LINGUIST List 8.321

Wed Mar 5 1997

Sum: Public behavior towards the handicapped

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Michael M. T. Henderson, Sum: Public behavior towards the handicapped

Message 1: Sum: Public behavior towards the handicapped

Date: Mon, 03 Mar 1997 11:36:36 -0600
From: Michael M. T. Henderson <mmthUKANS.EDU>
Subject: Sum: Public behavior towards the handicapped

On 2/28/97 I posted a comment about being smiled at by white females
as I used a wheelchair or crutches
( Responses
varied from confessions of guilt to accusations of sexism. Without
revealing who made which kind of comment, I thank the following for
their responses:

Candace Perez<>
Caitlin Hines <>
Tamara Al-Kasey <>
Freya Katkowsky<>
Ann Grafstein <anng1IDT.NET>
Karen S. Chung <>
Tara L. Narcross <>
Margaret J Speas <>
Christen Marie Pearson <>
Andrea Lawson Kortenhoven <>
Keith Goeringer<>

4 of the 5 of the responders who said they too had disabilities had
noticed the same phenomenon. Here's a typical comment from a smilee:

"My husband and I both noticed that women were always smiling at me,
and I don't think my being safe had anything to do with it. This
annoying tendency on the part of females (and I don't have the data to
compare the reactions of african women with those of white women) had
the effect of making me feel patronized, singled-out and belittled. I
don't have an adequate explanation for it, but I think alternative
accounts to the one you proposed must be sought."

Some comments from smilers:

"Speaking as a white NA female who has caught myself doing the "smile
for the cripple," I have often noticed that the men (and women, but
especially men) whom I've smiled at seemed very uncomfortable, causing
me to question my behavior. I've begun to notice several things about
the smiling behavior of various groups of people, and my conclusion is
simply that white females in this culture are more likely to smile at
everyone. I have caught myself smiling at other white women, white
men, african-american women and men, and foreigners, and I've noticed
that the people who are the least likely to smile back are
african-american women, followed by wheelchair-bound folks. In fact,
whenever I doubt whether a woman is african-american or from another
country, one way to tell is to smile at them and see if they smile
back, it surprizingly works, although this is just my impression and
of course is hardly scientific."

- ----------

"Perhaps you won't get many women admiting that they do that smile.
I'm afraid I do, and I don't think your hypothesis is right, since I
do it to women also, and in situations where I notice something that
turns out to be none of my business, such as when I notice an
interracial couple in some context where it is unusual. I smile like
that in contexts where I feel it would be rude to stare and equally
rude to pretend that the people are invisible. The smile expresses my
embarrassment at having picked someone out of a crowd for reasons that
have to do with me and not with them. I guess the smile signifies
that I intend to leave them be, which might be why it could be
interpreted as signifying that I feel "safe". But it also arises out
of my own embarrassment, so it's easy to see why it's annoying. I
guess pretending not to have picked the person out for notice would be
better. My guess would be that white women do it because we are
trained not to a. be rude and b. make actual contact with any
strangers on the street."

- -----------

"I am one of those white females who has smiled at someone in a
wheelchair. Never have I thought of it in the terms you describe - as
though the person in the chair was no threat - perhaps because it does
not matter whether the person is male or female, adult or child. I
just tend to smile at people. The way I was raised, I was taught to
ignore and avert eye contact with anyone who was challenged in any
way. Then it seemed in the '70s, when I was studying to be a music
therapist, it was brought to our attention that people who were
challenged were tired of being ignored and treated as though they
didn't exist (and rightly so). So, the message seemed to be to smile
and acknowledge *all* people. So, this is the way I have raised my
children - to treat all people alike. Be pleasant to everyone, help
anyone who needs it, treat others as you would like them to treat

- ----------

Finally, this from someone who did not self-identify as either a
smiler or a smilee: "Surely you jest. Women only smile at people they
feel to be sexually or violently innocuous???? Did you bother to
notice that women might also smile at other women or perhaps at
attactive men that MIGHT chase them or at babies or anyone else?
Women, like men, have other matters in their social lives besides fear
of chase and rape. Well, I do, anyhow. Men, on the other hand, seem
to pretend that EVERYONE is invisible. There, I can be obnoxiously
sexist too."


What strikes me about the responses I received is that while the act
of smiling appears to be sex-linked, the sex of the smilee is
irrelevant, as shown by what was said by both smilers and
smilees. This disposes of my "safety" hypothesis. I will keep
watching--and perhaps learn to be amused rather than annoyed. Since I
first sent in my posting, I have collected one more instance: a young
woman walking by my car smiled at it while there was no one in it,
apparently motivated by the handicapped hangtag!

Michael M. T. Henderson
Linguistics Dept.
University of Kansas
Lawrence KS 66045-2140
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue