I’m developing a new smile. That sounds odd, but I am. It’s designed as a defence mechanism, if such a thing can ever be designed. It’s a shield, behind which I can hide. You see, I’m not the smiling type, usually. I have the kind of hangdog expression which makes people scared; it makes people think I’m angry (usually with them, I find); it makes people come up to me and tell me to cheer the fuck up.
I’ve coped with that for more than thirty-five years, so why the sudden change? I think the problem is that I am coming in to contact with more and more people – even though I now work in an office populated by me, a very cool model of Iron Man and a collection of Doctor Who memorabilia. I used to work in a building with lots of people who knew me; now I have to start from scratch every time.
The fact is that I am now an adult, with children and the like, and that all puts me in the same room as other people, each with their own responsibilities. In the past this didn’t come up, so I was able to happily sit in my bubble of not looking too happy. No longer. I have been stripped of the anonymity of youth, to be plunged in to a world where people need to know who I am. That means my face.
I have come to the realisation that I am a prickly bugger who rubs everyone else up the wrong way. And that’s nice, clearly. I’m pretty sure that I used to be seen as friendly and helpful; I’m pretty sure that people used to be happy to see me; I’m pretty sure that now I am nothing more than a black cloud, which people run to avoid. The fuckwits out there seem to smile a lot, so why not give it a go?
It came about as a response to the mothers on the school run – the fathers don’t get involved – and it became a bit of a comfort. You see, I don’t feel particularly welcome on the school run. It feels to me like I’m a bit of an outsider, whom people cannot stand. I dress in black, I have a dour expression on my face. I drop my daughter off, and then I put in a pair of headphones, and go. I do not socialise, partly because I have no idea how to do such a thing. And partly because I have to get to work.
I have to fight my way past the gathering crowds of people having their post drop off chats, walking slowly and stopping me from escaping. I have to keep a smile about my lips for fear of seeming like I am annoyed that they are causing a public obstruction. I really do need to get to work today, OK?
It saves me showing what I really mean. Heaven forfend. I feel nothing but fury and contempt, which are dangerous things to share. Apparently. It feels like the smile is the cork stopper which holds in my bottled up hatred and insecurity. If I have a smile on my face, there is less chance of it all being released in an uncontrolled manner. The problem comes when I have to release that fury. Last week I kicked a wall, and was shocked at how much it shook. I won’t be doing that again any time soon.
I get the impression I am not well liked. I always have. It may be paranoia on my part; it may be the looks in people’s eyes; it may be self-inflicted, caused by my own behaviour. I really don’t know.
I feel that it is not just acceptable to be angry, but that it is normal. The problem is that I have been led to believe that I am not behaving in a socially acceptable manner by being publically angry. That makes me angrier, it has to be said, so I am trying to swap the anger for a silly grin, reminiscent of the look of a concussed nun. I’m not sure how well it’s working, if at all, but it gives me something to concentrate on while I am going about my normal angry business. I just want to get out painlessly.
People cannot hold me in as much contempt as I perceive. I imagine that they barely notice me at all, as I often barely notice them. We all have so many things going on; so many things to distract us from the people around us, that we don’t have time to pass judgement on every passing weirdo.
Example time: When it comes to customer service, when I am interacting with staff who are serving me in shops and restaurants and the like, I am cheery and respectful, and so I get good service. Or, at least when things go wrong I am treated with good grace. I know people who at oddly sunny all of the time, except for when they have to deal with people serving them, when they’re downright rude. These are the people who get free food. I can smile to one group of people, so why not another?
I suppose one of them is a specific social situation where I want a positive outcome – a good meal, or a smooth shopping experience. The other one is my day-to-day existence: I don’t want to have to put on a facade for my day-to-day existence; I have too many things to get done. All I know is that a defence mechanism has started to form, and I cannot decide how I feel about it at all.
The sensation of feeling disliked by everyone reminds me of hiking as a child. It wears the skin away like a welly boot chafing the leg, once the sock has sunk down to the toes. I want – need – to get the sock back, but it’s long gone now. I suppose I’ve been walking for too long: the chafing has begun to get unbearable. I know that I have a long way left to walk, and that I need to take remedial action, lest the blood start running down my leg.
The smile tries to cover up the area where the chafing has led to bleeding, but it is only a sticking plaster, and the chafing spreads so easily around it. I don’t know what else to try: I’ve tried crying and I’ve tried screaming, and that has led nowhere. Perhaps only a suit of armour will do.
If I know I’m about to have a tough time I like to put on a favourite t-shirt – my partner reminds me that I am not allowed to wear my very favourite, a Nine Inch Nails shirt, beyond faded and covered with stains, so that’s that – which depicts a band, a film or a concept, resonating particularly with me that day. It provides me a sense of comfort, but it only acts inwardly: I know it’s there, and it gives me strength. I suppose the smile is the inverse of that: banal, family friendly, but a cold hard barrier.