Sound advice Thursday: When is a smile just a smile?

Dear Steph,

Can you settle a debate for me? I have a work friend who thinks he should have said something to (read: hit on) a woman who smiled at him at an elevator bank and then got on the same elevator. I strongly disagreed with him, lest we render the elevator bank, too, an unsmiling space (along with public transit and the mall and sidewalks and whilst driving). Who’s right? Was the woman’s smile at my friend an invitation to be hit on or was she just being friendly?


Let’s Keep Elevators Safe

Dear LKES,

I am answering your query as a public service announcement. Here it goes: men of the world, please do not hit on every woman who smiles at you. Sometimes a smile is just a smile. I am firmly on your side on this one, LKES, and I’ll explain why.

It seems to me that one of the fundamental things that some men don’t understand about women is that, in general, when a woman is out and about, minding her own beeswax, she does not wish to be hit on. Sure, a friendly smile or “good morning” or an innocuous comment about the weather are all fair game at the elevator banks or at the bus stop or in line at the post office. But interpreting a stranger’s friendly smile in a public place as an invitation to hit on said stranger is crossing a line. The problem is exactly as you stated it: if a woman gets hit on enough times after smiling at strangers, she will stop doing it as a self-protective measure. And that’s bad for everyone. I happen to think that large swaths of America, particularly the big cities, are unfriendly enough as it is. We don’t need even more of a chilling effect because women are afraid to smile at strangers lest they be flirted with and made uncomfortable.


A couple of qualifiers must be noted. First, it could be that the woman your friend saw at the elevator wanted to be hit on. Perhaps her smile was the opening salvo in a would-be flirty back-and-forth, and she was disappointed when your friend didn’t promptly ask her out on the spot. But you know what? It’s 2013 and if a woman is interested in a man, she can take the initiative to strike up the conversation. In fact, I’d argue that this should be the default in public spaces that are not generally intended for flirting: if the woman carries the conversation into the flirty place, then the door to hitting-on-age has been opened. If she keeps it to a smile and a nod, or a comment about the weather, follow her lead. Got that, men? Of course, this rule doesn’t necessarily apply to places where people go, generally, to be hit on: bars, clubs, fetish parties, what have you. But in non-sexy places like the office elevator bank, let the woman take the lead.

Second, the line between flirting and friendly conversation can be blurry, and the level of discomfort experienced by the flirtee is going to depend on that individual’s tolerance for being chatted up by strangers. For me, that bar is usually quite low. And I’m speaking as someone who has been hit on in an elevator in an office building on SEVERAL occasions, including once late at night by not one but two men in their 60s, wearing business suits, who reeked of booze. I wasn’t disgusted, exactly, but I was a little offended that these two drunk codgers thought that a) I’d be interested in one or both of them, and b) that slurred come-ons were what I really wanted to hear as I rode the elevator to the lobby after a long day of work.

Probably not gonna happen.
Probably not gonna happen.

Anyway. This isn’t about me. This is about creating public spaces that feel both friendly and safe. I happen to enjoy a lively conversation about the weather, and I am all for innocuous, harmless chit-chat to strangers. But please, men, don’t assume that a woman’s smile is always the equivalent of “hey, big boy.” We’re just trying to be friendly.




Leave a Reply