The Cross-Cultural Meanings of a Smile

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?

i-c5e34797c4bd2f0b22e59c5339dffc35-smile 1.bmp 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.


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Hey! Shelley are you still on your voyage of PhD or has that dream become reality? Just wondering since these dates are back to 8/2007. I, at the time, in a state of bliss and all smiles. I was at the peak of greatness, having surgery for thyroid cancer in 5/07 and treatment shortly after and finishing a relay run in the GMR with great beings in a smelly van. Well, too many stories, it would take all day...A true Smile is within...inner peace, blessed, the feeling of me as one. It's the best feeling in the world. You see, others notice this positive energy beaming from my face. They too want that feeling, but let other emotions enter. Usually toward the person with the smile. It's powerful, because of it's dual purpose. I could go on, really. Just smile and see how it can make you and others feel. Peace...more conversation

A Korean saying even goes, "He who smiles a lot is not a real man."

I think there might be analogous feelings in the US, though. Consider the too-toothy smarm of a used-car salesman or the almost incessant rictus of a born-again convert. The former is ingratiating and the latter rather glassy around the eyes, but both hold the common trait of smiling far, far too much.

It's possible that an American correlate to the Korean aphorism could go, He who smiles a lot cannot be trusted.

As for judging a date's interest, it occurs to me that the smile alone really won't tell you much beyond the superficial. I'm unlikely to smile a lot when I'm genuinely interested in someone; I tend instead to become attentive and actively engaged in conversation. (If I'm lucky there's even some verbal sparring. That's just about guaranteed to hook me.)

Maybe another way of thinking about that is how connected mentally your date seems to be. If he's just making eyes at you, how intellectually engaged is he likely to be, compared to what might be indicated by a long discussion on a myriad of issues? Might he be, in other words, thinking with the wrong head? And if he appears to lose interest the moment the discussion veers toward the intellectual, what does that say about his motives?

You're right: smiles can be surprisingly complicated little gestures.

I smile a lot when I'm with other people. I smile if I'm enjoying myself, and I also smile if I'm in a situation that I don't like but can't escape, though in the latter case it's because I've found something in the situation to amuse myself with.

But I wouldn't be surprised if people couldn't tell the difference between a smile of true enjoyment versus a smile of amusement to fend off boredom.

I just did the BBC quiz and quite surprised myself with getting 20 out of 20 correct. I thought I'd misidentify at least a two or three.

Anyway, I had known about the similarities between Pan and Homo facial gestures and figured there was a common ancestry to the gestures. I also thought that smiles (by Homo) in particular were universal in meaning, tempered by some social or cultural variation in expression. It's interesting how powerful culture is in varying the expression of those universal traits. But what really piques my interest is whether this is also true for Pan. Different tribes or bands do have accents in their vocalisations; do they also differ in the way they exhibit facial expressions like we do?

By Stephen D. Moore (not verified) on 08 Aug 2007 #permalink

From experience, the Japanese also consider a real smile to be more a gesture of the eyes than of the mouth. As a trivial example of how this shows up in cultures, compare txt smileys:

the American/European version -- :-)
the Japanese version -- ^_^

Note which aspect of the "face" carries the emphasis of the smile.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

I wonder how this would effect social responses toward people with those neurochemical variations which we Westerners call "endogenous depression"?

By David Harmon (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

fascinating! I always assumed that a smile was universal as even small children do it to express joy and happiness. I never considered that other societies might attach totally different connotations to it.

Hey! As a flight attendant (and biology student) I object slightly to the characterization of our smiles as false. Sure, some of us have that obnoxious fake smile but others of us are quite good at faking a genuine smile and reserve the obvious fake smile for people that piss us off enough that we want them to know how much we despise them.

Interestingly, the fact that when I smile at people at work it's generally a fairly convincing smile means that many people (especially people who assume that because I'm a flight attendant, I'm gay) believe I'm flirting with them. I wonder if the reason people find such a smile a good sign on a date is not only because the date is having a good time, but also because it's construed as signaling sexual interest.

Very interesting entry.
In fact, I was asking myself about smiles just yesterday. I am currently living in japan and yesterday was my farawell party at my current company. It is a 100% japanese company, everybody being japanese (except me). It was a nice evening and everybody was smiling a lot. It started taking pictures ...
What surprised me when looking at the pics afterwards is that the CEO, and only him, was not smiling (on the pics. he saw him smiling when the camera was not here). I realised then that on all the other pics of him I saw, he was never smiling.
"In primates, showing the teeth, especially teeth held together, is almost always a sign of submission"
Can it be related to his image as 'the boss' ???

I scored 18/20 on that quiz. I was surprised to read the in the BBC's commentary that, "most people are surprisingly bad at spotting fake smiles."

I scored 16/20 on the BBC test. Hmm...lowest score of the bunch. I'm apparently in the SciBlogs slow group. Why does it ask about your outlook on life at the beginning?

Jane, I'm really facinated by the txt smiley thing. Is there anywhere one can go to see a 'dictionary' of these things for differnt cultures?

PS For what it's worth, my own personal dating experience would suggest sticking it out with people you think are good people and are attracted to and wait for some chemistry even if there aren't any genuine smiles at first. I've had a lot of great first dates that went nowhere. In contrast, the first three dates with my spouse were AWFUL; the next ten years have been amazing.

"If I'm on a date (which believe me, doesn't happen often)"

Well, I think this depends on one's definition of a...never mind, I'll hold my tongue ;o)

I'll be posting a related entry on smiling and women raised in the U.S. soon.