Give Us a Smile? Gimme a Break!

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If working in bars for the greater part of a decade taught me anything, it’s that no one can deal with your Resting Bitch Face.

Originally published on YUPPEE.

If there is one thing that working behind bars has taught me, it’s that I have one of the most miserable faces ever to grace the Liverpool pub scene. I know this, because I am often the recipient of the abhorred “Cheer up love” or “Give us a smile”, regardless of my current emotional mindset.

Now it is not uncommon for me be a bit of a mardy bum at work, but then I am serving drunk obnoxious people, enduring rudeness, nonsensical ramblings and on occasion, sexual harassment, all the while trying to brainstorm the next best selling novel in my head so I might actually escape the hospitality industry some day. But even on the good days, when I’m just going about my business, idling pondering what I might have on my dinner break, even then I get the old ‘penny for your thoughts’ nudge from well-meaning but bloody annoying customers.

By this rule, not only am I miserable looking when I’m actually in a mood, but even when I’m just mulling along, minding my own business, even then I have a face like a smacked arse.

Well there’s a reason to give the punters a smile.

I am sure those patrons who offer up these little comforts and encouragements do so with the greatest of intentions, I don’t doubt it. It’s our natural instinct as decent, good-hearted people, to offer a little reassurance or condolence to someone who looks a little down, or out of sorts. Perhaps if we can raise a smile it will help to lighten the burden weighing down on the poor miserable soul before us. A selfish kind of generosity when you think about it.

Yes, it is a wonderful thing to try and lighten the load of a stranger, to turn their frowns upside down, to somehow give this person a brief glimpse of light in their otherwise moody existence. It is the very least we can do.

And I’m sure at times it goes further than we can ever imagine, sometimes that little pat on the back can be all that person needs to just lift them up out of whatever emotional slump they are in. But sometimes our selfless act of compassion can do more harm than good, you could be just one in a long line of people who this sorry stranger feels obliged to fake a smile for. Because really, they are never compassionate encouragements, they are directions or orders to be followed for your own personal reassurance. “Cheer up” or “Give us a smile” don’t offer any kind of solace, they are harmless little sayings which pile more pressure on the recipient. “Give me a smile to make me feel better”, “Cheer up so I don’t have to look at your sorry state”, “Penny for your thoughts, they can’t be worth more than that”. Whatever the thoughts, if they are heavy enough to weigh on the facial expression of the stranger, it will probably take more than your ignorant attempt at friendliness to relieve them.

Sometimes friendliness isn’t all that friendly.

I have been on the receiving end of such good intentions gone wrong. One long, fidgety afternoon waiting to hear back about my dream job, I had begun to come to terms with the inevitable disappointment that would light up my mobile phone any minute now. So in a bid to prepare myself for the impending doom, I popped down to the corner shop to purchase enough sugar and carb-rich treats to put me into a comfort food coma. Obviously carrying the weight of the regret on my face, the young man behind the counter did his best to raise a smile and bring me a little cheer, full of good intention but with the worst choice of words imaginable.

Here was I, a basketful of crisps and chocolate, nursing the disappointment of losing out on my lucky career break, coming to terms with the loss of an opportunity and still clutching at the pipe dream that the call might still come, the dream job could be mine, and in the depths of my despair, this good-hearted man offered me the kind words he hoped would put a smile back on my sorry face.

“Don’t worry love, it might never happen.”

I gave him a smile and got out of there as quickly as possible.

I got over the job in a few days but every time that guy bags up my hangover supplies for the weekend the same sharp sting of regret comes flooding back. That guy will always be the bad omen that came before the inevitable rejection call.

In my current bar job, thankfully,having a smile plastered on my face is not mandatory, it is quite acceptable to feel down or tired or bored or disillusioned if that’s how we’re feeling, as long as we’re capable of doing our job at the same time, treat the customers with the same courtesy and good manners they show you, serve them up whatever particular poison they need to bring down their own inhibitions or numb them from the weight of whatever burden they happen to be bearing at the time. As bar staff we know not to pry into the private lives of our patrons, don’t delve too deep into the lives of others, you’re not a counsellor or a therapist, you are there to serve drinks, put money in the till and make sure nobody drinks themselves into oblivion.

I’ve worked in other bars, where the smile is an essential part of the uniform, where you must leave all personal grievances at the door, it’s how a lot of businesses operate. You must be professional, you must slap a smile on your face and take on the emotional detachment of a robot. You must shelve all your own concerns or worries at the door in order to make room for those of the customers you serve, you must listen to the grievances and lifelong hardships of your patrons.

Forget your own broken heart to soothe the ego of the the rejected lover.

Bury your own career ambitions to reassure the long-term unemployed of their professional futures.

Ignore concerns about your own health or that of loved ones to pat the back of the chronic alcoholic nursing his seventh whiskey of the afternoon.

When you think about it, it is a very strange thing to ask of someone working on minimum wage.

So before you generously offer that sad looking stranger a joke or a cheery encouragement, think about the words you might use, imagine how you might take them if your head was in some dark or moody place. You might find those words could do more harm than good, that the kindest thing could be to say nothing at all, the merciful thing might be to act as normally as possible, with courtesy, respect and appreciation.

The easiest way to raise a smile is to wear one yourself.

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