Sometimes you shouldn’t be expected to smile.

Why aren’t my great grandparents smiling? Have you ever noticed that people in old pictures didn’t smile. Have you ever wondered why, or ever contemplated when people did start smiling in pictures? I did, so I did a little research and found that most early pictures did not feature people smiling for various reasons. Some of the speculation centered on a lack of dental hygiene or slow exposure times for the emerging photography technology. It was just unreasonable to expect people to hold a smile long enough for the camera to capture it, and were they able to do so the efforts often resulted in involuntary twitching that resulted in a blurry picture. Taking a picture in the early days was hard work apparently.

My paternal Great Grandparents circa early 1900s.

But the most satisfying answer I was able to find came from this Time Magazine article.

“Christina Kotchemidova, a professor studying culture and communication who wrote an article on the history of smiles in snapshot photography, also questions the technology argument.That idea, she says, comes from our world, in which it seems “natural to smile for a picture” and people have to be told not to. But, she says, while smiling in general may be innate, smiling in front of a camera is not an instinctive response.

Experts say that the deeper reason for the lack of smiles early on is that photography took guidance from pre-existing customs in painting—an art form in which many found grins uncouth and inappropriate for portraiture. Though saints might be depicted with faint smiles, wider smiles were “associated with madness, lewdness, loudness, drunkenness, all sorts of states of being that were not particularly decorous,” says Trumble. Accordingly, high-end studio photographers would create an elegant setting and direct the subject how to behave, producing the staid expressions which are so familiar in 19th century photographs. The images they created were formal and befitted the expense of paying to have a portrait made, especially when that portrait might be the only image of someone.”

It occurs to me that we have lots of ideas of what seems normal and natural for us that would have been very strange to my great grandparents, and vice versa. Now think about all the things that we personally find normal that we superimpose on others in the form of expectations. We expect others to be a certain way and when they aren’t we are disappointed. We often hold others to the standards of unrealistic expectations. These expectations end up crushing our spirits and damaging our relationships.

We need to learn to be ok with others when they don’t smile, because often we can’t. In fact, in times of emotional trauma and mental anguish, a smile may be the most disingenuous expression. Too often we smile because we are expected to do so, not because it is a genuine expression of what we are feeling. All of us long to have that vulnerable connection with others where we can be ourselves without fear of judgment or rejection. This is a special gift, to be fully known and fully loved. We live the most when we are loved the most. When we are afraid we hide in the comfortable places where we imagine we are secure. But security is a poor substitute for love. Easy is a poor substitute for true experiences. But most of us hang out there because we find in those places a certain sense of normalcy and predictability.

Maybe this is why my great grandparents didn’t smile? Maybe their life was a lot more real than mine. Perhaps their experiences were steeped in survival and not just existence. No doubt that life was harder for preceding generations in certain respects. They had their struggles same as us, but maybe their struggles were a bit lower on the hierarchy of needs. My struggles aren’t theirs and theirs aren’t mine. And mine aren’t yours. But I do know you are struggling as much or more than me.

And it’s ok not to smile. Please extend the same courtesy my way. I’m not picture perfect either.

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