I come from a long line of laughers. My father was a prankster who loved to play jokes on people. His favourite day of the year was April Fool’s and, as a gullible child, I always fell for his pranks. One morning, when I wanted an extra dose of sweetness in my cereal, I discovered that he had replaced the sugar in the bowl with flour. I knew immediately that he was the culprit. My mother was a hearty laugher. I remember her playing cards in the evenings with friends and there was always boisterous laughter involved. My grandfather was a talented storyteller, and my uncles and aunt were natural entertainers who would easily fill a room with music, singing, and merriment.
I was known as the serious child. At a young age, I was described as responsible and methodical, and my older sisters often told me to “lighten up.” But my mother peppered me with opposite advice. I remember her saying, “Never laugh too loudly or too heartily in public,” and “Cover your mouth with one hand if you giggle.” In a class-oriented society such as ours, laughing too much or too loudly outside the home was considered rude and uncouth.
The Portuguese are not known to be a happy people. This is a stereotype, of course, but I wonder how it came to be. When I think of Brazil, also a Portuguese-speaking country, I conjure up images of Carnival and the samba, and dancing in the streets. Their Portuguese ancestors? We are better known as seafarers and masters of nostalgia—a people of saudade—famous for the bluesy tunes of the fado. My people are not a smiley lot, at least not in public.
I remember visiting my home island of São Miguel in the Azores when my children were teenagers. Both of them remarked that people did not smile much, that they looked so unhappy. Even my husband agreed. “Everyone looks like they’ve had a really hard day,” he said. I issued a daily challenge: “The first one to spot a person smiling or laughing gets to choose where we have lunch.” It turned out they were right—smiles were hard to come by. Some days, I feared we would starve.
My attitude now towards joy and laughter is different than what this public persona of the Portuguese seems to convey. Despite my sensible character in childhood, my humour genes became more prominent as I grew up. When we moved to Canada and I started school, I covered my discomfort and loneliness with humour. I made so many mistakes when I was first learning English. Each time I said “tree” instead of “three” or “sink” instead of “think,” I knew my classmates would laugh but I liked to head off the chuckles by laughing first. Later, as I grew more comfortable with the language, I would offer quips in class to make others laugh. Sometimes, the teacher laughed too. “Don’t do that too often, you don’t want to be the class clown”: my mother’s words resonated in my head. I was learning that it was best to be reserved in public settings, but among family and friends, it was fine to laugh and have fun. I learned later that it wasn’t just a Portuguese thing; society in general seems to dismiss laughers and prize seriousness, especially where women are concerned.
I listened to my mother and tried to be more serious in class. I looked forward to the evenings when I could relax with her and my sisters. I no longer needed to be prodded to lighten up. We would poke fun at each other and laugh till the tears came.
When I landed my first permanent job, a researcher for a government department, most of my co-workers were male, except for the administration staff, and I was the youngest by at least five years. As I eased into my role and grew more comfortable, I started joking around with my colleagues. At one meeting, I remember sitting around a big table, flanked by a dozen older men wearing suits in various shades of dark blue. Afterwards, my boss took me aside to give me advice on how to thrive in my new professional role. “Don’t smile so much. When you laugh easily, people don’t take you seriously.” I wondered then if he would have been inclined to give the same advice to a male employee.
I gravitated towards the women in the office and shared lunch with them in the boardroom or joined them for brisk walks. The men worked at their desks or went for the occasional “liquid lunch.” I noticed that they took extra-long lunches on Fridays and would come back more jovial than usual, filling the hallway with laughter. I later learned this was due to their excursions to the local exotic dance club. I called them out on it and said that I noticed the men-only nature of these outings. They responded by inviting me to join them the following week.
I did not enjoy myself and I felt objectified, even though I was sitting at a table, with all my clothes on. I asked my boss who was sitting next to me, “Why is this okay for a professional but smiling isn’t?”
Within a year, our group was disbanded, and I was transferred to a different department. The atmosphere was more casual, and I enjoyed the camaraderie I shared with my new colleagues but, on some level, the message had stuck: smiling is not professional.
It was tricky to manage my image as professional at work and relaxed at home, as reserved in public and carefree in private. I juggled my mother’s advice and my boss’ opinions and tried to conform but at some point, I must have decided that it was too exhausting, and I became less concerned about what others might think of me. I gave up trying to convey the ideal polite, professional image.
I often wish I could go back to that boardroom and observe the young me, navigating my uncertainties among all those men in dark blue. How much did I smile, and did I really laugh too much? I imagine my youthful exuberance has been tempered over time by age and experience, but do I laugh more or less now?
There have been times in my life when the ability to laugh has felt remote. There were the years when I was the primary caregiver for my ageing, ill parents. My days revolved around tasks, duty, and responsibility and I don’t remember laughing much then. And there were the times I lost people I loved. That’s when I feared I might never laugh again.
But one day, inevitably, I would catch myself smiling. Maybe it was when I noticed the first crocus poking out of the soil in the spring or when my neighbour’s cherry tree burst into full bloom. And then one evening over dinner with my husband, one of us would say something silly and we’d both start laughing. We’d laugh so hard that I would snort, and he would wipe tears from his cheeks. And we would agree that it had been way too long since either of us had laughed like that. And I would carry on, grateful that time and beauty conspire to soften the sharp edges of grief and help me return to laughter.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I examine the wrinkles around my eyes and mouth. I have developed some pretty significant laugh lines. I see them as signs of resistance. I have somehow managed to keep laughing, even when I’ve been told that I shouldn’t.
Listen to Esmeralda Cabral read “Smiling Is Not Professional.”