If I’m on a date (which believe me, doesn’t happen often) I can usually tell how its going by how, and how much, my date is smiling. Is the smile genuine or forced? Polite or flirty? Or worse yet, not smiling at all??
Either way, a lot of emotional content can be found in a person’s smile. But wait, is smiling universal? What I mean is, is the emotional content constant across different cultures?
There isn’t much to smile about when you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, but you’re still asked to when you get your picture taken for your driver’s license. Most people comply. However I heard a story about a DMV photographer who was surprised when upon asking a Japanese guy to smile for a picture, the man refused. He thought the man was just being a grouch, but actually the meaning of a smile in some other cultures is quite different than in America.
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In America, a smile is usually regarded as a friendly, positive gesture of trust. Historians have suggested that because the USA was initially a frontier society with little official law enforcement, the ability to communicate that “I am a friend” was quite important. In contrast, among some Asian societies people smile when they are embarrassed, angry, sad, confused, apologetic, and (sometimes) happy. But smiling is seen as a frivolous activity, and smiling for a government document (as in the case of the driver’s license photo) might have indicated that the person did not take the responsibility of driving seriously. A Korean saying even goes, “He who smiles a lot is not a real man.”
A researcher on the topic, Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., has done extensive research on facial expressions. He gave some interesting quotes on smiling behavior to SciAm in an old interview:
“Baring one’s teeth is not always a threat. In primates, showing the teeth, especially teeth held together, is almost always a sign of submission. The human smile probably has evolved from that.
In the primate threat [smile], the lips are curled back and the teeth are apart–you are ready to bite. But if the teeth are pressed together and the lips are relaxed, then clearly you are not prepared to do any damage. These displays are combined with other facial features, such as what you do with your eyes, to express a whole range of feelings. In a lot of human smiling, it is something you do in public, but it does not reflect true ‘friendly’ feelings–think of politicians smiling for photographers.
What is especially interesting is that you do not have to learn to do any of this–it is preprogrammed behavior. Kids who are born blind never see anybody smile, but they show the same kinds of smiles under the same situations as sighted people.”
In Western culture at least, the “Duchenne smile” is only produced as an involuntary response to genuine emotion. It was named after Guillaume Duchenne, and involves the stereotyped movement of the zygomaticus major muscle (near the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (near the eyes). This kind of smile (seen below) might be a good sign if seen on your date’s face, as it can’t be faked. Well, easily at least.
Another kind of smile is forced. Its aptly-named the “Pan American smile” after the forced-polite smiles of flight attendants (buh-bye now!). Only the zygomaticus muscles move during this smile, shown below.
Wanna see if you can tell the different between a fake smile and a genuine smile? Take this short quiz from the BBC.