. Going to Prague made me realize that I can still be respectful to those around me while having a healthy boundary-- and saving time by not talking to people I didn't know and wouldn't see again. And by the end of my semester, I'm proud to say I rocked the RBF with a brisk walk all over that city. There was one day when I was walking to class, assuming said facial expression with my sunglasses on and not a soul bothered me. I thought to myself, I've made it.
While it might seem funny, it reminded me on a deeper level to take a step back and be a little cynical before I opened my mouth. I felt like the Czech Republic came to the collective agreement that everyone had to earn each others' trust. Relationships of any kind take work and time and people have to earn what you share with them. Nobody is entitled to what makes you who you are, whether that's your smile, your laugh, or parts of your story. I think there's something really beautiful about how the Czechs reserve expression for those closest to them and how they're willing to work hard for their friendships. And they know that their friendships are authentic because of it.
I think we could all stand to benefit from a little RBF now and again, just as a little reminder to be true to how we're really feeling and to really think about who we share ourselves with. Nobody should ever feel like they have to smile at or greet someone when they're uncomfortable, tired, upset, or really just need to finish their Target run. We need to remember that some things, for the sake of authenticity, should be earned or given carefully. After all, nobody ever said you need to smile.