Smiling A Lot

I smile a lot.

People say I have a beautiful smile.

I smile all the time. I smile when I’m happy, when I’m thoughtful, when I’m stressed out. At work, I can be seen pushing the crash cart down the hall with a huge smile on my face; some people say I give them a serial-killer vibe.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my smiley nature when it dawned on me: smiling under stress–that’s a thing. It’s called fawning.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a woman gets approached by a strange guy on the street who starts complimenting her and asking her to go out with him. The woman does not like it. Her heart rate goes up and she wishes he would go away. What does she do?

She smiles.

She nods politely and says, “You seem like a nice guy but I have a boyfriend.” Or she gives him a fake number. In any case, smiling does not mean she’s happy; it means she’s fawning.

Fawning. The fourth not-as-mentioned stress response, the one that is not fight, flight, or freeze. Fawning is described as, “trying to gain favor by acting servilely; cringe and flatter [or] to show affection in a solicitous or exaggerated way.” [1]

Smiling under stress. We all done this. It’s necessary to smile and nod at work when forced to put up with difficult bosses and clients. We fawn at home because grandma is eighty-three, it’s Christmas and she just doesn’t get political correctness or that it’s not polite to ask people about their weight. The necessity of keeping your job and maintaining deference and respect for elders is more important than the momentary discomfort which fawning causes.

I think being a women has influenced me to smile more. Thinking about the people in my own life, fawning seems to be common with women than with men. I think that as women we fawn because a part of us senses that a man is physically stronger and is more likely to prevail in a flight or fight situation. Or maybe it’s because we live in a culture that constantly tells women to smile.

Smile! Just smile! You’re prettier when you smile. Smile regardless of how you are actually feeling. It’s easy to imagine how this could cause an emotional disconnect between how a woman may really feel and the message her face is sending. Do it often enough and smiling in stressful situations becomes a habit.

Is there anything wrong with fawning? Well, it has its advantages. Get good at it and others think of us fawners as the peacemakers who establish a comfortable and welcoming environment.  For me, working as a nurse, staying calm and smiling has allowed me to accomplish life-saving tasks in high-stress situations.

On the other hand, fawning too much leaves us fawners vulnerable. We’re essentially everyone’s doormat. Others may see us smiling, think we’re okay and carry on with whatever they’re doing. We focus our energy on making other people happy often at the expense of our own happiness.

Is this behavior serving me? I’ve thought as much and I’ve found that in most cases the answer is no. There are some exceptions such as certain relatives on special occasions or when my job occasionally demands it. Otherwise, I’m going keep in mind that fawning should be the exception and not the rule. Why? Because we all deserve a life where most of our smiles are real! Rather than fawning, we can be tactful and respectful while speaking the truth.

Pete Walker, “Codependency, Trauma, and the Fawn Response (Jan 2003).