The Situationist

The Gendered Situation of Smiling

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2013

Mona Lisa smile

By Soledad de Lemus, Russell Spears, & Miguel Moya wrote a terrific post on SPSP Blog about the mystery and meaning of the smile.  Here are some excerpts:

We  smile when we feel happy, but smiles are more than just the outward display of an inner emotion. We are far more likely to smile when we are with other people because a smile is a message: just one more way for people to communicate information to and establish social ties with other people.

A smile, though, sometimes means more than just “I am happy.” Just as many species bare their teeth to signal their dominance and rank, smiles exchanged among humans serve an interpersonal, regulatory function.  In our research we wanted to understand how smiles, which usually serve to signal  positive affiliation, also define status in the social hierarchy when the smile is coupled with other nonverbal information (e.g., posture). Specifically, we studied women’s nonverbal reaction to a man’s smile: will she, in addition to smiling back, also display signs of submissiveness, such as downcast eyes or a narrowing posture?

For social psychologists interested in gender, patronizing and paternalistic forms of discrimination have become a key focus of research in recent years. There are good reasons for this. Forms of prejudice and discrimination that are subtle make them more difficult to recognize and resist (Jackman, 1994), and these forms can be expressed more easily. For instance, gender relations are characterized by a power difference between men and women such that the men are considered as more worthy (e.g., as more competent, agentic than women) but women as friendlier, and more socially-oriented than men;  attributes that some consider to be important but less valuable in society. Further, gender stereotypes prescribe dominance to men compared to women, who are often expected to behave in a more submissive way to comply with the stereotypes of their group.

Other researchers have diligently explored how behaving in a complementary way in a social interaction helps to maintain positive relations, facilitating achievement of common goals. That is, when people are working together on a task with another person and they want to succeed in this task and also to maintain a positive interpersonal relations,  they will often respond to the other person’s behavior in a complementary way. This tendency generates interpersonal complementarity:  If one behaves in a dominant manner, the other will be more submissive (or vice versa), as long as there is a positive affiliation between them (e.g., they see each other as friendly and cooperative). These results have been found also when observing the non-verbal behavior of people during interpersonal interactions (Tiedens & Fragale, 2003).

Bringing together these two ideas (the role of power in gender relations, and the existence of complementary behavior in interpersonal relations), we hypothesized that in an affiliative setting—with smiles serving as strong signals of the situation’s positive emotional tone—people will display complementarity: in response to dominant behavior they will become more submissive, especially when gender is salient (i.e. in an intergroup context) providing a gender stereotypic basis for dominance vs. submission. When the context is more competitive (not affiliative –no smiling) the motivation will be to contest (compete with) the dominant behaviour, instead of complementing it.

We tested our hypotheses in three studies recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (de Lemus, Spears, & Moya, 2012).

. . .

Our research supports the argument that certain forms of prejudice and discrimination (sexism) that are subtle (disguised with a smile) make them more difficult to recognize and resist. The other way to frame our findings (perhaps in a more positive tone), is that when the smile is not present, women do seem to challenge male sexist dominance. This is, to some extent, a positive finding in terms of gender equality. We conclude our paper saying that “if women sustain the cycle of sexism unconsciously through their behavior this makes achieving gender equality harder than we might have thought. However, this implies that raising consciousness is literally as well as metaphorically the way forward.”

Read the rest of their post and a summary of their results here.

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