Don’t tell me to smile

One recent night, I arrived at my normal bar-closing shift to find a moderately-packed bar. My friend and volume bartender (the barkeep who stays just until the rush is over) was working on several server tickets, and I noticed a couple that hadn’t been greeted yet. Having had a fine day, I tossed my purse and jacket to the corner of the back bar and laid down some coasters before them immediately. “Hey, folks, have you all been helped yet?” They hadn’t, so before I’d even clocked in, I made sure they were happily provided with drinks, food menus, and I bounced around behind the bar multitasking like a good bar baby should, slinging bourbons and happy hour IPAs just as I’ve done for years. This couple was in a bit of a rush, as they’d informed me they were to see a show that evening, so I made sure to get their tab ready as soon as they were ready to pay. After they’d departed, I cleaned up their glasses and glanced down at the signed credit card receipt to find a measly 8-percent tip and a note at the bottom: “A smile would have gotten you a better tip.”

Naturally, this sent me into a rage, as I’ve had numerous occasions where I’ve been told to smile more, be it on the street, or at work, despite my warm and friendly service (and several smiles, might I add). This type of behavior — whether it’s in person or passively in note with the tip as hostage — got me thinking: When are we, as women, going to be acknowledged as actual humans who have a range of emotions and facial expressions, rather than simply pieces of public property who must pour your beer with a smile and fulfill your desired emotional standards? Where do we draw the line between insisting on proper, welcoming service in a bar and emotional harassment? And would anyone consider telling me to smile if I were a man? “C’mon, darlin’, you’d be so much prettier if you smiled …” Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Let me clarify that there is an industry standard when it comes to proper service. Bartenders and servers should always provide cordial, sociable service with product knowledge, prompt delivery and even hospitable banter, if the environment permits. We are in customer service, I get it. This is why and how we make tips: to ensure that we provide proper service. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see “smile constantly like a fembot” in our job descriptions. That also isn’t to say that we don’t smile. There are awesome days at work when I’m damn near Buddy from “Elf”: “I just like smiling! Smiling’s my favorite!” There are also days when I’m in a great mood, yet I’m focusing on building the perfect Sazerac cocktail or delivering 18 Vegas bombs to the bachelor party at the end of the bar, so perhaps I’m not plastering on a Stepford Wife-esque facial expression whilst doing so. More often than not, men (and sometimes even women) suggest that I must look a certain way and portray a specific emotion because even in 2016, women are still considered public property. These kinds of micro-aggressions establish the systematic nature of sexism in the service industry — we bartender babes can be friendly and smiling, yet if it’s not enough to meet a man’s standards then we’re clearly bitchy, rude or even miserable.

Telling women to smile is a societal issue that goes far beyond the service industry, and women all over the world are taking a stand. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh of Brooklyn, New York, began a traveling street-art project in 2012, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” It addresses gender-based street harassment in mural form — in public, where women are often the most vulnerable to physical and emotional harassment. I asked some of my male friends if they’d been told to smile at bus stops, walking down the street or while lifting weights at the gym? Few answered yes, while my lady friends are victim to such behavior daily — even multiple times per day. A girlfriend picking out tomatoes at Kroger was told, “Smile, it can’t be that bad!” Should she have taken this as a compliment, or a public accosting with a smile? 

I hope I can speak for my lady bartender brethren when I say: I am not complaining about my job. I adore my job and the relationships I’m able to cultivate daily. Believe it or not, this bitchy bartender actually strikes up great conversations with her guests! I’m simply speaking out for progress in hopes that most men (and women) who tell us to smile will reconsider their desire to emotionally project. The evolution and growth needed for a more progressive society takes place in all workplaces, even bars, and you can be an ally by understanding that women are humans and are allowed to experience the spectrum of natural human emotions, even behind the bar. And, at the end of the day, we’re the ones who decide when and if you get another drink. Don’t worry, you can order it with whatever facial expression you please. Cheers!