The Situationist

The Situation of Smiling

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2009

smilesIn response to our recent post, “Smile If You Love Your Future Relationships,” Situationist reader, Rafael Narvaez, wrote the following thoughtful comment, which we thought worthy of sharing on the main page.

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Though everyone smiles, people from different cultures, different social locations, different historical periods ascribe different meanings to smiling (and the actual smile, the muscular event that we call smiling, varies with time and place as well). Middle Americans smile more often, and sustain their (characteristically American, and even middle class) smiles for a longer period of time than, say, Icelanders. And Icelanders often consider excessive smiling as inappropriate, perhaps ridiculous, and, in general, undesirable. Hence, McDonald’s trouble to train their Icelandic cashiers to flash those winning and protracted American smiles right and left throughout their eight-hour shift. Look at the official portraits of the US presidents in chronological order and you will see that the smiling curb starts peaking only from the middle of the 20 century on. There is a history to the meaning of smiling. And smiling is hence a sort of intermediate variable that often points not toward universal affects, but toward an array of cultural meanings that tend to change from place to place and from time to time. Thus, just as lighter ownership is not the true predictor of cancer (though having a lighter in your pocket points toward possible cancer outcomes), smiling is not at all a true predictor of marriage stability. This predictor stands behind the smile, and it includes psychological, cultural, and historical conditions that seem to be completely outside the scope of this study.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “Interpreting Facial Expressions,” “Seeing Faces,” “The Situation of Flirting,” “Can You Turn the World on With Your Smile?,” and ” A Look Into the Way Culture Affects Facial Expression.”

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2 Responses to “The Situation of Smiling”

  1. Robert said

    For common chimpanzees a smile is indicative of fear or anxiety, and chimps in CareerBuilder.com ads or circuses are smiling because someone behind the scenes has scared the crap out of them.

  2. Thanks for pointing out the variability of smiling. The comment about chimps is interesting as well.

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