The Hidden Cost of Smiling

Smiles brighten our lives, but what’s lost in the glare?

Posted Aug 17, 2010

Americans are over-socialized to smile. They smile upon introduction, smile at work, smile when their eyes meet accidentally on the street, and smile when they run for office. This seems a small matter, but it may help illustrate issues of greater importance.

First, humans at their core are not designed to deal with empty expressions. We are wired biologically to produce and interpret facial gestures as representations of certain internal states. All around the world, basic emotions such as fear, anger, and happiness are represented by--and readily inferred from--the same corresponding facial expressions. This is why we find it hard to comprehend the behavior of a psychopath. For the psychopath, by definition, gestures are severed from their natural underlying meaning. The psychopath doesn't smile to convey emotion, but merely to further his agenda.

To the extent that we encourage and tolerate the dissociation of facial (and verbal) expressions from their original purpose of communicating an underlying truth, we are beginning to resemble the psychopath.

Moreover, when everybody knows a smile is merely a nicety, a gesture long emptied of its original meaning, the overall effect over time becomes numbing. The smiley mask, the reflexive smile, the forced smile, the perpetual smile don't warm the heart or cheer up the room. To the contrary, they introduce a chill, a touch of suspicion, and the added burden of having to decipher what's actually going on.

Now, individuals and societies cannot live in complete, unmasked truthfulness. The truth, contrary to popular sloganeering, doesn't set you free. A truth revealed to the wrong person, at the wrong time, or dropped on someone unable to contain it, can hurt, destroy, and generally create a mess. Lying is an important social skill. Well-placed and well-timed lies and ‘omissions of truth' (to quote noted expert Richard Nixon) can strengthen our egos and boost hope ("I can do anything I put my mind to"), and help grease social interaction ("How are you?" "Fine, thank you"). Thus, we teach our kids early how to omit the truth ("You can't call Uncle Bob ‘fat'") and lie ("Tell your sister you're sorry for hitting her"). Lying can even represent the moral high ground. If you're hiding Jews in your basement during WWII and SS soldiers are at your door asking if you're hiding any Jews, the moral answer is to lie and say no.

Clearly, a well-deployed fake smile can serve a positive function, like a sweet dessert after a nutritious meal. But a whole diet based on sugary sweets is unhealthy. If all you ever do is smile regardless of how you really feel, you end up either ignorant or dismissive of your feelings, or both (in which case you have become, of course, British).

Like lying, the accurate, authentic expression of individual and social truth is also a skill, and it requires practice. And as with sex, memory, and physical fitness, you have to practice this skill to maintain it: ‘use it or lose it,' as they say. With so much smiling going around, we risk losing the capacity to deal with the rich palette of other human expressions and emotions.

As a society, what we choose to banish is as important in shaping our character and experience as what we choose to cherish. And choosing to banish or devalue expressions of somberness, doubt, fear, anxiety, hostility and despair in favor of the perpetual smile comes at a cost. When we become immersed in an ocean of fake cheerfulness, we begin to see it as natural, even necessary. We begin to expect, seek, and demand it in ourselves, our friends, our leaders, hence limiting the range of our experience, the depth of our understanding, and the agility of our responses.

One case in point is American cinema. If you insist that the dialogue be blandly inoffensive, the heroes young and gorgeous (with perfect white teeth, the better to smile with), the sets lavish, and the plots linear and happily resolved, you end up, paradoxically, with the increasingly tired, irrelevant and numbing ‘blockbuster' behemoths of Hollywood (I'm talking to you, Eat Pray Love; and to you, any movie with Jennifer Aniston).

Similarly in politics, the growing expectation that our leaders be perennially friendly and upbeat; that they continuously project certainty and optimism; and that they tell us only simple narratives with smiley-faced endings--lest they force us, and themselves, to face the tangled threads of reality--may be one reason for the decline in the quality of the political leadership, and discourse, in the U.S.

Like the feeble and bloated characters in the movie "WALL-E" motoring around the starship's pleasure deck, we may learn that there can indeed be too much of a good thing. Somewhere along the line, all this smiling seems to have turned from social grease to social crutch.