The Impact of a World Without Smiles

How do you display public affect when people can’t see your mouth?

Posted May 19, 2020

Courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Courtesy of Vincent Tsui

When you’re on the last spoonful of coffee or drop of detergent, you know it's time. You grab the sanitizer, walk out the door—and put on the mask.

Face masks have assured public health benefits, but many Americans still find them worthy of complaint. Some grumble about tight ear bands and fogged glasses, while others hate having their voice muffled. For those with hearing disabilities, face masks make it impossible to read lips.

Masks also pose another, less commonly discussed problem. Because they obscure the lower half of a person’s face, it’s difficult to send and read normal emotional cues.

You’re not seeing the tight lips of the person waiting behind you at the self-checkout. You’re not seeing the surprised “O” of the mom whose toddler just made a break for it. And you’re certainly not seeing any smiles.

While emotions are legible across the whole face, studies show that humans pay special attention to the mouth, particularly when it comes to positive emotions.

Smiles are one of the richest sources of emotional information, but we’re currently living in a world with limited access to them. Here’s why that matters.

What’s in a Smile?

Humans can spot a smile from a mile away. (Well, actually, 100 meters, but who’s counting?) They’re one of the most easily recognized and polyvalent facial expressions.

That makes smiles a powerful asset when you interact with strangers.

Courtesy of Vincent Tsui
Source: Courtesy of Vincent Tsui

We’ve all flashed a “Hi, how’s your day going?” grin to the cashier. We’ve also all done the sidewalk simper-and-scuttle. (You know, that apologetic smile you give for taking up too much space before moving aside.) These aren’t “beaming with joy” smiles, but they’re just as crucial to human sociability.

Even the most curmudgeonly people smile on a regular basis. In fact, only 14% of people smile less than five times a day.

Maybe this all sounds obvious. After all, who doesn’t love a good smile?

But it goes deeper than that. 

Every smile, no matter how subtle, is a signal of social acceptance. Smiles create trust and indicate a willingness to cooperate. And thanks to mirror neurons, even the fakest smile can trigger positive reactions.   

Before the pandemic, smiles were actually contagious. Now, when it comes to face-to-face interactions with strangers, masks have curtailed our access to these crucial signs of belonging.  

The History of Smiles: From Private to Public

Hidden faces would likely pose problems for most societies. But they’re particularly troubling for ours. In the twenty-first century, we place much more importance on smiles than people did in the past.

 Elisabeth Louis Vigée Le Brun, Musée du Louvre / Wikimedia Commons
The hint of white teeth in Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s 1786 self-portrait caused a scandal among art critics.  
Source: Elisabeth Louis Vigée Le Brun, Musée du Louvre / Wikimedia Commons

Dating back to Antiquity, rules of conduct frowned on open-mouth expressions in social situations. Smiling was an impolite, lower-class behavior. These long-standing conventions changed in Europe during the eighteenth century, culminating in what historian Colin Jones has called “The Smile Revolution.”  

For the first time, pearly whites appeared in portraits, and people opened their mouths in laughter at comedic operas. What was once a highly private, controlled behavior slowly moved into the public realm. For the first time, smiles weren’t just accepted—they were applauded.

Over the course of the following two centuries, smiles were woven more and more into the fabric of our social lives. People worldwide “say cheese” for photos, and when we meet for the first time, we’re unashamed to grin from ear to ear. Today, smiles aren’t just public. They’re a cultural necessity.

The Need for New Signals

Because of COVID-19, the traditional boundaries between public and private are being rapidly upended.

By force of circumstance, we’re revealing many aspects of our private lives. Thanks to Zoom, colleagues can see into our homes. We’re hosting virtual dance parties in our living rooms, and children are popping into frame during workday meetings.

The opposite is happening with smiles. Because we wear masks in public, it’s becoming much harder to share them with strangers.

Previously, smiles were like billboards for affect. Now, they’re increasingly relegated to the private sphere. In certain ways, our public-facing and private-facing selves have switched places. It’s like a worldwide Freaky Friday.  

When I walk down the streets or move through the aisles of the grocery store, I can no longer share a polite smile that says, “Hi. I see you. We’re in the same space,” or “Excuse me, I know I just walked between you and the tomatoes.”

Comfytshirts / Etsy, used with permission
Source: Comfytshirts / Etsy, used with permission

I either move through the day avoiding contact or relying on other kinds of signals in an attempt to convey the same conviviality as a smile.

I crinkle my eyes that little bit more. I wave. I nod. I speak.

Some people even go so far as to buy uncanny masks printed with smiles, just to convey a kind of ongoing cordiality.

These adjustments aren’t insignificant or haphazard. They’re compensation for deep discomfort.

Microexpressions used to do a lot of our communicating for us. We didn’t even have to think about them. They were involuntary, second nature. Now, to convey the same basic social information to strangers, we have to try.

Not only have our public expressions become private, but also, our most automatic expressions have been raised to the level of consciousness. That’s unfamiliar psychological territory for many of us. 

Adjusting to a World Without Smiles

I know it’s melodramatic to say we’re living in a “world without smiles.” Hopefully, we’re all still smiling aplenty.

But those smiles are happening behind layers of fabric or behind closed doors.

In public, we’re still adjusting to the “new normal.” We’re used to our anxieties being eased by simple, instantaneous facial expressions. In their absence, we’re fine-tuning mechanisms to put in their place.

Be patient and know that your discomfort is understandable. Essential though they may be, face masks are awkward. Little by little, we’ll learn to grin and bear them.

References

Eisenbarth, H., and G.W. Alpers. “Happy Mouth and Sad Eyes: Scanning Emotional Facial Expressions.” Emotion 11, no. 4 (August 2011). doi: 10.1037/a0022758.

Ekman, Paul, and Wallace V. Friesen, “Felt, False, and Miserable Smiles.” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 6, no. 4 (Summer 1982): 238-252.  

Gorvett, Zaria. “There are 19 Types of Smile but Only Six Are for Happiness.” BBC. April 10, 2017. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170407-why-all-smiles-are-not-the-same

Hager, Joseph C., and Paul Ekman, “Long-Distance Transmission of Facial Signals.” Ethology and Sociobiology 1 (1979): 77-82.

Jones, Colin. The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Matsumoto, David, and Hyi Sung Hwang. “Reading Facial Expressions of Emotion.” American Psychological Association. Science Brief, May 2011. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/05/facial-expressions

Savitz, Eric. “The Untapped Power of Smiling.” Forbes. March 22, 2011. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericsavitz/2011/03/22/the-untapped-power-of-smiling/#693150257a67