Why the angry face?

Re-adaptive thoughts of a former emigre.

One vivid memory I have from my working days in America is customers walking by, stating something which to me seemed too personal to be spoken by strangers: “Smile! Why aren’t you smiling?”

Well, I had my reasons for not smiling on some particular days. I wasn't happy to be scanning cereal boxes and bags of potato chips. That could be one reason. I wasn't angry about it, either. My reaction toward my life during that time ranged from severe disappointment and trials of adaptation to excitement about newness and optimism about life in a new country. I think any immigrant can probably tell you they go through different versions of this. I figured it was normal to have facial expressions which displayed this entire range of thoughts and feelings on any given day. So, when my smiling customers would sometime ask me why I wasn't smiling, I would, naturally, get ready to answer them with my - very legitimate -reasons. Until I realized it was a rhetorical question. They didn't want to know why I wasn't smiling. They simply wanted me to smile. In my attempts at adapting to a new and completely alien culture, and trying artificially to be professional, I never said what I really thought during those moments, which if I correctly recall it was something like “I don’t feel like smiling, so I don’t smile. Your constant smile, on the other hand, is weird and empty. Would you mind stopping that?” Of course, I never let these words out of my mouth because, in the end, I thought something that was partly true: “They are only trying to be polite and to create a positive atmosphere”.

Many years later, and only very gradually, I figured out that the “smile” in America is part of business. And there, business is very closely connected to life. So, unfortunately, you carry the smile all day, until you go home where you can – hopefully – be able to frown, cry, or simply be momentarily unhappy or angry. I understood that the culture in America dictates that even grocery shopping is an “experience” and all elements of that experience for a customer – including the young cashier’s smile – are necessary for the experience to fully take place as it ought to. No surprises like the absence of smiles should be allowed. That’s business for you.

fake smile

But I was not raised to believe that emotional transparency was something to be avoided. And, unfortunately for me, transparency works both ways. When happy, your face smiles automatically. Even your body smiles. When angry, the expression is also hardly containable. My parents did nothing to counter this behavior. But, then again, the country and times in which my parents grew up were Communist. You were allowed emotional transparency, but not freedom of speech. That’s Communism for you.

In America, emotional transparency was something that I gradually learned to eliminate. For “Albanian” standards, I think I succeeded. I adapted enough in the adopted country to have a great educational career and many great professional opportunities, things which aren't easy to achieve even for natives. It took me a very long time to understand that “smiling” – or its close sibling “neutrality” – was not a matter of preference, but required. At least, professionally speaking. The client walking by was always looking out for it, the interviewer, the professor, and sometimes even friends and acquaintances. I never took the “smile” to very false levels and certainly not in my non-professional relationships. But, I did become more “politically correct” in a sense – less harsh, more polite, less personal in my conversations.

As I discovered upon my return to my homeland, Albania, I guess I have absorbed a nice dose of that American smile. Now it seems funny that I never quite mastered the right dose for America. Then, no matter how I tried, my mood and emotions were easily readable on my face. I could only make it to a certain point. Where things stopped making sense, my body would react, my blood would flow to the brain, and my face would suddenly turn into a high definition screen of my emotions. I did feel exposed in such moments but I didn't mind. And, with time, I realized that I didn't mind losing in the battle of smiles – or the battle of who is more “ok.” I always thought that one should simply be correct and polite with other human beings. No need to exaggerate. No need to forcefully tell a story with your face. You are not a brand which has made a promise of satisfaction to a customer but a human being, who cannot really make any promises.

I returned to Albania a few years ago with this new knowledge and behavior under my belt (having lived my adolescent and twenties in the US). To say that these countries are polar opposites of one another is not exactly correct, but close. In the U.S., the middle class individual has achieved a certain financial and social status which in Albanian standards would be considered pretty high. In the US, it’s fairly normal to have a car, an apartment, regular visits to restaurants, quality clothes, drinks, nice TV and many other products and services that your heart may desire. In the excessively consumerist US culture, these are not luxurious things, but have become a part of “social survival.” It takes hard work, but it can be achieved. To be perfectly honest, the unrelenting desire for more things, the constant potential of actually achieving them right around the corner, and the achievement going by unnoticed in search for its immediate improvement were things that not only terrified me, but are partly responsible for me leaving the country. Not without first living the American dream…my version is not the white picket fence, but the constant entertainment (shopping, eating out, drinking, traveling, etc) and the simultaneous working/studying experience. It was an experience, difficult but worth it. Yet, it had to end precisely because there was no end in sight. Jokingly, I often equate it to the fun you might be allowed to have if you would make a pact with the Devil. I am Faust, the U.S. the devil.

There, I learned a lot about what “status” really means and the sacrifices it asks of you. In the US, status is a means to a practical end. In Albania, status is the end. (The means to get there are fairly simple in Albania as most are satisfied simply appearing to have it for passers-by in the street). I’m not saying one is necessarily better than the other as, for me, a focus on status, whether for practical ends or not, is generally a mistake, a life lived for the wrong reasons. As Adorno has said “A wrong life cannot be lived rightly”. If status is the objective, your behavior is constantly adjusting to reach that objective and, thus, never genuine.

The big difference, however, between the two countries, is that in the US, there’s a variety of status-holders. There are those who have it and flaunt it and those who have it and hide it. From personal experience, I’ve discovered that the ones who hide it are pretty confident people, a status which can never be achieved by those who flaunt it. I think, clearly, status-flaunters are somewhat despicable. From personal experience, those who excessively flaunt it are never the ones to have earned it. Then again, in a country where the most famous taglines are “time is money” and “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” it is quite difficult for some people to resist. In Albania, we do not have a variety of “satus-ers” We only have one. And, it is the worst. A status flaunt-er who doesn't have status. This may not despicable but it truly is pathetic.

I didn't set out to discover this upon my return to Albania. On the contrary, I was, and still am, full of optimism about my life here. However, I have missed 16 years in the life of this country and that requires some research and adaptation (again!). I did hope, however, that people would have adopted some Western values along with the Western appearance they so willingly and hastily borrowed. Or, that the country had kept its personality intact and not adopted its Western face at all. Either both, or neither. Either option would be fine. But “appearance only” simply makes me angry and I’d rather not look angry and have that misinterpreted too. I think that, when you want to have the appearance of the West, you have to understand what being “western” actually implies.

In Albania, everyone compliments me on my smile. And when my sister joins in, the effect can be almost blinding. I see the reflection of our faces in the eyes of the interlocutor. He/she thinks we must be angels. When my mother joins in, we are the queens of approachability. Shop owners love us simply because we are considerate – i.e. we always pay and we are always polite, we look at them, we smile. In short, we do nothing special. We are not trying to make them like us. There is nothing to interpret, because we are not sending any particular message. The secret: We simply don’t look angry, we don’t sneer. Whereas our angry faces in America were enough to shock anyone around us, our angry faces in Albania are completely and utterly unreadable and inconsequential. And that is because there are a bunch of crazily angry faces walking around these streets. It is quite clear to me now that the distance between not smiling and sneering is quite large.

In Albania, our smiles and polite manners have often earned us descriptions such as “too gentle” and “soft”, “approachable”, “simple”, “naïve” or “not seasoned” to life. I have even heard the word “lost” or “idealistic” coming from people who have clearly never questioned themselves whether they are the ones who may be lost, people who clearly have no idea what “ideals” actually means. Their tone betrays phrases heard by others and simply reused as their own. Yes, we are nice and certainly approachable. We are not what you would call religious but our morals involve being nice to fellow humans. Living in a country such as the US and being in a family with very honest and open parents, made us quite open to a variety of behaviors. Having lived in a very different country than your own gives you a certain distance from where you can see things more clearly. You understand things about your home country and behaviors of people there in a dimension that local people cannot possibly understand, simply because they lack the sufficient distance to see it. Experiences make you suffer, but they really do pay off in terms of the knowledge they give you. So, naïve, lost, not seasoned to life? I don’t think so. What I do think, however, is that ignorance could be the only factor that could lead people to such overly simplistic conclusions – based solely on your smile, or lack thereof. In the U.S. no one thought the smile was actually real – nothing that exaggerated and consistent can possibly be real! But it was a collectively accepted illusion. We all knew, some smiled more, some less. The point is, experience, careful observation of people, and instincts enable you to tell the difference in the smiles and in what they mean.

I began thinking of this particular subject as I walked down the street and three ridiculously dressed girls, either sneered at anyone who passed by or intensely looked straight ahead towards the horizon. In their imagination they were models - sexy like Victoria’s Secret Angels but without their smiling approachibility. Unapproachable, unattainable, superior like high-fashion models but still sexy?! I became curious. What the hell are they doing?

An article did a nice job of describing what I think may be the root of the problem. Usually, the masses function under the assumption that “Lower status individuals appear to smile more than higher status individuals.” So, in order to seemingly belong of a higher status, people who readily take this as indisputable truth, may take up “sneering”. As I read this, I realized that perhaps people in Albania have not gotten as far as analyzing what they are doing. Most Albanians simply don’t have the tools to interpret and analyze, and the knowledge to accurately interpret each different smile, or any facial expression which is not glaringly obvious. In a town with a variety of only four facial expressions, looking at nuance in smiles is too much to ask. If you’re smiling at all, it’s sufficient information to label you a “polite” person, "cultured", one with "manners". If you are laughing loudly, you’re "showy", "wild." So, the job is easy for the interpreter and the interpreted. You know what signal to send and it will be clearly received. If you sneer, you must be hiding something worth discovering.

So, I come to terms with the fact that many of those who like me because I smile see me as approachable, because with the smile you are directly telling them you are not superior, and they are not inferior. And people like you for being nice, but do not respect you as they would if you "sneered." Some, may even go as far as thinking you are trying to please them, therefore you are inferior. In Albania, if you are smiling too much, you are merely “acting” happy, faking enthusiasm. If you are smiling at all, you are a people pleaser. If you “sneer”, you must have money, or a nice car, or at least a boyfriend with money. It’s not a logical sequence but I’m fairly sure, this is the actual sequence. In short, simply “being considerate” is out of the question as an explanation.

I took my newly found “angry face” theoretical question along on my mini research journey to find out why Albanians avoid smiling like the plague. I did not consider reading about British royalty – an anecdotally smug group of people with effectively royal “status” who tend to frown – as there is no connection to be found between them and Albanians, although some Albanians would desperately like to think so. Not surprisingly, I did find some answers while reading about catwalk models.

The smiling faces of the models for the lower priced brands are simply conveying information regarding the social status of the brand image, rather than attempting to make customers feel better. Sometimes the advertiser must make a trade-off between advertising high status and presenting an emotionally positive image. Thus, the non-smiling faces of the higher status brands are not trying to make the consumer feel bad; they are simply attempting to display the signals that are associated with higher status. We liked Elvis even when he sneered at us from the stage because the contemptuous sneer is typically produced by individuals with higher status. Although we don’t generally like contemptuous individuals, most folks admire higher status individuals and want to be around them. Thus, the irony is that higher status brands are creating a positive image -– high status—by using a negative signal (lack of a smile). If a model is scowling or looking far away in the distance, it’s supposedly ‘enigmatic’ or ‘mysterious’ which presumably creates a story in the viewer’s head which is more the aim rather than just getting the viewer to ‘like’ that person or product.

In a town where young girls watch a lot of fashion TV as they’re drinking coffees, it all makes sense. They copy that behavior without actually being able to even closely take part in that kind of life. This was a revelation. So, these girls that stomp as they walk, give you a quick yet intense glance when they catch you as you have turned your gaze toward them accidentally (something I cannot imagine how they do for men), are not asking for angry sex. Until now, I really was not sure how to interpret this psychotic need to be noticeable, to be a almost unrecognizable mish-mash of all things but “unnoticeable" or "neutral” - distant, deep, mysterious, angry, sexy, everything that slaps you in the face with the message "unattainable". The problem is the message is far from the truth.

To the extent that direct gaze and smiling represent the desire to please, the larger and more attractive you are, the less you are prone to try to please. In other words, all of this is the old “playing hard to get” routine — if you are playing hard to get (by not smiling and/or by not looking at people directly) then this sends a message that you must be worth pursuing.

So, why the angry face? These girls are not so angry that they are going to slap the man walking past them, although they really do look that angry. No, they are simply affirming a “status” they don’t have. They are high-maintenance, hard to get, upscale girls. And that kind of girl frowns, sneers. She does not notice you while she is putting this show for you. I wouldn’t mind it so much if only maintenance, hard-to-get-ness, and being upscale would all be at least a little true. But, there’s no trace in sight of either of the three.

In the US, the angry face would seem snobby, unhappy, strange, aggressive, even psychotic. There, extreme feelings are, generally, well-hidden by a smile in daily life. In Albania, the angry face - not the smile - is the shield of choice. For some, it may be actual anger. But, many use it to send the signal of confidence, status. The overly simple minds which are not properly trained at interpreting these glaringly obvious theatrics, allow this circus to continue. A child..no, a baby, can look at an “angry” face and get its literal message. An adult should be able to interpret it. Just as they should be able to interpret a smiley face. It’s not smiling because it’s stupid or naïve or spoiled. At least, not always. It’s a matter of interpretation, an ability which any person should want to develop. I’m sure that my face is smiling because it actually learned a long time ago that some things, such as superficial encounters, are easier when you smile and walking down the street without an angry face makes it a more pleasant experience for everybody. I won’t go as far as smiling, but I can venture to say that not looking angry can be good for any kind of relationship.

Do not get me wrong. I hate false smiles – and false people – and am the first person who usually feels nauseous when I encounter them. But my severe antipathy of falseness extends to false anger as well, and its pathetic attempts at depth or status. Attempts to hide one’s identity and swiftly create one are transparent and off-putting. In an age of excessive exhibitionism, people are prone to do anything in order to get noticed, to get a clear message across in less than 2 seconds - before others stop paying attention. And there are much worse things than smiling/sneering one can do. The smile/sneer is simply an example, which I have run into in my daily life in these two countries. One thing worth knowing is that whatever is done, if not genuine, will be evident sooner or later. So, because it took me longer to realize this before, now my reaction is immediate.

As I felt then - that I should have not been expected to constantly smile - now, I cannot and should not be made to hide the fact that I am polite. If that includes a dubiously interpreted smile, so be it. When the politeness is not returned, my reaction is nothing but false. The anger, then, is real. So, you should do that, if you want to see my angry face. Other things you can do to witness my angry face are false intensity, sensitivity, affection, depth or any other thing which should be genuine to have any worth. Small talk can also make me angry, because it bores me to death if it continues too long. But, one thing you won’t see is my angry face walking down the street. Strangers don’t care if I am happy or angry or trying to make them think I am either. “Presenting” a version of yourself in the street, or in life in general, is ill-advised behavior. You’re not a product or a model on a catwalk. And you are definitely far from British royalty.

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