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Many workers at the Keihin Electric Express Railway in Japan start the day by smiling at a computer. Based on components like lip curve and eye crinkling, the smile's quality is analyzed by OKAO Vision technology and measured out of 100. Then the computer weighs in: "Just a bit more!" or "Smile like you're happy!" The worker corrects her smile, and the day begins.

OMRON, the Japanese company behind "smile degree estimation," released a tablet version last year, as well as announcing a new technology that can measure seven different facial expressions: happiness, surprise, neutrality, fear, disgust, anger and sadness (bosses likely prefer the first three). Smiling at work is hardly a new directive, and the Keihin employees, in a 2009 report on New Tang Dynasty TV, didn't seem to mind, so why does this futuristic present seem so chilling?

I was a forced-smiling worker for years, waitressing and temping and grinning, often atop a strain of fury. I'd leave my temp office with a new assignment and a reminder: "Don't forget to smile! You're a [insert name of agency here] girl!" It wasn't the smiling that irked but the condescension.

At a time when whistling at dames and calling "Hubba hubba!" isn't socially acceptable any more, "Smile, honey!" is still on the streets. One young woman blogger on Feministing writes about being frequently bothered for her serious countenance: "Since when has demanding an unhappy person smile ever made them suddenly stop being unhappy?"

The smile has always carried a freight of signals, social and emotional. If technology is imposing a new set of expectations on workers about how they look, then more than ever it seems we can't take the smile at face value.

Back in my 20s, I recall being startled out of my reverie occasionally by a smile policeman. I always wanted to shout: "I can't help my Norwegian mean face!" or "I have cancer!" But I didn't, too stunned by the assumption that my expression was expected to serve the needs of a passing stranger. (Now that I'm older, no one cares how grumpy I am – evidence that "Smile!" is bound to conventional beauty expectations.)

Your expression as you walk to Starbucks is no one's business, but smiling in the working world may matter. A recent academic paper published in The Fibreculture Journal by Mark Gawne, a PhD student at the University of Sydney, examined the use of OMRON scanners (they are mostly in the service and hospitality industries, including at a truck stop, to measure drivers' alertness). Gawne notes that smile scanning forces a new kind of labour on the labourer: "It compels the worker's body to perform affect." On one hand, the machines are no different than my finger-wagging temp agency manager, but erasing human interaction from the smile edict feels fairly Big Brother – computers, not bosses or employees, become workplace agents of regulation and control.

Of course, all work is performance, a suppression of certain private emotions (and an amplification of others) in service of making a living – sociologists call this "emotional labour." Smiling is requisite emotional labour in many jobs, but it's a complicated signal: Smiling is as much about following social cues as it is expressing emotion – politicians know this intimately. Last fall, a Chinese official named Yang Dacai was widely condemned when a photo went viral showing him smiling at the site of an accident that killed 36 people. Joe Biden's smirking and chuckling is the most remembered aspect of the vice-presidential debates, interpreted as either arrogance or wisdom. Recently, NDP MP Olivia Chow revealed that she's dealing with a rare nerve disorder, which has given her a lopsided smile. People will "just have to imagine that I am smiling," she said, indirectly acknowledging that an unsmiling politician is suspect.

Failing to smile may have a detrimental effect, at least in service. A study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology detailed 117 interactions between staff and customers at a mall in Seoul. Researchers found that the smiles of workers were mirrored by customers, and interestingly, both workers and customers reported feeling more positive after this type of interaction – smiling caused a good-mood loop.

And yet, smile software still seems creepy. Perhaps it's because I'm a woman, worried that those "Smile, honey!" guys are going to expect us to carry self-scanning tablets in our purses. Studies show that women, often the bearers of the emotional weight of relationships, smile more than men. One explanation is that women have less power, and smiling is a form of appeasement, like the forced smiles on the faces of the below-stairs staff in Downton Abbey. The "Smile!" dictate crams women into a false dichotomy – the age-old angel/whore split. If you don't smile, you're a bitch, like Victoria Beckham. And if you smile too much, you might come off as disingenuous, overplaying your feminine hand and sucking up to power, like Katie Couric.

Putting aside the strange sexual politics of a grin, smile scanners in the workplace symbolize an erosion of trust. Their existence implies that workers aren't smart enough to regulate their own smiles in the interest of their bosses and themselves. But a little honesty in our expressions is what separates us from beauty queens and robots.