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Exploring the meaning, nuances and differing cultural interpretations of the smile

Photo by Qasim Sadiq on Unsplash
Scientists understand the physiognomy — the muscular underworkings — of the human smile. But beyond that, this facial feature remains a mystery.

In an article published recently in the long-form online journal Mosaic, reporter Neil Steinberg offers a fascinating cultural and scientific exploration of something most of us take for granted: the physical ability to smile. 

Steinberg centers his article around the compelling story of a 13-year-old boy who lost his ability to smile during infancy as a result of treatment for a rare life-threatening tumor that covered the left side of his face. In 2016, the boy underwent facial reanimation surgery, and eventually, after much physical rehabilitation, began to fully smile for the first time in his young life — a truly transformative moment for both him and his family.

Several medical conditions, including stroke, Bell’s palsy and Moebius syndrome, can also lead to facial paralysis, making it impossible for people to smile, either fully or partially.

Not being able to smile can be socially devastating.

People “can get the incorrect impression of you,” one man with Moebius syndrome told Steinberg. “You can almost read their thoughts.  They wonder, ‘Is something wrong with him? Has he had an accident?’ They question your intellectual ability, think maybe he’s got some intellectual disability since he’s got this blank look on his face.”

More than a conveyor of happiness

As Steinberg notes in his article, scientists understand the physiognomy — the muscular underworkings — of the human smile. But beyond that, this facial feature remains a mystery.

“Smiles themselves can convey so much more than happiness,” Steinberg explains. “Interpreting their nuances is a challenge whether dealing with art history or interpersonal encounters or the cutting edge of artificial intelligence.” 

The nuances can be seen in the different interpretations that various cultures give to smiles. Writes Steinberg:

A 2016 study, published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, questioned thousands of people in 44 cultures about sets of photographs of eight faces — four smiling, four not.

In most of these cultures, people deemed the smiling faces to be more honest than the non-smiling ones. This difference was huge in some countries, such as Switzerland, Australia and the Philippines, but small in others, such as Pakistan, Russia and France. And in a few countries, such as Iran, India and Zimbabwe, there was no trustworthiness benefit to smiling at all.

Why? That question is also complicated, but in essence, the researchers concluded it has to do with whether a society is set up so that its members assume that other people are dealing with them honestly. “Greater corruption levels decreased trust granted toward smiling individuals,” the authors concluded. 

A smile ‘revolution’

Until the end of the 18th century, smiling was apparently frowned upon in Europe — at least among haute société, and particularly when they were having their portraits painted. 

“Prior to the French Revolution, broad smiles in art were overwhelmingly the realm of the lewd, the drunk and the boisterous lower classes,” writes Steinberg.  

But once the French began beheading their royalty, smiling became more fashionable and was seen as a way of expressing one’s “authentic self.”

Photography helped popularize smiles even more, although it took some time.  

“The sitters in 19th-century photographs still rarely smiled, a neutral continence being both easier to hold over the long exposure necessary at the time and less likely to detract from the gravity of the occasion,” says Steinberg.

Charles Darwin appears to have held to the 19th-century no-smile rule when posing for photographs (with the single exception, perhaps, of one taken when he was a young boy). But, as Steinberg points out, the great British naturalist and biologist spent a bit of time musing on the meaning and value of smiles, noting that they could not only convey happiness but could be “derisive or sardonic” or “unnatural or false.”

Darwin even conducted mini-experiments on the topic, showing associates photographs of smiles and asking them to interpret their meaning.

Easily recognizable

Since then, many other scientists have explored the biological and evolutionary reasons  for humans’ smiles. They have found differences in gender (women tend to smile more than men) as well as in culture, says Steinberg. They have also found that people smile more when they are in public — particularly when they are interacting with others — than they do when they’re alone.

“Scientists have shown that smiles are far easier to recognize than other expressions,” Steinberg adds. Indeed, in experiments in which people are shown images of facial expressions, smiles are identified very quickly — in exposures less than 10 milliseconds long.

By comparison, expressions of fear require 250 milliseconds to recognize. 

Scientists don’t know why, says Steinberg. Nor do they know why people perceive smiling faces to be more familiar than neutral ones — a finding that is true, by the way, for machines (facial-recognition systems) as well as for humans. 

Some scientists believe, however, “that smiles — as well as frowns and other facial expressions — are remnants of humanity’s distant pre-linguistic heritage,” writes Steinberg. “Human language started developing as far back as 100,000 years ago, but our expressions reach back further still, even to before our origins as human beings.”

“Before we could communicate verbally, we had to communicate with our faces,” Aleix Martinez, founder of Ohio State University’s Computational Biology and Cognitive Science Lab, told Steinberg. “Which brings us to a very interesting, very fundamental question in science: Where does language come from? Language is not fossilized, not found in any other living species. How could something that complex have evolved from nothingness?”

Perhaps it evolved through “a grammaticalisation of facial expressions, which over time evolved into what we call grammar and language,” Martinez added.

Online, however, we still seem to communicate with our “faces” — particularly smiling ones.  A 2016 study found that emojis with smiling faces are the most popular ones used in text messages across 16 different languages.

FMI: You can read Steinberg’s article in full on the Mosaic website.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by David LaPorte on 06/27/2018 - 05:04 pm.

    Smiles affect the smiler

    In his book, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman reviewed studies that simulated smiles and frowns by holding a pencil in your mouth, either sideways or sticking out. Subjects that were forced to “smile” found Far Side cartoons funnier than when they were forced to “frown”. As Kaheman wrote, “being amused tends to make you smile, and smiling tends to make you feel amused.”

    Similarly, in the PBS series “The Brain”, neuroscientist David Eagleman reviewed studies that showed that paralyzing the facial muscles with botox injections reduced the ability of subject to recognize the emotions being expressed by people in pictures.

    When people smile at us, we tend to smile back. Our own smiling affects our perceptions.

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