Consider enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, the demure smile of the Late HRH Princess Diana, and the enchanting smile of Julia Roberts. What can one learn from a smile? What have evolutionary, cross-cultural and social psychological research contributed to our understanding of the smile? Is it preposterous to suggest there is (or ever could be) a science of smiling?

Smiles may be natural or faked. The broad, genuine, expressive, spontaneous smile can be defined physiologically in terms of what muscles do to different parts of the face lips, cheeks or eyes. There is also the wry, miserable smile, often lopsided, that indicates recognition of the vicissitudes of life. The polite smile—often more like a grimace—is as much a sign of embarrassment as happiness.

Surprisingly the smiling or laughing face is often not very different from the howling or tearful face. Some people—possibly women more than men—cry with joy. The British talk about things as being `frightfully jolly'. People sometimes laugh as a response to shock, or when embarrassed. Funeral wakes are often (sometimes unpredictably) characterized by laughter.

Genuine laughter increases breathing, while lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Crying, as uniquely human as laughing, may accompany laughter and may be as much a sign of joy and relief as of shock or sadness.

The “science of smiling” as such was initiated by Charles Darwin. He noticed that the cause, consequences and manifestations of smiling is universal whereas many other nonverbal of body language behaviors (like gestures or touch) differ between cultures and are therefore probably learnt. Babies born blind smile like sighted infants. We begin smiling at five weeks: babies learn that crying gets attention of adults but smiling keeps it.

Darwin also observed that smiling and laughter often occurred together and therefore had similar origins. Happiness, he thought, was similar to amusement. Smiling, it is argued is the outward manifestation of happiness and serves to begin to connect us to others. We are “prewired” to connect with others via this system. Thus it has been shown that people who cannot smile, because of facial paralysis, have more difficulty in social relationships.

However there maybe culture differences in rules of smiling: When etiquette dictates it is appropriate to smile or not. For instance it has been demonstrated that in American, people smile more in the south than the north (cut by the Mason-Dixon line). Many east Asians cover their mouth when smiling, while until recently one had to say “cheese” when photographed because it was the belief that saying the word induced something like a smile.

We know that, on average, women smile more than men. At two months old we can observe that baby girls smile more than baby boys. We know that powerful men smile less than less powerful men. Also that smiling is linked to testosterone:

It has been suggested that the English smile less than many other groups because of their ideas about the virtues of the “stiff upper lip” and not appearing emotional. Further they keep their teeth hidden and pull their mouth sideways rather than up. One explanation for the common pursed smile of the English is that for a long time a small mouth was considered more attractive and desirable.

There is a lot of evidence of body language mirroring. We automatically copy the facial expressions of others. We reciprocate and in social groups it can be contagious. People respond to, and evaluate, those who smile differently and more positively than those who do not. “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.”

This sets up a virtuous cycle for the smiler and a viscous cycle for the non-smiler. Thus in sales, hospitality and negotiation situations the person who first smiles increases the possibility of the other person(s) smiling which increased trust and liking and therefore “co-operation” and helpfulness. Smiling helps bond people together.

There is also physiological evidence that smiling has specific biological consequence. This is even truer of laughter and is evidence of a feedback loop. Smiling has hormonal and physiological consequences which make us feel better and want to smile more. Smiling self medicates and heals.

All body language researchers have attempted to come up with a full category scheme for the different smiles that one notices. Zoologists noticed that chimpanzees have two smiles: a submission face (lips retracted, teeth exposed) and a play face (lower jaw dropped and corners of the mouth pulled back). The submission face is designed to appease.

Smiling in humans can indicate dominance. If you watch two people of different social rank that dominant people smile more in “friendly situations” but less in “unfriendly situations”

Psychologists have made many distinctions as regards human smiles but at the most fundamental level the distinction has been between genuine vs. fake smiles. Fake smiles are used for various purposes often to pretend to show enjoyment, or sociability or agreement. These are easily noticeable because they involve the mouth and not the eyes. Technically we can define the physiological difference between a genuine and fake smile: two muscles are involved (zygomatic major and orbicularis oculi) Real smiles involve both muscles and fake smiles the former but not the latter. Fake smiles involve the mouth more than the eyes: they are, in a sense only half the story.

Another distinction has been between open and closed mouth smiles. One writer (Judi James) has identified 14 different smiles which she calls: the mirthless, the stretched social rictis, the asymmetric, the upturned, the mouth-shrug, the perfect, the suppressed, the tonsil-flasher, the secret, the uber-flirt, the aggressive, the lower-jaw jut, the clencher, the smug, and the know-all!

The world’s expert, however, is Paul Ekman, who has studied all facial muscles and psychological motives to understand the nature of smiles. He produced this useful list:

  1. The felt smile, which is long and intense and shows all sign of positive feeling associated with amusement, contentment, and pleasure from stimulation.
  2. The fear smile and contempt smiles, which are misnomers because neither has to do with positive emotions though both can have a “smiley mouth” and dimples.
  3. The dampened smile, which is a real smile where people attempt to suppress or conceal the extent of their positive emotions.
  4. The miserable smile, a “grin and bear” it smile indicating stoicism about negative emotions.
  5. The flirtatious smile, which is partly embarrassed because the person gazes/faces away from the person of interest/contact.
  6. The Chaplin smile, a contorted supercilious smile that if effect smiles at smiling.

Ekman also notes deliberate, but not fake, smiles that sign particular messages like:

  • The Qualifier smile, which takes the edge off a harsh message which can “trap” the recipient into returning the smile.
  • The Compliance smile, an acknowledgement that a bitter pill will be swallowed without protest
  • The Co-ordinated smile, a polite co-operative smile showing agreement, understanding and acknowledgement
  • The Listener Response smile, which simply indicates that everything heard is understood. It is an encouragement to continue

In a brilliant and highly detailed analysis of one person, albeit a famous one—the late Diana, Princess of Wales—Peter Collett from Oxford University identified six quite different smiles:

  • The eye-puff smile to widen the eyes and make people feel more protective/nurturing of her.
  • The Spencer smile, which was authentic, heartfelt, genuine
  • The pursed smile, which occurred in times of shyness and embarrassment
  • The dipped smile, which involved lowering the head so the eyes look up showing childlikeness
  • The head-cant smile, which means tilting the head to one side to show she was unthreatening
  • The turn-away smile, which gives two opposing messages (approach/avoidance) which Darwin called a hybrid expression and is thought to be “irresistible

Politicians, movie stars, and media people practice smiling. So do those in the hospitality business. There are things they learn not to do: open your mouth, unless laughing; producing a sudden flash smile; having a choreographed smile that bears no relation to what you are saying. Saying cheese produces fake smiles. People well known for smiling very little (Putin, Thatcher) have a reputation for being tough and non-submissive which is what they want to portray. Smiling effects a person’s reputation and those in the “reputation business” know that.

There are lots of reasons why people smile. We know that when people are lying they tend to smile less than when telling the truth because they do the opposite to what people expect of people who are telling a lie. Police studies have shown many times that people accused of serious (smuggling) and less serious crimes (speeding) tend to smile more and more genuinely when innocent than those later proved to be guilty. You can detect false of counterfeit smiles by looking for four things:

  1. Duration. How long it lasts. False smiles last longer
  2. Assembly. They are put together (eyes, mouth) and taken apart more quickly that real smiles
  3. Location. False smiles are “voluntary” and involve mainly the lower part of the face whereas read “involuntary” smiles involve as much the upper part of the face around the eyes and eyebrows
  4. Symmetry. If the smile appears more of one side of the face (often the right side) it is more likely to be false

Those in certain businesses like the service and entertainment business where people are encouraged to smile so that it becomes a natural part of the work activity. It is relatively easy to teach because it has such obvious quick and immediate rewards to those who smile: they feel better, others respond more positively, and they succeed at their task more quickly and more often. Thus they feel better about themselves and their task and smile more naturally more often.

So we know rather a lot about the why, how and when people smile.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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