David Givens

David B. Givens Ph.D.

Your Body at Work

The Smile is Your Costume

The many messages smiles send.

Posted Aug 06, 2010

I borrowed this title from Japanese artist Momoyo Torimitsu, who used the words in her art exposition--"Smile :-), Wear it Like a Costume"--presented at the 2008 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) in Singapore. Ms. Torimitsu had collected a photo gallery of smiles from Singapore residents, and displayed them to show the variety of messages that smiles convey in diverse professions, from corporate executives to exotic dancers. "The smile," she says, "is probably the most powerful expression we have in our repertoire of facial gestures." From years of watching body language, I wholeheartedly agree.

Momoyo Torimitsu achieved artistic fame earlier in 1996 in New York City when she exhibited a life-size, robotic puppet on the sidewalks of Broadway. The puppet--part of her performance exhibit entitled "Miyata-san In Action"--was designed to look like a suited-up Japanese executive or "salary man." Dressed in a white nurse's uniform, Ms. Torimitsu walked beside the puppet and assisted Miyata-san as he crawled on his elbows and knees, military style, down sidewalks, forging ahead through imagined corporate firepower to do business and achieve success at any cost. Instead of smiling, the bespectacled Mr. Miyata had what looked like seriously tensed lips and a rigid, determined face fit for combat.

Every workplace, including a salary man's, has at least one person whose smile lights up the office with a radiant glow. After collecting her gallery of Singaporean smiles, Ms. Torimitsu concluded that different professions each have their own particular brands of smile-face, which she likens to corporate uniforms or costumes. Her artistic exhibit in 2008 sought to explore, in her words, "the subtle messages of compliance, attraction, persuasion and power that the smile sends out, and how our society interprets them."

Descended from the primate "fear grin," the human smile is a universal gesture given throughout life, from infancy through retirement. The "polite smile"--showing only the top teeth--plays an important supporting role in the job interview. In monkeys and apes, the fear grin shows a feeling of deference or timidity to telegraph a lack of aggressiveness. In human beings, the deferential smile we show the boss is a functional fear grin. We feel a bit cowed and it shows. Yet our smile evolved beyond the fear grin, adding many subtle and emotional overtones.

The grin on your receptionist's face as she phones her new boyfriend is an expression not of deference but of joy. As Momoyo Torimitsu points out in her exhibit, the smile can grade from jubilance to politeness to sadism. Picture the grin Oddjob gave James Bond in Goldfinger (1964), as the sadistic chauffeur crushed a golf ball in his palm to threaten 007 with a show of strength. Should your boss give an Oddjob smile as he transfers you to the Barstow office, it may be time to update your resume.

More Posts