To Smile or Not to Smile: A Tale of a Woman’s Culture Shock

“To smile…or not to smile…that is the question”

Unfortunately, for a woman “to smile” at a strange man on the street in Cairo means to invite unwanted attention. Generally, it’s interpreted as a sign of sexual interest. Conversely, where I come from in the U.S., smiling at strangers on the street is considered polite and a show of good manners. For example, if you pass a man walking his dog (ESPECIALLY if it’s only the two of you), you’re expected to smile and say “hi”. It would be considered rude not to exchange pleasantries.

When I first came to Cairo, I struggled adjusting to the differences in street etiquette. On my morning walks, I would pass a bowab on the street (who’d be sitting innocently on the stool in front of his building) and I would smile and say good morning. It was instinctive. It felt rude to not acknowledge this human being in front of me.

Over time, I learned that these friendly gestures were being misinterpreted. My good morning smile would either be met by a stony, distrustful “why the fuck are you smiling at me?” grimace (I found these people to be quite rude.) or a sleazy-eyed smile back. That’s when I stopped. Completely.

“…or NOT to smile”

So you stop being friendly, because apparently it’s not “appropriate” to treat strangers of the opposite sex as human beings. Fine. Whatever.

But then appears the catch 22: You start hearing comments from men like, “Why do you look so serious? Foreigners are supposed to be friendly and open with strangers. Why aren’t you speaking back to me?”

They’re not wrong about the cultural difference. However, if you take the bait, they will assume the same things they would have assumed if your conversation hadn’t happened in the first place: that your friendliness is a sign of sexual openness. Of course, that’s what they want, which is why they brought it up.

At that point, you learn to shut down any conversation, whatsover, with strange men. After all, these conversations end up the same way 98% of the time and sadly the 2% do not make the gamble worthwhile. I once had a guy come up to me and a group of female friends at a bar, ask to borrow a charger, and then try to join our conversation. He insisted, of course, that he “isn’t trying to hit on us”. Despite our efforts to shut him down, our refusal to give anything but our first names, and the fact that we only spoke for a grand total of two minutes, he managed to track down my personal e-mail address, to which he sent numerous love essays over the course of about four months.

So, it begs the question: What level of rudeness will it take for these men to back off?

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