Our facial muscles have evolved to become a remarkable channel of communication.  We use our faces to convey a wide range of emotions and attitudes.  Although we typically associate smiles with happiness, we can use smiles in a variety of ways.  Here are 5 types of smiles and the meaning behind them:

Duchenne Smile.  Psychologist and nonverbal communication expert, Paul Ekman, uses this term to describe the true smile of happiness.  In addition to the upturned corners of the mouth (which stereotypically are associated with a smile), the Duchenne smile is identified by the narrowed, happy eyes that leave wrinkles, or “crow’s feet.”  A person who is trained in Ekman’s Facial Affect Coding System (FACS) can always tell a true, or Duchenne smile from smiles that mean other things.

Fake Smile.  This smile lacks the eye involvement of the Duchenne smile and suggests that the person is feigning true happiness.  When people tell us to “smile” for the camera, odds are that we engage in a fake smile.

Uncomfortable Smile.  When people feel uncomfortable, such as when someone says something inappropriate, they may engage in an uncomfortable smile that is designed to cover up their true feeling of discomfort.  In one ingenious experiment, women in a job interview were asked an inappropriate sexual question, and most of them displayed an uncomfortable smile.  You can read more about this study here.

Seductive Smile.  Our research on seduction showed that when people try to be seductive, they typically display positive affect – a slight smile that accompanies direct eye contact, with a slow glance away, but still holding the smile.  Interestingly, the seductive smile could be accompanied by submissive behavior (tilting the head downward), or dominant behavior – proudly and slowly glancing away.

Sarcastic Smile.  This smile suggests a positive emotion (the upturned mouth), but the eyes can often give it away – there is a look of disdain.  Sometimes, a sarcastic smile can look crooked, demonstrating the conflicting emotions of amusement and dislike.

In everyday social interaction, we smile dozens, perhaps even hundreds of times per day.  The naïve nonverbal decoder assumes that they are all meant to convey happiness and positive affect, but smiles, like all aspects of facial expressions, are complex and can display mixed messages.


Ekman, P. (2007) Emotions revealed.  New York: Holt.

Friedman, Howard S., & Riggio, Ronald E. (1999). Individual differences in ability to encode complex affects. Personality and Individual Differences, 27, 181-194.

Woodzicka, J.A. & LaFrance, M. (2005). Working on a smile: Responding to sexual provocation in the workplace. In R.E. Riggio & R.S. Feldman (Eds.), Applications of Nonverbal Communication (pp. 139-155). Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

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