Learning to Laugh

As a child, I did not smile or laugh as a response to the emotions I felt.  I would laugh in response to physical stimuli, such as when being tickled, but that was it.  This first presented a problem for me when I was enrolled in dance classes.  Each class had an annual dance recital, and as part of that performance we had to smile.

When I was first asked to smile during practice, I did my best approximation of a toothy smile, learned entirely through observation.  The teacher seemed satisfied by this attempt, but after a while of my consistently smiling in this way, some of the girls in the class told me quite frankly, “You smile weird.”  Indeed I can hardly blame them, my smile was weird.  Almost terrifyingly so.  I would pull back my lips and show both rows of teeth, as big as I could, and for some reason I favoured the right side of my mouth.  I know this from looking at my old dance photos, which I’m now embarrassed to look at what I once thought was a totally normal smile.  In light of this new information, in order to perform the dance correctly, I decided to teach myself how to smile.

From observation, I came up with how I decided my smile should look based on my mouth and face.  I remember staring into the bathroom mirror shaping my mouth with my hands until I achieved the desired look, and then I would hold it there for a while to practice.  Eventually I was able to go straight into my desired smile automatically from muscle memory, and that worked out well for the dance recitals.

However, even though I could now smile when it was requested of me, I still would not smile to reflect my emotions.  I remember a friend of the family visiting, as I was pouring over every page in my father’s Calvin and Hobbes collection book, and he commented on my stony disposition.

“Don’t you like Calvin and Hobbes? If I were reading that book, I would be cracking up!”

“I like Calvin and Hobbes very much,” I replied, “I just don’t laugh from reading comics, even though I can feel how funny they are in my head. I only laugh when I’m tickled.”

That was how I felt towards most things.  I would feel very strong emotions, but they wouldn’t illicit any sort of facial expression in response.  I was far from sad or humourless, I loved jokes and comics and cartoons and found them enormously funny.  I just wouldn’t laugh at them.

As I grew older, these kinds of queries increased in frequency.  Soon it came to be that every day on the playground, many of the older girls would approach me as I sat alone and ask me why I was always sad.

“I am not sad,”

“But you’re always making a sad face!”

“This isn’t a sad face, this is the face I make when I’m content” I would explain.

The girls never believed me, so instead they took it upon themselves to make sure I started enjoying myself.  They invited me to play with them on the playground and went out of their ways to include me in their various activities.  I understood that they were being incredibly nice and that they were attempting to help me.  I understood that they inaccurately saw me as a sort of tragic figure, haunted and mournful for some mysterious reason.  Therefore, to appease them, I agreed to play with them and do the various other things that they thought would make me happy.  But I did not like everybody telling me that I was sad when I was actually happy.  I did not like it at all.

This is why I eventually decided to “fake-smile” and “fake-laugh” whenever I felt happiness or humour in my head.  I decided that I would do this to demonstrate to people that I was happy, and that way they wouldn’t think that I was sad anymore.  Somehow I came to understand that this would be more effective than telling people that I was happy.

So I did just that.  I did that for so many years, that I actually started to smile and laugh rather automatically in response to elation and humour.  I’m still surprised that it worked, but somehow I actually trained myself into these sorts of reactions by repeating them every time I felt a certain way.  Now in my adult life, smiling and laughing feel completely natural, even though they are completely learned responses.  Not that I’m sure I know how “completely natural” expressions feel.  But I have always laughed automatically when tickled and cried automatically when in pain, so I’ll say my expressive responses mostly feel like that now.  I remember that when I first started emoting, it felt fake and like I was lying, so there’s certainly been a big change from that.

Reflecting on the behaviour of the older girls on the playground when I was a child, they certainly had a “mother hen” type of attitude towards me that I’ve heard is common in girls.  This is one of the reasons that I think I was lucky to have been born a girl.  Perhaps young boys can have a similar sort of mentor-relationship towards weird outcast kids, but I get the impression that it is less common.

Author: Steen

Steen is a nerdy biologist who spends a lot of time trying to cultivate Chloroflexi, who also likes to draw comics, play video games, and climb.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.