Upon my arrival in the United States from Nigeria eleven years ago, I noticed something rather peculiar about Americans. They always smiled. At first, I found it alarming that strangers would smile at me for no apparent reason. But I soon learned that Americans smiled quite effortlessly because theirs was perhaps the only country where the article of their liberation included the right to the pursuit of happiness.
Had I left Nigeria for New York, or some other New England state, my experience might have been different. But I came to Atlanta, the home of Southern hospitality, where your smile has to be as sweet as the tea and your disposition as light as biscuits.
The first episode of someone smiling at me for no reason at all occurred one afternoon at the grocery store. As I walked in, a lady made eye contact with me and just began grinning widely. I did not know how to respond, for it was an awfully awkward moment. Was she smiling at me lovingly as she would her child or was she mocking me with her smile?
A few months after being in the United States, I began working at my first job as a cashier at Target. My red Abercrombie and Fitch polo shirt and my Gap khakis made me look every inch the American, but there was something missing. It was not so much in my looks, but rather my disposition. Three months after working at my job, I received a review from my supervisor which was otherwise stellar but for one single line that read something like “Improve on your smile” or maybe it was “Learn to smile at customers.” The response to the unfavorable evaluation I received was a crying bout that lasted for almost half an hour in the store bathroom.
After the incidence at work, another occurred at my church. I was walking down the aisle after depositing my offering at the altar when the youth Pastor and his wife, both Americans, began gesturing at me wildly to smile. I am not exaggerating, for they were almost falling out of the pews. I was wounded and mortified. I wasn’t angry or in a bad mood that day, I just wasn’t accustomed to walking around smiling like a goof ball, especially when solemn music was playing in the background. Smiling unnecessarily was the domain of jesters or fools, who had nothing better to do than grin like the Cheshire cat all day.
In her book, “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World,” Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switch,” explores the folly of the American culture of cheerfulness and positive thinking. Ehrenreich discusses her diagnoses of breast cancer in 2001and her subsequent induction to the sorority of pink ribbons and bunny rabbits and incessant admonishment to put on a happy face and just be cheerful. Ehrenreich launches a full attack on the cult of cheerfulness in America where positive is seen as normal and any deviation from the norm is malign or un-American.
In all, Americans are by far the most cheerful humans on the face of the earth. From birth, they are told to smile, have a positive attitude, and are indoctrinated with upbeat slogans that are much a part of Americana as cheeseburgers and baseball. The culture of cheerfulness that’s born in the homes and stirred up in the schools is carried on to the work place where employers constantly encourage their workers to be pleasant. They are reminded to smile, to look cheerful and to always have a “can do” attitude. Nowhere else in the world is the doctrine of cheerfulness expounded as it is in the United States. There is no room for the curmudgeon here. America is the land where everyone smiles because we are all so elated we cannot hold back our contagious joy. For we have learned that when you smile at the world, the world smiles back at you.
America’s rabid obsession with insipid optimism is even immortalized in popular culture. The most popular icon of the movement is the yellow smiley face designed by Harvey Ball in 1963. Ball never patented his idea, thus forfeiting the cash cow it would become. However, in the 1970s brothers Murray and Bernard Spain, looking for means to make some quick cash, borrowed Harvey’s smiley and added the phrase “Have a happy day,” creating a revolution of sorts. The phrase would change over time to read “Have a nice day,” becoming the slogan for a nation that was mired in racial turmoil and fighting a war in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, the hot pursuit of happiness and cheer sadly belie the statistics and polls that find the United States bringing in the rear on happiness indices. While it may be easy to discredit these indices for not being thoroughly based on scientific evidence, the sales and prescriptions of anti-depressants and levels of violent crimes shows that the positive thinking campaign may be falling on deaf ears. By contrast, Nigeria for all its instability and discouraging development indices once took the top spot as the happiest country in the world.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard taking inventory of the omnipresent culture of happiness in the United States remarked that, “whether I am right in all this or not, they certainly do smile at you here, though neither from courtesy, nor from an effort to charm. This smile signifies only the need to smile. It’s a bit like the Cheshire cat’s grin: it continues to float on faces long after all emotion has disappeared.” Baudrillard’s observation is quite interesting, because the smiles I received were sometimes juxtaposed against contradictory behavior. The same person who smiled at me was the same individual who would be really stern and sometimes downright mean, lending credence to Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet, “A man may smile, and smile and be a villain.”
Interestingly, the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, the perfect paradigm of a self-loather, would list the song “Smile” made famous by Charlie Chaplin as his favorite. The chorus of the song, “Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking, when there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by…” are outside of the realm of common sense, for it ignores the idiocy of its instructions, because the sky could indeed be falling over your head. So, is it probable to assume that Jackson might still be alive if he had found an outlet for his emotional disturbances rather than hide them behind a dubious smile?
Nonetheless, after a decade of living in the United States I have become infected with the cheerfulness bug and find people who don’t smile disturbing. Recently, my sister showed me a picture of a friend’s two-year old niece and at once, I made a comment that she had grown out of her good looks and would have look prettier if she had been smiling. Perhaps she had not yet learned to say “cheese,” ensuring that her smile was wide, barring those pearly whites.
Just last week, I went to an Asian grocery store in my neighborhood to return a rotten bag of mussels I had purchased earlier. I left the store feeling slightly irritated until I walked by an old Asian lady who I believe had just made the trip across the Pacific to a new life in the Americas. She looked quite unhappy as she trudged behind her family, seemingly lost in this new sea of red, white, and blue. So, for my personal fracas with the so-called culture of cheer, imagine my surprise when I made eye contact with her and then ensued to do what I believed was the most American of all behaviors. I smiled.