How Not Smiling Made Me a Better Flight Attendant
Ever feel like you’re living a lie? I did for a while, and it was scary. I‘d become a flight attendant—a job where smiling is fundamental—but I am not natural smiler. I’ve often been told, “You’d be a lot prettier if you smiled more.” But my natural face is a stoic face. And when I do force myself to smile, the corners of my mouth twitch. It’s not pretty.
In any case, I finished flight attendant training thinking I’d perfected the perpetual smile. However fake it felt, I forced myself to smile, even when I was dead tired from being up all night or someone was yelling at me because their seat had dried vomit on it.
I lived in fear that I’d be found out. The airline would uncover the fact that I have a naturally serious face. And that wearing a stewardess uniform and a lot of make-up didn’t change any of that. I feared that if they figured me out, I’d be fired.
I was not good at sustaining the hoax. I specifically remember a moment where I realized the fake smile charade was no longer possible. I was walking through the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport toward the end of a three-day trip. I felt uprooted, lost, and alone, while at the same time being angry with myself for feeling that way. A woman accosted me, yelling, “Where the hell is the flight to La Guardia? I’m gonna fuckin’ miss it if you don’t tell me where it’s at.”
Even though I’d been trained to smile when people swore and yelled, this was an instance where my doldrums superseded what had been drilled into me. I could not smile. I could not speak. Instead, I burst out crying. And instead of continuing to yell at me, she took off.
It’s difficult to feel like you’re a counterfeit version of who you should be. But after this incident, I realized I didn’t need to be. I might look prettier/more like a flight attendant when I smile, but my natural, serious face is my talisman. When assholes want to abuse a flight attendant, they don’t approach a staid-looking stewardess. They seek a fresh-faced, grinning people pleaser—the person the airlines thought they’d hired when they hired me. But when I reverted back to the true me—a pensive, straight-faced human being, I felt impenetrable.
It may be sad to think that incessant smilers are the ones who get taken advantage of. But it goes deeper than that. It seems like abusive people can sense when you are not comfortable in your own skin. When I started to embrace the skeptical, straight-faced person I am, I actually felt like smiling once in awhile—genuinely. And when a brutish passenger looked to abuse someone, I was no longer the person they chose.
Trying to be like my lipstick-laden, ever smiling, Dallas flight attendant instructors didn’t work out so well for me. But realizing I didn’t have to live a lie saved my sanity. A little.