When I was at university, at any given time some people would ask me why I looked/ was so sad. It would always happen during a moment when I actually was thinking something over or mentally preparing for a challenging class, and felt like an interruption, an intrusion. The time I took to think or even daydream a little, to process something, was precious to me, whether I was among people or on my own. I’m still the same. It’s simply a character feature.
For a while I would answer, “I’m thinking”, “Everything’s fine” or actually engage in explaining I was not, in fact, sad. Though as we know now, thanks to the actively growing discourse around what commenting on or vocally interpreting someone’s facial expression might mean, my actual state was both beside the point and nobody’s business, especially since the people saying these things to me were not ones that knew me well.
The latter is often an important distinction. It was easy, in the accompanying burst of irritation, to think that “so many” people were doing this to me. In fact, it was only a few, and some of them shared common traits – lack of manners usually being the most obvious one. People who know me well, whom I trusted, close family and friends, never said such things to me. What they would say in cases where it was merited would be something like, “Everything alright? You seem preoccupied”, “What happened?”, “Are you OK?” when I myself knew my face was registering something. There is also a sentence in Russian I have always liked. It basically translates as “Don’t be sad”, but it means neither an order or anything close to “Cheer up”. It comes after someone has witnessed whatever it was that caused distress, or heard your story, told of your own volition. It shows support, understanding and a lack of blame. Most importantly, it expresses respect for your feelings.
Telling someone you barely know or even a stranger that they look “sad” is, for me, right up there with telling someone, women in particular, to “smile”, which has become a textbook example when starting discussions about unwanted attention and harassment. This fantastic article on Bustle thoughtfully and in my view, accurately, describes that telling someone to smile is, in fact, harassment in itself. The article was published five years ago, but is still easily transferable to today. I’m reminded of a former male colleague who would send me a message asking whether I was sad right now if I passed by him without stopping for a chat or, God forbid, didn’t smile when saying hello. Similarly to those cases years ago at university, I would at first say I wasn’t sad, maybe adding something unnecessary about having a lot of work. This simply created and prolonged interaction that wasn’t nice, satisfying the vampirism of one person and leaving me feeling unsettled, scrutinized. It took a few months before I saw the pattern and realized this was his way of taunting me because of his own insecurities. Like most people manipulating or being thoughtless even on a small level, the behaviour was always the same. The moment I’d worked this out, it didn’t occupy my thoughts anymore. Luckily the communication stopped without me having to actually do anything.
I’d known for a long time now what was not OK about the experiences described above, even though not every single one was worth additional attention or Googling. But placing it in a concrete context, supported by good articles from credible sources which have had space to multiply in the years the internet has developed so massively, has been helpful and useful for not stewing in it. In the end, the easiest way to confirm that I wasn’t overreacting was to simply flip through the list of people I felt comfortable around in my life. And why did I feel comfortable? None of them did the above, and I would smile in their presence without anyone telling me to.