A Smile Is Complicated!

Our smiles seem to happen naturally when a happy emotion spills out and is shared on our face. We don’t give it a second thought. But there are others who have devoted a lot of time researching smiles, and they have a lot to say about them.

Charles Darwin Made Some Interesting Observations

Darwin concluded that smiling, which is only one of many nonverbal forms of communication, is universal, while other nonverbal behaviors are influenced by culture and are more likely to be learned. Darwin thought smiling to be the outward manifestation of happiness and an innate characteristic meant to help us connect with each other.

Cultural Influences on Smiling

Social conventions may call for smiles to be suppressed, for instance during solemn occasions. Studies find that women tend to smile more than men, even as babies!

Smiles Are Part of Body Language

Paul Ekman, one of the first researchers into the science of smiles, produced an exhaustive list identifying the different kinds of smiles. His list includes everything from a “felt smile” (we would call it “genuine” probably) to the “miserable smile” (to “grin and bear it”) and many more.

We All Have Used A “Fake” Smile

We are all able to produce a smile when a situation calls for it. These are “fake” smiles compared to what researchers call “genuine” smiles. Why? A fake smile lacks spontaneity and involves only the mouth while a genuine smile is broad and expressive, spontaneous, and involves not only the mouth, but also the cheeks and eyes.

A Repertoire of Smiles

Peter Collett from Oxford analyzed the late Princess Diana’s smiles and lists six different smiles, which he called:

  • The eye-puff smile – widened eyes that invited observers’ protective nurturing of her
  • The Spencer smile – authentic
  • The pursed smile – when shy or embarrassed
  • The dipped smile – looking up with head lowered
  • The head-cant smile – head tilted to demonstrate openness
  • The turn-away smile – the approach/avoidance double message

Although we take them for granted, each of us also have a group of unique smiles that express a multitude of emotions beyond happiness. Can you identify yours?


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