The Many Meanings of Smiling

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

1. “smile though your heart is breaking, smile even though its breaking….” Nat King Cole song.

2. “Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful.”
Thich Nhat Hanh


3. “Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening.”
Greta Garbo

4. Shakespeare: Hamlet marvels at how “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

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How can there be such varied quotations about smiling? Much like Thich Nhat Hanh states, aren’t we told that smiling lights up the world, reflects happiness and, bestows love upon everyone? Have you ever been told, “Hey, what’s the matter, smile, smile!”

In actuality, smiling, like all human non verbal communication, is extremely complex and open to lots of interpretation. I can almost hear some of you ask me, “Dr. Schwartz, aren’t you getting carried away with all of this psychology stuff. A smile is just a smile.”

There is now a notorious police mug shot of Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged shooter who killed several people and wounded a congress woman, in Arizona. In that photo he is smiling broadly. Yet, his defense attorneys are trying to have the mug shot banned because it reflects badly upon him. “But he’s smiling, isn’t he?” Revisit the photo on the Internet and you will observe how demonic that smile actually is. I know that I’m left with a chilling feeling when I see that picture even though he is smiling or, more likely, because of the way he is smiling. 

Studies show that smiles are based on many more emotions than happiness or contentment. A smile is sometimes based on conceit, embarrassment and shame, deceit, grief, tension and uneasiness. How many times have you found yourself smiling when you are with someone who has said or done something that makes you feel very angry? In this type of circumstance, well known to most of us, their is a need to smile in order to cover the anger. Perhaps we are not comfortable discussing our real reaction? There can be a multitude of motivations but, the smile is not friendly.

Then, there are cultural variables regarding the smile.I was startled to learn from Russian friends of mine that in places like Moscow and other big cities, a smile is viewed with distrust unless it is personal and meaningful. Americans might smile out of politeness but that will leave a Russian feeling suspicious. While Americans might smile while walking down the street, the Russians do not. That is why some Russians view American smiling as false.

In Japan, smiles tend to be restrained because the Japanese tend to restrain their emotions. When they view a person who is smiling, they focus on the upper part of the face, especially the eyes, to understand the true meaning of what the person is conveying. The reason is that, while the mouth is flexible and can be formed into many shapes, including a smile, this is far less true of the eyes. On the other hand, Americans focus on the lower part of the face, particularly the mouth. In addition, unlike the Russians, the Japanese smile in order to convey politeness.

Its important to not come to conclusions too quickly when you meet someone who is smiling. Yes, mostly that person is conveying a happy state of mind. But, listen to your instincts when they tell you that something is wrong or doesn’t fit. On more than one occasion, I have asked a friend or family member what is wrong even when they are smiling. There is something not quite right about the smile. The mouth is shaped correctly, but the eyes, eye brows and tone of voice suggest something other than all is well.

Finally, are you certain that your smile reveals or expresses what you are feeling? Perhaps it would be better for you if it did. If you are distressed, why not say so instead of hiding your emotions by smiling. In reverse, are you sure you are smiling when you feel good? Feeling good can also be covered up.

What are your experiences with smiling persons, be they children, friends, family or people at work?

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


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