Dear Miss Manners:

I once heard a European comment that Americans appear false or fake because we are constantly smiling, and it isn't natural. At the time, I argued that I myself smile a lot because I am genuinely happy, enjoy life and have a sense of humor that allows me to laugh easily.

While this is true, I have since become more aware of the importance Americans place on smiling.

Several years ago, while visiting a city with my mother and sister, my purse was stolen. Deciding to cut our visit short, we stopped for dinner on our way home at a crowded restaurant. After we had been waiting for a table for nearly half an hour, the host looked down at me and said, "Smile! It can't be that bad!"

Just recently, I was leaving work early with a severe migraine headache. I was in great pain and could barely focus my eyes. The man on the elevator with me said, "Smile! It's Friday, you should be happy."

Why is it important to these strangers that I smile, and am I wrong to be annoyed? While I understand that they were probably trying to be nice or friendly, I found it rude and intrusive. In both instances, these men knew nothing about me or my circumstances. For all they knew, I could have been returning from the hospital after finding out I had only a few months to live.

My feeling is, if someone wants to share their own happiness with others, or wants to see those around them smiling as they are, they should give others a reason to smile. If a stranger tries to make pleasant conversation with me, or makes a humorous comment, my natural response is to smile or laugh. However, if someone says "Smile," any smile I might give them will be fake. Is that really what they want to see?

I have discussed this with my husband, who thinks I'm crazy for being bothered by these incidents. Of course, no stranger has ever told him to smile. I've started to wonder if this only happens to women, and if men are always the ones asking them to smile.

I've never heard anyone else say anything about this one way or the other, so I am curious to hear what your opinion is. What response should I give these people? Does politeness dictate that I give them the smile they're asking to see and keep my annoyance to myself, as I did in these instances?

No (frown). The smile police are rude and should be ignored. The only thing sillier than obeying them would be attempting to plead hardship as an excuse for not doing so.

No, wait. Miss Manners has thought of something sillier. It would be to allow them to dictate your behavior in reverse -- to make you question your natural propensity to smile lest you seem to be one of them.

It seems to her that you are dealing here with two rather different aspects of the American demeanor. One is a cheerful optimism that the world finds charming. (Except for a few louts who interpret it as a lack of seriousness, but pooh on them.) Miss Manners regrets that this trait has been giving way to an increasing edginess.

The second is an insane optimism accompanied by busybodiness: the assumption that every problem can be instantly fixed by an adjustment of attitude, and that it is a citizen's duty to point this out. Miss Manners regrets that this trait has been on the increase, thus perhaps accounting for the increased edginess.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.

(C) 1999, Judith Martin