Column: Badgering won’t bring genuine smile

By MARTHA RASCHE
Special to The Herald

“Are you smiling today, or does the weather have you down?” the customer asks as he approaches your checkout line.

You pleasantly reply that you like rainy weather, so if anything you would be smiling because of it.

For months you had waited on this man — a teacher a couple of years younger than yourself — almost weekly with pleasant banter. But during his past few visits he has made it a point to urge you to smile every time he sees you. Let’s call him Zazz, as in exasperating.

You laughed it off the first few times, but Zazz isn’t letting up.

“The world is a better place if you smile,” he says in a singsong voice.

“And how is the world better,” you wonder to yourself, “because of your badgering?”

For as long as you can remember, you have had two pet peeves. One is someone commenting on your quiet personality. You have never thought that fair, because only someone much more audacious than you would comment on it. You do not have the inherent ammunition with which to fight back.

You tend to listen and observe. Sometimes you attribute that to your large family: By the time the sixth child came along, there wasn’t much left that needed saying.

Those homegrown traits of listening and observing helped you create a successful 25-year career as a reporter. In your second career of helping seniors write their life stories — and making ends meet financially as a part-time cashier — they still serve you well. Remember that.

Your second pet peeve is being told to smile or “Cheer up!”

For starters, your natural resting face is not a smiling one. It is, in fact, what some call “a resting (rhymes with witch) face.” Despite time practicing in front of the mirror, when you smile for photos, they tend to look goofy.

Additionally, only a fake smile can be summoned on demand. Why would anyone insist you put on a phony smile?

A genuine smile involves not only the mouth but the eyes and cheeks as well. You used to perk up and display that kind of smile when Zazz neared your cash register, but now he confronts you from a distance — before you have the chance to rouse your resting face or to come up for air after focusing on giving the prior customer correct change or charging her credit card accurately.

By about the third encounter, as it seemed the newly harassing Zazz wasn’t about to let up, you nicely told him that you didn’t appreciate his comments. You suggested that the two of you converse as you had before. If he just starts talking to you pleasantly, you told him, or gives you an opportunity to transition from focusing on your work with the last customer, you are sure to greet him welcomingly as you did for months before he pre-empted your actions with his criticism.

You felt proud for having stood up for yourself without being at all rude. You didn’t doubt that he would respect your request and you again would look forward to waiting on him.

But the razzing continued. You tried valiantly to ignore it, but you spent off-hours agonizing over a solution. When you worked the register, you were apprehensive and on high alert as you kept an eye on the door.

As he starts chiding you again several visits later, you confide in him that it physically isn’t as easy for you to smile as it is for others. You share that according to your neurosurgeon, your face is asymmetrical, and when you feel like you are smiling, you usually aren’t — because the one side of your face is slightly lower than the other.

Wait — did you just play the neurosurgeon card? Indeed you did. There is no end to the personal medical history you will share if it means putting an end to Zazz’s comments. Surely this is when he will stop the harassment.

(You had to see a neurosurgeon in 2015, shortly after you were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and your oncologist was determining a course of treatment. Given the tumor at the top of your backbone, the neurosurgeon consulted to confirm that your upper spine was stable enough to withstand chemotherapy.)

The next time Zazz comes into the store, he begins the conversation by saying he is going to give up trying to make people smile.

Hallelujah! This is the day you have been waiting for.

He just came from a nearby restaurant and had noticed a longtime employee there not smiling. He brought it to her attention.

As the waitress started to cry, she said to him: “My brother just died.”

“‘I didn’t know,’ I told her. ‘I didn’t know.’”

Zazz says he felt awful.

“You should,” you think.

But what you say, as he puts his change in his wallet, is, “You never know what someone else is going through.”

“Choose kindness,” you think. “Always choose kindness.”

It was a harsh lesson, perhaps, but you are glad he has finally learned it. You silently thank that unknown waitress and say a quick prayer that remembering good times with her brother will bring her peace.

Weeks pass. You don’t see Zazz. You carry on with other customers as usual and note that not only are you pleasant, but you often find yourself laughing and joking with them.

Then one day you look up and there he is again, the third customer in your line. You start to get tense and feel anxious. Then you remember that Zazz said he learned his lesson and you calm yourself down.

You finish with the first customer and move to the second, an elderly man.

While you are keying the prices of the customer’s items, Zazz begins a conversation with him. About you.

“I try to get this one to smile every once in a while,” Zazz says, motioning in your direction.

The other customer agrees that you are not smiling and they discuss you like you are as fair game as the weather.

You are the lead cashier today. The high-school help at the other cash register already has asked for your assistance with several problems. Customers have been checking out nonstop and you have been focusing on getting them on their way quickly. You have been engrossed in your work, and your brow is furrowed in concentration.

Since you are the subject of the conversation in front of you, you interrupt it.

“I tell you, Zazz, you don’t know my story. You don’t know my struggles.”

As you finish waiting on the elderly man, you tell Zazz that had he given you a chance to start a conversation with him, you’d have asked about his vacation plans and then the two of you surely would have smiled about that.

“I’ve been listening to this for more than 50 years. I’m really tired of it,” you say.

“To what?” Zazz asks.

“To comments about my not smiling.”

You tell him again that it bothers you, that you don’t like the topic. You remind him that you’ve explained your asymmetrical face and the physical difficulties that poses.

“I don’t know how I can be any clearer about it,” you say.

You are stewing when he leaves the store. You know you are far from smiling with the next customers as you replay the conversation in your mind and think about what you could have said or done differently.

A couple of hours later, as you joke with customers, you realize you have lightened up. This is who you genuinely are — and naturally would have been with Zazz had he not hassled you time and again.

Fast-forward about 10 months. Your oncologist insists you wear a mask in public all the time now. No one can tell if you are smiling.

If you are feeling depressed, anxious or overwhelmed, help is available by calling Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center at 812-827-6222 or LifeSpring Health Systems at 812-482-4020. 

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Read her blogs at TheseAreOurStories.com. Email her at mtrasche@twc.com.




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