I don’t want to turn my frown upside down!

The setting: downtown San Diego, June 2001.

I was kickin’ it at a hip little lowbrow art opening, having tagged along to the event with my friend Wendy. About a quarter past midnight, I left the crowded building to search for Wendy, who, I assumed, was outside smoking.

As I stepped out the door, my eyes were anxiously scanning the throngs for Wendy. But suddenly, my view was blocked.

“Hey,” said a male voice. “You dropped your smile.”

The speaker, a short man with a round, bronzed face, stood directly in my path. He pointed to the ground. I looked to the ground—which, incidentally, bore nothing resembling the shattered remains of my smile—and back at the smallish gentleman with a mixture of incredulity and contempt, then went on my way.

Really, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. This sort of thing—guys trying their darnedest to trick chicks into smiling—happens to me with alarming frequency.

It began in my early teens, when I had just left the relatively carefree years of my childhood to face puberty, a time of self-consciousness and general lack of mirth. I’d be thinking serious, inward, why-do-I-have-to-start-my-period, why-have-I-grown-so-much-taller-than-everybody-else, why-can’t-I-fit-in thoughts, and then along would come some guy, telling me to smile.

Visible mirth, I soon found, is not a mandate imposed only on girls in their teens; it continues well into adulthood. In college, my thoughts became less trivial, as well as less morbid, running more along the lines of, “How am I going to cram in the mid-term paper and the demanding job and spend time with the boyfriend?” I’d no doubt walk around with a preoccupied look on my face, not because I was unhappy, but because I was thinking. Thinking serious thoughts.

Oops. Maybe that was my first mistake. I was heavily involved in a thought process, instead of cultivating a nice, non-threatening, cheerful feminine exterior.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an angry man-hater. Most men, I have found, want a woman of depth and substance, as well as of charm. But there are still plenty of guys on the loose who, consciously or not, think it’s a woman’s job to look happy. Why?

For one thing, because male smile-seekers come in various shapes and ages—some are still wet behind the ears, others could be my grandfather—I’m pretty sure they’re not all out to get laid.

Rather, I think that the myth of the cheerful, untroubled woman is deeply ingrained in our culture. Perhaps this Untroubled Woman was more prevalent in generations past, when women had less education, fewer outside-the-home responsibilities and a less complete understanding of the way things work in our wacky world. Maybe, in that more innocent world, it was easier to be the Smiling Sex, sweetly and dutifully tending to our husbands’ needs at the end of the day.

But today, amid college and careers and raising kids, most women have their hands and minds full. Our expressions have grown to resemble the ones that men have been expected to wear all along—ones of absorption in a serious and time-consuming world.

So guys, please stop telling us to smile. Instead, start up real conversations with us—ask us how we’re doing, ask us how are jobs are going, make some casual remark about the weather, whatever. Just understand that we women do not tote our Happy Faces around in our handbags, ready to pull out the smile mask at any guy’s behest. Like you, we cannot be chronically cheerful. Nor do we want to be.