The Smile and Play Along Syndrome

Can you tell when someone’s sucking up to you? We’ve all been in situations where someone is obviously sucking up to the boss, yet the boss doesn’t see it. How could they be so oblivious to something so obvious?

If you’ve ever been a boss yourself, you might have missed the forced laugh, or the eye roll behind the enthusiastic “Great idea!” It’s easy to forget how much power you have.

People will smile and play along with a powerful person who treats them horribly when they feel like they don’t have other options. They’ll show deference to a person they disdain because they know: it’s the only way to win.

Two of my favorite movies – The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke – provide masterful examples of smile and play along. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly imprisoned. After trying to gain his freedom with facts, he’s cruelly pushed down. He realizes he can’t win against the oppressive warden. So he goes to work for the warden, he does his taxes, shines his shoes, and carries a bible. He’s deferential, smiling, while secretly seething, and plotting his escape.

In the 1967 cult classic, Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman plays Luke, a rebel imprisoned in a southern work camp where he endures cruelty at the hands of the boss. He fights back, only to be reminded who’s really in charge. He fakes compliance, he does the boss man’s bidding, telling the warden he’s “Shakin’ it up boss,” to demonstrate his deference.

In both movies, the powerless man does the smartest thing he can do in his situation. He stuffs his ego and pride down his throat, smiles and plays to the person in power. The wardens have no idea, think their smiles are genuine, and their deference, a sign of respect.

When the audience is let in on the secret, we’re stunned at the self-control. The mental fortitude it would take someone to hide their disdain is impressive. Can you imagine the acid-tasting stomach-clenching burn of pretending to be OK, and smiling while someone in power treats you dismissively and downright cruelly?

Actually, many of us don’t have to imagine it; we remember it, quite vividly.

If you want to know what it felt like to be a woman at work, think about those two movies. I’m older now, and often I’m the person in charge. No one beat me at work, but I haven’t forgotten what it felt like to smile and laugh while you were being belittled. Decades ago, I was an outside salesperson. As a young woman trying to be successful, I quickly realized, if you stand up to every customer who harasses you, you won’t have any customers. So you smile, laugh, try to fend it off politely, worry about their feelings more than your own, and pretend you don’t feel sick. As a white professional woman, I can only imagine how much worse it is for women of color, or women working in a factory, or as hotel maids, or women who don’t speak English.

The fact that the people treating you badly don’t have a clue how awful it is for you doesn’t make it better. It makes it worse, because it affirms your personhood is irrelevant.

If you wonder why so many women are so deeply angry, this is why. Give us a bit to air the anger. We want to make things better, but we need a minute to vent.

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