The Art of the Polite Smile

Oh, polite smile. Is there anything more socially saving and emotionally awkward than you? You have saved my ass many a time, polite smile, hanging on for dear life about my lips when all I wanted to do was punch your recipient repeatedly in the throat. You are my level-headed compatriot, the one who keeps a lid on my sarcastic streak. No easy task, and I have to thank you for all the situations in which you've enabled us to escape gracefully rather than letting me succumb to my knee-jerk reactions and blow up a bridge or seven.

Take for example, if you will, that time I went to get my first Brazilian. Oh, you know what I'm talking about. You might say you don't, but I know you remember the tiny, middle-aged Indian woman who did the deed. The one who pointed imperiously at us and commanded, "You! Clothes all off, please!" causing your buddy nervous laughter to join the party. And a bit later, when you and I were both caught by surprise and you froze awkwardly on my face as we heard the words, "Oh my, you're a bleeder!"

You clung even as I strangled out, " this good?"

"Oh yes, very healthy, very healthy follicles down there."

" you?" Champion that you are, you blazed forth. Even as I wondered if it was the correct etiquette to thank someone who had just given me a compliment on the follicular health of my ladybits. I mean, really, we found ourself thinking the most surreal thoughts while that tiny Indian woman was manhandling us like a Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker, no? We also learned the value that day of knowing what, exactly, a full monty was. The hard way. I suppose the more important lesson we learned was to, for the love of all that is holy, ALWAYS SAY NO WHEN IT IS OFFERED.

You even managed to stick around for the ultimate indignity when she commanded again, "You! Overturn!"





"Ohmygod!" Horrified laughter at the hilarious absurdity of our situation joined us then. And we couldn't stop giggling at ourselves all the way home, could we?

Or the conversation I had one night a handful years ago, when my college ex, with whom I was still mostly in love, and with whom I had been dancing around the idea of getting back together, said to me, "Are you sitting down?"

"Haha, why? You get your girlfriend knocked up or something?" I teased.


There was silence on my end as you struggled to appear, as he continued:

"And I'm going to ask her to marry me. I wanted to tell you first."

"Tell me, Mike. Why do you think I'd want to know this?"

"Because you deserve to."

You surfaced then for me. When I couldn't think straight, when I wanted to vomit, when the door led to that particular path of "What if?" slammed shut with the finality of death, you appeared and hung on for dear life, mechanically forcing me to offer a polite, "Well. I am very happy for you. I wish you the best." while inside, all the shut-down switches were being flipped and the numbness overspread, overrode my knee-jerk reaction to lash out and hurt him as deeply as he had just hurt me. You were the rational savior, my life raft, polite smile, and the reason he and I are still friends to this day--and why I now feel nothing but happiness that he is happy.

You have become my greatest tool, along with smooth persuasion, in my years as a bartender and server. We've learned never to underestimate the stupidity of people when left unsupervised in public, haven't we? Such as the time that entitled Highland Park trophy wife ordered our version of capellini d'angelo, stating it sounded so good with all the shrimp and crabmeat. Then promptly sent it back because it tasted "too fishy" and gave me a look as if it was my fault for not warning her. You clapped yourself around my face post-haste just then. And because you are so good at your job, you enabled me to respond with a perfectly polite, "Well, yes, ma'am. That is generally what a seafood dish tastes like: Seafood." without her cottoning on to the fact that I had just verbally slapped her upside the head.

Or the time we waited on a table full of slick, Dallas businessmen. The new money kind with their start-up corporate cars and their name-dropping and their general backhanded condescension for anyone with a "lower" status. The ones completely unaware that we were probably smarter, and made just as much money as these entry-level "millionaires". Especially that ONE guy, do you remember him? Yeah, you do. The one who confused his lazy patronizing for actual charm and kept referring to us as "sweetheart" and "babe", even though he was no older than us. Oh, bless his heart, he had no idea what a tool he was, did he? I mean, for God's sake, he wore a colored dress shirt with a white collar and suspenders. The one who, when I told him I was finishing up my Masters in English, said, "Oh. Don't worry, you can still find a real job if you look." The very embodiment of a man who had so fully mastered the art of being a tool that he had actually reached holy communion with his inner douchebag and had become one with it. Truly, we marveled that one so young had reached the nirvana of perfect prickdom. Wewanted to ask, "Tell me, did it take years of practice to achieve oneness with your inner douche, or were you just naturally gifted from the start?" but even you may not have been able to save me had I said that, polite smile. Subtlety is our field of play.

You did, however, enable me to say, "How VERY Gordon Gekko of you." when he called me "sweetheart" one too many times. The slightly confused expression on his face as he tried to work out whether or not I was being serious or mocking him was worth sticking around for, wasn't it?

"Oh, uh...yeah! Thanks?"

"Just think, you could even upgrade to Patrick Bateman!" It was amazing how quickly he responded to you, dazzlingly polite smile.

"Hahahaha yeah!"

"I mean, who doesn't want to go full sociopath, right?"

Amazing what lunatic, cutting things can come out of my mouth with your help. You even softened a bit when we caught the eye of the guy sitting immediately to Douchebag's right, the one who had been shooting us I am so sorry my acquaintance is such an idiotlooks all lunch. The one who knew exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it, and smirked behind Douchebag's back when our eyes met.

Or that time in graduate school, when in the middle of a heated discussion about Percy Shelley's bizarre philosophies, a fellow classmate called me a heretic. You froze on my face, both of us stunned that at this age, at this level of academic discourse, I had gotten judged simply for playing Devil's advocate and defending the genius of a poet, however offensive his ideas might have been. It was a good reminder that while the majority of my classmates were level-headed, rational, deeply intelligent thinkers, we were at a very conservative, private Catholic school and there would always be one or two outliers who let their beliefs get the better of them. You stayed in place for the moment of shock as I finally said, with as much tact and aplomb as I could muster, "What I am arguing may be, that's true. But genius is still genius whether or not it's a genius you agree with."

Oh, polite smile, we've had some good times in the trenches of social engagement, haven't we? Here's to the thousand we've had, and the thousand more we'll have yet. Polite smile, the yin to my sarcastic yang, the steady hand when I am hot-headed, my clever partner in passive-aggressive crime, my trickster-natured friend, able to go from smile to smirk and back again, I thank you.