"Smile!" or Not, Vol. 17, Issue 51

Dear Etiquetteer:

I need to find a way for people to stop telling me to smile in pictures. This is especially useless if it’s a picture I've already posted. It's rude. I think it's mostly about why we do or do not smile and having some degree of autonomy over our feelings and moods.

Dear Smiley:

Once upon a time no one smiled. Improvements in both photography and dentistry in the last 125 years or so have made smiling in photographs the undisputed fashion. It’s quite a contrast from previous centuries, when it took so long to record a daguerreotype. A smile could not be held that long a time.

Sometimes smiling seems insincere, but Etiquetteer doesn’t consider that anyone wants “autonomy over your feelings and moods.” They just want a photo that conforms to the Smiling Norm, irritating as that can feel.

You sometimes cannot get out of being in a photo. For instance, if one of your children is getting married, it would look really really bad if you showed up at the wedding and then refused to be in the family photographs - or appeared scowling or “looking daggers.” In those situations it’s not just Perfectly Proper but Absolutely Necessary to “put on your happy face.”

In the future, when you’re encouraged to smile in a photo, consider cultivating a Mona Lisa smile, which can convey a certain amount of pleasant mystery without baring your teeth. As to the occasional “Oh, I wish you’d smiled in that picture!” Etiquetteer encourages you to ignore it, or pass it off with a light witticism such as “I have my reputation as a misanthrope to consider” or “If I’m not careful they’ll cast me as Pollyanna.”

Queen Victoria as we are used to seeing her.

Queen Victoria as we are used to seeing her.

You might consider the example of three 19th-century ladies and how they handled photographers. Queen Victoria, famously “not amused,” never smiled in photographs because her children didn’t consider it dignified in her position. There are, however, a few photographs of her smiling - which proves to Etiquetteer that it made the Queen more special because of its rarity.

Queen Victoria sporting a smile at a great-grandchild. Too bad she couldn’t keep her eyes open at the same time.

Queen Victoria sporting a smile at a great-grandchild. Too bad she couldn’t keep her eyes open at the same time.

The second, First Lady Julia Grant, would only allow herself to be photographed in profile because she had crossed eyes. Of course, profile portraits are not so fashionable now . . .


Finally, there’s Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy and eccentric art collector whose wealth and eccentricity couldn’t mask her homely looks.


“Mrs. Jack” did what she could with veils, but was also known to cover her face with a fan or just a piece of paper if she didn’t feel like being photographed. Her friends understood and accommodated, even to the extent of photographing her from behind at dinner parties. There’s a marvelous photo on page 15 of Beauport: The Sleeper-McCann House of a costume dinner party. Mrs. Gardner, facing resolutely away, is only identified by the big Y on the back of her chair.

So you could, perhaps, carry a fan around in case you’re not willing to “turn that frown upside down.” That would certainly make a memorable photo!