Phony Smile Ethics

From David Foster Wallace’s hilarious essay in Harper’s about a luxury cruise that did not (exactly) end in disaster:

This is related to the phenomenon of the Professional Smile, a pandemic in the service industry, and no place in my experience have I been on the receiving end of as many Professional Smiles as I was on the Nadir: maItre d’s, chief stewards, hotel managers’ minions, cruise director-their P.S.’s all come on like switches at my approach. But also back on land: at banks, restaurants, airline ticket counters, and on and on. You know this smile-the one that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee. Why do employers and supervisors force professional service people to broadcast the Professional Smile? Am I the only person who’s sure that the growing number of cases in which normal-looking people open up with automatic weapons in shopping malls and insurance offices and medical complexes is somehow causally related to the fact that these venues are well-known dissemination-loci of the Professional Smile?

I too hate the Professional Smile, which is, at its core, a lie. It is a mask, a fake-friendly message that may of may not have any truth behind it, and that at its worst has the frightening menace of  Sen. John McCain or Nancy Pelosi, both of whom specialize in the obviously false grin that has seething anger behind it, the smile that says, “I’m going to put you at ease and then, if you give me a chance, slit your god damned throat.”

But what’s the alternative? As a stage director I am especially sensitive to the pretense of the Professional Smile that Wallace describes, so someone has to be really good, or genuinely friendly, to fool me. Most people, however, are put at ease by smiles, even fake ones, and if the rental car clerk or waitress doesn’t slit their throats, what’s the problem?

A Professional smile is certainly preferable to the alternative, which is often honest surliness, in which a customer is made to feel guilty for asking someone to perform the job he or she is paid for. Surly, scowling service people make all dealings with them unpleasant, and that’s often the objective. I admit that more than once I have stopped a grim and cranky McDonald’s employee or office security check personnel who was acting as if I smell bad (I smell great) and said, “Wait a minute; have I offended you in some way by my existence? Because you’re being openly hostile, and there’s no excuse for it. If you don’t like your job, get another one, or keep it to yourself; and if you’ve got other problems, don’t make them mine. I don’t appreciate it. You don’t have to be Mr. Happy, but the surly act is offensive.”

Sometimes they apologize; sometimes they get worse, whereupon I ask to talk to the supervisor.  It has been said by others, including Captain Call in Larry McMurtry’s “The Streets of Laredo”, but it is true and worth repeating: life is too short to tolerate intentional rudeness, especially from service people.

Given the choice, I’ll take the Professional Smile. It may be dishonest, it may be insincere, but at least it’s civil. Civility, I realize, often has an element of dishonesty to it; it shows symbolic rather than genuine respect. Honesty is telling someone who makes a ridiculous argument, “I really think you’re an idiot.” Civility is saying, “That’s an interesting approach, but I have to disagree. You are misstating some critical facts.” Civility is utilitarian: we give up some honesty to keep the peace and make people feel better.

So smile away, everyone.

I appreciate the effort, even though I’m not fooled a bit.

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