Service with a Fixed Smile
...on the culture of positive thinking
The title of this series, ‘Beyond the Wings’ comes from ‘The Insomniacs’ by Adrienne Rich:
‘My voice commands the formal stage
A jungle thrives beyond the wings
All formless and benighted things
That rhetoric cannot assuage’
I’ve always been interested in things that are unspoken, and maybe even inexpressible. Any semi-competent management trainer will tell you to listen as carefully to what people don’t say as to what they say.
By and large, truth isn’t what people are trying to show you, it is what they are trying to hide. Around the same time as I discovered the quote from Adrienne Rich, I discovered this one from Hilary Mantel: “Truth isn’t pretty, and the pursuit of it doesn’t make pretty people…Truth is squalid and full of blots, and you can only find it in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts, in the cellars and sewers of the human mind”.
Speaking of things that are pretty and speaking of things that often conceal the truth, this month’s topic is the smile. The most iconic smile in history, The Mona Lisa, is not very Instagram-friendly. It shows no teeth or lines around the eyes. Any school photographer who accepted such a poor excuse for a smile wouldn’t be doing their job.
In the early days of photography, it was rare for a subject to smile. There are some prosaic reasons for this: inferior dentistry, the fact that early photographs were modelled on old paintings, photographs were expensive and therefore taken very seriously, and it was important to stay still to allow the new technology to do its job.
That it is now the norm to smile for photographs also shows a change in attitude over the centuries in which happiness, and the expression of it, has gone from being a luxury to a necessity.
The PanAm Smile
The Declaration of Independence of The United States, the country that has ruled the world since the middle of the last century, declares that all men have the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
It is still unclear as to what that entails. The Enlightenment happened around the same time as the country was formed, and old concepts that stressed the importance of earnestness - for example original sin - were going out of style.
By the 1920s, a vast literature was emerging that stressed the importance of being happy. Titles included 14,000 Things to Be Happy About, Happiness Is a Choice, and A Thousand Paths to Happiness.
Psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl observed that in The United States, one was constantly ordered and commanded to be happy. The problems with this was that happiness could not be successfully pursued, it had to ensue.
One of the most striking manifestations of this approach to happiness was the Pan Am smile. During the golden age of air travel in the mid-to-late twentieth century, flight attendants at Pan Am were required to wear a fake smile.
This shows how a culture of positive thinking is often far less about happiness than it is about conformity, giving the appearance of joy rather than feeling it. The toxic effect of positive thinking reached its apex in 2006. Two things happened that year that showed the negative side of positivity.
Insider accounts vary, but according to ‘Smile or Die’ by Barbara Ehrenreich, Lehman Brothers’ head of fixed income Mike Gelband warned his superiors of an apparent real estate bubble. At a bonus review, Gelband told CEO Richard Fuld: “We have to rethink our business model”. The misfit was fired for offering some much-needed realism.
Another thing that happened in 2006 was the publication of ‘The Secret’ by Rhonda Byrne. A worldwide best-seller that was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, ‘The Secret’ typifies the utter pitilessness of positive thinking ideology.
Its claims include “illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts”, implying that those who get ill and die have only themselves to blame. Byrne also says of the victims of natural disasters, “by the law of attraction, they had to be on the same frequency as the event”.
To think that the publishers who spunked this monstrosity into the world care how many lives they ruin with their terrible advice would be a positive assessment. It would also probably be a wrong one.
It’s hard to say no to a smiling idiot
I entered the world in 1984. Just as Victorians labelled menstruating women as ‘hysterical’ and associated grinning widely with madness, the America-led world of the late twentieth century was one that valued the smile.
Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, one of the best-selling self-help books of the twentieth century, devotes an entire chapter to the importance of smiling. In my late teens, I had a menial job in a hotel kitchen where I was often teased for being taciturn. There were two possible reasons why I never had a laugh with colleagues: either I was some kind of clinical depressive, or their ‘banter’ wasn’t funny. Most people concluded that it must be the former.
By the time I was 21, I felt woefully unprepared for the real world. Since I’m nothing if not a creature of extremes, I took a summer job in America selling books door-to-door, for eighty hours a week. The selling was entirely cold and the only payment was commission.
The weeklong training in Nashville at the start of the summer was one of the best experiences I have ever had, full of pieces of wisdom that have served me well. Ideas they instilled included to believe that I and I alone am responsible for the success of my summer, and to motivate with positive self-talk. That is, mutter positive affirmations under your breath every time you suffered from self-doubt.
After being in a moribund, decadent environment at university, the culture of dedication was just what I needed. In the immediate aftermath of the London bombings of July 7th, I had an arduous time getting a sales permit from the authorities in Addison, Illinois, so for the first few weeks had to cycle miles between bits of unincorporated area to make sure I wasn’t breaking the law.
There were other great things that I learned: to always display non-threatening body language; that being pushy always had the opposite to intended effect; that getting dirty looks and worse for doing your job was part of life. In the diner carpark every morning, we were encouraged to perform executive exercises, similar to the New Zealand hakka, to help get used to the hostility.
They also told us that it is hard to say no to a smiling idiot, so be one on people’s doorsteps.
There was one problem with this job. I sucked at it. I’ve never had a booming voice, but apparently, I spoke so quietly I was barely audible. I’m pretty sure around half of my sales were out of pity. No amount of smiling or positive thinking is a substitute for competence.
But never mind. On coming back from America, I did something I was good at, a Master’s in Creative Writing. Since creative writing is one of the few fields in which megalomania is a good thing, I applied the work ethic and the anything’s possible attitude to my studies. At the same time, I needed to get started in the working world, and was acutely aware that all this reading and writing was making me culturally middle class, but providing me with very few tools that would help me become economically middle class.
Through this challenging time, I was in the habit of muttering to myself, a hangover from the positive affirmations I was taught to spout while selling books. Someone who had been telling me my whole life that positive thinking is the answer to everything, kept saying: “Can you please stop talking to yourself, you look like you’re demented”.
This problem of self-muttering, if it can be considered a problem, was caused by positive thinking. But this positive thinker was so concerned with how things look, and so unconcerned about how things are, that I was reminded of a quote from the cartoon character Daria: “Sometimes your shallowness is so thorough, it is almost like depth”.
Happiness is a hound-dog in the sun
Since there was no-one around to give helpful, knowledge-based advice, for my first post-graduate job I took a punt on going to China. It is impossible to say how other decisions might have worked out, but I’m glad it was China I chose.
Of all the languages that can still be considered international, including Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic, and Japanese, Chinese is the most different to English. For that reason, learning it helps dent assumptions that are so deeply held, they are barely conscious.
In the Chinese word for happiness ‘幸福’, both characters usually mean ‘luck’. As a more ancient culture, it acknowledges that happiness is something that happens more by chance than by design.
In ‘Tao: The Watercourse Way’, Alan Watts argues that “(the Western) way of thinking is as nonsensical as an electric current without both positive and negative poles…the disappearance of either would mean the disappearance of the system’.
Throughout my twenties, I tried to use the disciplines I learned while selling books in America while shedding the more damaging legacies. The most damaging thing was of course positive thinking. Positive thinking encourages people to bury negative emotions, rather than have the courage to introspect and address them.
In ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, Alan Watts adds that to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness.
Anyway, when you think about it, you’ll probably find that everybody who has ever asked you to smile against your will has either been some soulless corporate dullard, or a sex pest.
The thesis for my Master’s degree was a novella which begins with the female narrator flashing a fake smile. In the final line, she declares “and I cannot help but smile as I curtsey”. By the end of my twenties, I had discovered another art-form – music-based comedy.
Gradually I started to write and perform my own stuff. And the best onstage moments make one profoundly alive in a way that defies positive thinking, or any kind of thinking.
Here are some examples of the spirit I like to capture with my performances …