The Body Language of Smiles
Part 1

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Smile - and the world will smile with you..

Hi there and welcome to the most positive series in the site.

We are taught from an early age that smiling is good, that we should be happy and smiling is the way to show it. In this articles however, I intend to show you that it's not that simple. What we may consider as trivial may actually hold a much greater value in a second glance.

We have a long road ahead of us  Starting at the origin of the smile in body language and why it's beneficial to us today (and sometimes why not). Next we shall look at  differences between fake and genuine smiles (if there is such a thing), why should you strive to smile more and how and finally what some of the various sorts of smiles that we have in body language.

These are some of the topics we will look at during these series.

But for starters, I would like to begin with a little introduction to how it's all started - how we came to smile and for what purpose exactly?

Irresistible Smile

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The Origin of a Smile

To this day we're not quite sure how we came to smile that  much. It's especially interesting subject in body language since the smile is something almost uniquely "our" thing. Other animals don't smile, at least not in the same context as we do (except for a few exclusions that are similar to our smile). We can say confidently that we're the only specie to hold so much meaning to such simple gesture of stretching the lips (it's argued that we have about 50 kinds of smiles!).

The closest thing that we see to resemble a smile in the animal kingdom is the grimace.

"Grimace?" You may ask "isn't that an expression of fear?"

And you're absolutely right. What fear has to do with smiling? Aren't smiles supposed to be happy and joyful expressions of life? What fear has to do with all that?

First of all we need to take into consideration that our specie is more adaptive and versatile in its communication and therefore we have more optional meanings to our gestures. In the animal kingdom  we have somewhat "simpler" and instinctive meaning for a smile:

I'm just a nice guy, not looking for trouble..

Image Source

Researchers looked at chimpanzees and noted that a weak chimp will "smile" at another more threatening chimp to show his vulnerability and non hostile temper. You can say it's sort of boot-licking behavior to help him survive - that and apparently it often works. Yeah, he smiles to appease, to show his fear and ask for mercy.

But when it comes to us, it's a lot more complicated. After all, we rarely smile out of fear, but our smile shares a quality with the grimace - we smile to others to form some kind of bond with them, and we do so by showing them that we're not a threat. It's sort of a small appeasement offer, that mustn't originate in fear but rather can be in the context of: "I feel good around you" "I trust you" "I like you".

Note: think of a person who rarely smiles, he probably won't be a very likable and popular figure, but he will also possess a certain strength of character - simply because he refuses to appease anyone.

What's in a Smile

Smile in body language is a very ambiguous thing. We all grew on the idea that smiling is good because it's associated with "happy". Depending on the social context smiles hold many other significances, some of them are even somewhat devious - we can show joy, affection, attraction, recognition, arrogance, contempt, sarcasm, empathy, politeness and fear with slightly different smiles (and this is only a partial list!). In the following articles we'll learn more about of these types of smiles and how to identify them, but right now I want to focus on what I believe to be the most important aspect of smiling - bonding.

Smiling often works as "insta-bonding", especially if you're a female. Because we're social animals - we need to know whom we can trust - who will cooperate with us, and who can harm us and we should avoid. A smile is a simple way to show just that - it's a signal of well being but also a message similar to "reaching out" to others, a sign of empathy.

That's why smiling in social interaction hold so much value - it's tasteful cocktail of joy and trust, and we definitely like to be around other happy people who also like us.

But the bonuses to smiling are not ending there, the amount of other benefits to smiling is almost overwhelming - there's a correlation between people who smile with many almost unrelated benefits, people who smile more seem to:

  • Live longer

  • Perform better and think more broadly

  • Will actually feel better if they're down (one of the cases where your body language affect how you feel)

  • Will appear more successful and attractive

  • Will be judged more softly (the apologetic smile, similar to the chimp incident we talked about)

  • Will get away with "it" more often  - can you imagine hitting someone who's smiling at you?

  • And if that's not enough for you, just watch this video, and you'll understand that smiling is sort of a natural drug:

Just put a smile on a face..

The Downside of a Smile

Now I'm sure I got you excited about this rediscovered natural ability, but as always there are exceptions, and we need to remember that everything is in good measure. So let's examine some of the hard cases, where smiling is actually not that good for ya:

Idiot's grin

Abusing smiling loses its affect on others. After all, no one will believe a person who smiles all the time - he's either an imbecile or a big phony. This is especially true to fake smiling (which we will talk about later), a big plastered smiles fools no one if it's overused.

In Courtship

For females smiling is a great tool to get male attention, a woman who sits at the bar and makes eye contact and smiles to another man is almost sure to get some attention. The problem that it's often draws unwanted attention as well because males often interpret female's smiles as sexual invitations, be it true or not.

For males - research found that smiling has an opposite correlation with testosterone (you know, the hormone that makes you a macho). And it's also evident in body language - a man who smiles too much loses a lot of masculinity "points". Women often prefer more strength and masculine "tough" qualities in a man, rather than a guy who seeks to appease her.

Different People - Different Story

A smile is a universal expression, we all born knowing it (and even babies in wombs seen to be smiling), but we also saw that it can be an ambiguous gesture. While some may think it's appropriate to smile at some circumstances, others will remain perplexed by such behavior.

The most obvious case is smiling when you're tense or afraid.

I personally remember that when I was a kid and was caught misbehaving - I often felt the urge to smile, although I definitely wasn't happy, and wasn't trying to mock my parents. In this case my smile showed my tension and fear (just like the chimpanzee) but my parents thought I wasn't serious - what in turn made them even angrier. Ironically, trying to resist it only made it worse, just like trying to stop a laugh makes it that much irresistible.

Of course there are also some cultural differences, because we adapt this natural quality according to our environment.

For example,  if you're in East-Asia you may notice people smile in apology or embarrassment, as if to say "I'm sorry". In Japan they may even smile when angry or confused (what must be a very confusing display for westerners).

How often and how long it's appropriate to smile is also affected by culture, some cultures appear to be more grim and reserved, only because they learned to suppress their emotions. Don't take this to understand that such people lack feelings or feel unhappy. From the opposite perspective of a person who comes from a less expressive culture to a "warmer" one, he would feel that others are either "acting out" to get something from him or possess a somewhat "simpler" nature.

Moving On


We finished with the big main concepts, and now it's time to see how to use that smile and how to distinguish between real and fake smiles - Part 2

Body language of Smiles - Part 3

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