From the Editor: From time to time Miss Whozit answers reader questions about etiquette and good manners, particularly as they involve blindness. If you would like to pose a question to Miss Whozit, you can send it to the attention of Gary Wunder, National Federation of the Blind, 200 East Wells Street, at Jernigan Place, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, or email me at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. I will pass the questions along. Letters may be edited for space and clarity. Here is the most recent letter Miss Whozit has received:
Dear Ms. Whozit,
I have an issue that has troubled me for years and has recently surfaced again. I have been blind from birth and have never observed the beauty of a smile except when touching the happy, upturned cheeks of a child.
My question, almost too embarrassing to ask, is, how does one appropriately smile? Some would say that a smile is natural, but my experience suggests that this isn’t necessarily so. More broadly, how does one ensure that the emotion felt is being appropriately conveyed visually? Two stories will explain what motivates my questions.
When my daughter was applying to colleges, she was turned down by some and accepted by others. Her SAT score was low, and one of the schools that accepted her did so because she was classified as a minority and did so despite their published SAT score requirement. They followed up with letters saying how they really wanted her to be one of their students and couldn’t wait until she became a bear—their team mascot.
Believing that I should tell her what I thought she was up against, I tried to explain that her low SAT score might mean she would have trouble at this prestigious school. Her answer was, “But, Dad, can’t you see by these letters that they want me?” Feeling terrible and trying to express myself as clearly and sincerely as I could, I explained that the letters resulted from the calculated use of an automated tool and that no one was really sitting down to write with her specifically in mind. As I was saying all of this, she jumped up and yelled, “Dad, why are you smiling? Do you think this is funny?” In tears she ran to her room—almost in tears I sat immobile, trying to figure out what I had done wrong and what I might have done differently. What skill had I failed to employ? I had broken myself as a child of the hand-in-the-eye and the head-down or on-the-desk behaviors because I was told that they were odd or disrespectful to the person I was speaking with. Had I ignored some other advice that might have saved me this smiling heartbreak?
My second problem is much the same and has to do with taking pictures. I am always told to smile, but, if I really try to produce the smile that conveys the happiness I’m feeling and therefore trying to express, I am likely to receive comments like “Now, be serious,” or “When you smile like that, you look like a monkey or a grinning little boy.” Again, what did I miss, and, rather than crying over these problems, how can I learn what others seem to expect as instinctive behavior?
Puzzled but still smiling
Well you do have yourself in a stew. The good news is that I think that your two experiences are manifestations of one difficulty: judging how much and when to smile. The first thing to remember is that human beings fall along a spectrum of how and how much they smile. Some people hardly ever crack a smile, while others smile almost all the time, and the good news is that, as far as Miss Whozit can tell, where a person falls on this continuum has nothing to do with blindness. You may have to ask a trusted friend for feedback about how much you smile, but you can try sneaking up on yourself mentally when you are at rest. When it occurs to you to conduct the experiment, freeze your mouth in its relaxed position, and check on whether or not you seem to have the corners of your mouth tucked up in a smile. If so, you will probably be told that you generally look pleasant or that you mostly smile. If you are among the poker-faced, you will feel it unnatural to contract those smile muscles.
Once you are familiar with how it feels to smile, you can check yourself in serious conversations to be sure that your mouth has not tightened up into a smile. I suspect that your painful experience with your daughter had much more to do with the overwrought emotions of a teenager hearing painful truths than with inappropriate smiling on your part.
If you still lack confidence in your ability to judge the presence and size of your smile, spend time listening to the voices of other people. You can often actually tell from a person’s voice how broadly he or she is smiling. A common piece of advice given to people who talk a lot on the telephone is to smile before picking up the receiver. You can hear a lilt and warmth in the voice of someone answering the phone. See if you can reproduce that lilt while smiling into the phone. Listen to the voice of a person telling a funny joke. You can hear the smile gathering and bursting into a laugh. Listen to people talking with babies. They almost always automatically smile at the baby. You will do so as well if you try talking to a baby. If you pay attention to others’ voices as they are smiling, you will come to understand how to reproduce the various degrees of smiles. You can always check out your impressions with an honest friend. He or she can tell you if you smile appropriately or how to modify your smiling to fit social norms.
As for smiling in photographs, Miss Whozit has observed that many people struggle with artificial expressions on their faces during a photography session. A good photographer can catch you at the moment when you relax into a natural expression. People who do not like to have their picture taken usually fall into this group. Trying to force a smile is usually disastrous. It may be, however, that you will find that all this analysis of degrees of smiles will teach you how to reproduce a pleasant rather than a goofy smile on demand.
You did not mention whether you are totally blind. I suspect that you are and that you may also benefit from considering whether or not you keep your eyes open when having a photo taken. This is a problem for many people, and some totally blind people have simply given up the struggle to keep their eyes wide open for photos. Miss Whozit’s only comment is that having our eyes open during photography sessions makes our loved ones very happy. Learning to do so may be worth the effort.