06/30/2014 03:16 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014


At 2 p.m. last Thursday, on Broadway near 115th Street, I made fleeting eye contact with a tall, grey-haired man staffing a booth at the weekly farmer's market.

"Smile!" he said to me.

Funny he should say that, because a few weeks before, I had tweeted this: "#YesAllWomen because I'm 48 and random male strangers I pass in the street feel entitled to command me to "Smile, baby."

I was already moving on, as one learns to do when accosted by strangers, but on impulse I turned around and confronted him.

"Why would you say that to me?" I demanded -- not smiling.

He looked taken aback, "You looked so serious," he mumbled.

"That's a very rude thing to say, especially to a woman," I said. When rage doesn't make me cry, it makes me very articulate. "You are implying that you have the right to give me an order about how I should look, and that what should matter most to me is looking cheerful for other people. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume your intentions were good, and that you would want to know how I experience your statement. So now you know."

I was not in the mood for a genuine conversation so I didn't wait to hear his response. He had given me an order; I was reciprocating with a lecture. His only comment, delivered to my back, was a sarcastic "Wow."

As I walked, I continued to fume, but also to reflect. Maybe his motives were good and he did want to cheer me up. He wasn't completely off base; I had been brooding about something. Then again, I was a block away from Columbia University -- I am a professor at Columbia University -- where brooding comes with the territory. Does it make sense to tell someone to smile if they might be mulling over Kant's categorical imperative or the latest advances in nano science? Well, maybe. Professors do need to lighten up.

The real reason I was so pissed was that I felt that he would not have issued this order to a man. Had I been in a more patient frame of mind, I would have ended my speech by asking him just that: "Do you tell men who look sad or serious to smile?"

I had lost my chance to hang around discreetly to observe first-hand whether he was an equal opportunity smile enforcer or if women were the sole targets of his one-man happiness project. So later that evening, I did what any responsible social scientist would do: I polled my friends on Facebook.

Here's what I posted: "Survey question: Today a random man with whom I made fleeting eye contact said to me, 'Smile!' I'm curious to hear from others: Does this happen to you?" In just over 24 hours, I had close to fifty answers, which is a lot for my Facebook page. Normally to get that level of reaction I have to post cat photos.

Most of the answers were from women, perhaps because only 252 of my 737 friends are men, which must prove that I'm the kind of man-hater who walks around frowning and needs to be reminded to smile. If so, I have a lot of company. All the women except one posted some version of "Yes, and I hate it." One posted a link to an art project called "Stop Telling Women to Smile," which I might have heard about sooner if I weren't so preoccupied with reading Kant and grading papers. Several offered other creative responses, from making speeches similar to mine, to staring witheringly at the smile enforcer's crotch, to replying "My son just died."

Of the few men who responded, only one reported having been told to smile by strangers, and only one copped to having told female passersby to smile. He explained that although he mostly said it to women, it wasn't a gender thing, just that he was afraid of getting punched in the mouth if he said it to a man. Yeah, that doesn't sound like a gender thing to me. Another male friend got me to smile the old-fashioned way, by being funny. His one-word post: "mansmilers."

Looking back at my question, though, I wondered if my phrasing had skewed the results, so I posted a follow-up: "1) Men, has a random man on the street ever told you to smile? 2) Anyone, has a random *woman* on the street ever told you to smile?" (I also asked a question about punching, but that's another story.) Forty-five more answers came in. Several men reported that yes, both women and men had commanded them to smile. Two women had been told to smile by male and female strangers; one woman said she tells men and women to smile. Dozens more women specified that the edicts were coming only from men.

So who knows what I would have seen if I'd had a chance to do a longitudinal study of the Broadway mansmiler. Maybe he wasn't being sexist. Either way, sharing the moment with friends calmed me down.

But on that Thursday afternoon, I was still seething when 20 blocks later I made fleeting eye contact with another man. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson and just kept my eyes down, but it's a big city, and I'm a born New Yorker -- I look people in the eye all the time, and it doesn't mean anything.

When I caught this man's eye, he smiled. It was a subtle smile, a slight lifting of the corners of his mouth, carefully calibrated to say, "I see you, and I see that you just made eye contact with me, and I'm not trying to get any phone numbers here, just sharing a moment of mutual recognition as one human being facing another. And you look a little upset, so I'm going to smile at you."

Instantly, I smiled back. And in that moment, I learned something: If you want to get another person to smile, lead by example. Because everyone, even a sourpuss like me, likes to experience a genuine connection with another human being and to share the gift of a small act of random human kindness -- but no one likes taking orders to do something that only has meaning when spontaneously and freely given.