This Just In: Basic Civility is Bad For You

Whatever happened to "fake it till you make it?"

A couple days ago, The New York Times ran a piece about a recent study that suggested that hiding one’s displeasure behind a smile actually worsens one’s mood. Smiling when you don’t feel like it, the report went on, it is essentially bad for you; trying to suppress negative thoughts make those thoughts stronger.

Huh. Guess Philadelphia is ahead of the curve on this one.

Last week, at a popular local restaurant, I saw a man go batshit crazy over the fact that his lunch omelet—his entire presence, actually—had been forgotten by the waitstaff. He had waited 30 minutes, simmering with a rage that built up with every omelet-less minute, until he finally gave into a bitter, blistering eruption that conveyed two things to every unfortunate witness: I am a very displeased customer and also I have lost perspective of the importance of an omelet. He hurled insults at the manager; threatened to call the health department; promised to tell his friends how much the place sucked.

The manager, for her part, also skipped over any fake pleasantries, half-apologizing, laconically, dead in the eyes, eventually telling the customer exactly where he could take his business.

Each individual may have been happier for not slapping on a polite smile and keeping their true feelings inside (fact: they didn’t look happy); I suppose it’s possible that any negativity disappeared as they stomped off to the rest of their days. (Myself, I was shaken up for another hour.)

Full disclosure: I’m from the South, a world that runs on polite smiles, where the rage someone is feeling is often inversely proportionate to the sugar in his or her voice. But that’s not even why I’m in favor of civility and catching flies with honey and all that—I’m just not sure I buy this science. I mean, if we’re all in better moods for not trying to suppress our negativity, or trying to fake happiness we don’t feel, then shouldn’t we actually be happier?

And there’s something else we get for sure when we refuse to suppress our negative thoughts under smiles: bad ink. Men’s Health just ranked Philly the 8th angriest city in the country. Perhaps the editors got a few middle fingers on the Schuylkill Expressway. Or encountered a PPA officer. Or maybe they went to a certain chichi market wherein the cashier heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes when the customer bagging his own groceries had the gall to ask for an extra bag. Or, Lord help them, they might’ve tried to pay for a cab with a credit card, only to then almost die in a head-on collision when the driver, intent on not masking his true feelings, decided to work out his aggression with his car.

Maybe, just maybe, those folks—the cashier and the driver and the omelet guy—did feel a little less blue for not smiling for civility’s sake. It’s just everyone they’ve come in contact with who are a little worse off.