Carole Allsop, Commentary, Culture
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Flexing your facial muscles – the power of the smile

City Writers Room

Carole Allsop considers the benefits of smiling.

When Jarvis Cocker tried to initiate his upper class art student girlfriend in the ways of The Common People, he took her to a supermarket, but observed ‘I can’t see anyone else smiling in here’. Grinning at strangers is rare in supermarkets, but the cliché of a smile being like a sudden shaft of warm sunlight breaking through a cloud-filled sky is undeniably true. So, why don’t we let the sunlight of the smile break through more often? The effects on both the smiler and the smiled at are powerful.

You might smile more as you walk the city streets if you could see how your face at rest appears to others, rather than when posing in the mirror or for photos. Our faces at rest are often contorted by turned down mouths, furrowed brows, or pursed lips – a condition known by some as Resting Bitch Face. This is the unfortunate expression on some people’s faces at rest that makes them look grumpy, angry or contemptuous.  The misogynistic use of the word bitch in the term suggests women are more likely than men to suffer from the affliction. In fact behavioural researchers from the Noldus group found that men are equally likely to have RBF. If you are frequently chastened with ‘Give us a smile darling’ or ‘Cheer up, love, it might never happen’ check out whether you have RBF yourself by doing the Noldus online test. Of course, one reason women get reproved by chirpy workmen for the lack of a smile is that it is often unwise to smile at strange men. These interactions are on the wane anyway as more and more people walk along eyes glued to their smartphone, or lost in conversation or music on their phone’s headphones.

Another reason to try smiling more often is it could make you feel happier. Richard Wiseman, the psychologist, talks about the power of a pencil in your mouth in his book ‘59 Seconds’ – one of his suggestions for something little that will change a lot, in this case your mood.

In experiments two groups of participants were instructed to look at cartoons while holding pencils in their mouths. One group were told to keep the pencil from touching the lips, thereby inducing the shape of a smile, while the other held the pencil between their lips inducing a frown. Results showed that the participants tended to experience the feelings associated with their facial expression. The James-Lange theory – both William James, the American founding father of psychology, and Carl Lange, a Danish physician, came up with similar theories independently in the 19th century – posits that our emotions follow from physical arousal – we smile and so we’re happy, rather than we smile because we’re happy – and the facial feedback hypothesisthe idea of the causal relationship between facial expressions and our feelings – holds currency with many psychologists and neuroscientists today. Research on people who had had their facial expressions frozen by Botox treatment revealed that they were less inclined to feel bad when frowning, but also less likely to feel cheery when attempting a smile.

Smiles can have many meanings. William Blake’s poem ‘The Smile’ declares ‘there is a smile of love and there is a smile of deceit’.

Smiles can be welcoming, encouraging, forgiving but also superficial, smirking, insincere, while a smileless face can be unnerving, or even hostile. The general consensus among anthropologists is that smiles are universal and found in all cultures to show positive emotions but there are cultural differences around the world. I remember as a young English language teacher smiling cheerfully as I walked into a class of young East European women only to be met with frosty stares. This was very unlike the responses I had received from the Egyptian or Spanish students I’d been used to. I later learnt to my surprise that in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, smiling is reserved for friends and family, and to smile at a stranger is to display stupidity or insincerity; those East European students may have taken me for a disingenuous moron. Like the Russians, the Chinese reserve their smiles for their own in-groups, and a stranger’s smile is suspicious. Still, my dealings with students from around the world have supported the general principle that smiling is an effective way of engaging people and putting them at their ease, and my smiles have mostly been returned whatever the cultural background.

The popularity of dolphins and the compassion they inspire in humans can also be explained by the permanently radiant smiles fixed on their faces. And even our primate relatives gorillas and chimpanzees have something resembling a smile. Chimpanzees put on a smiling face as a way of showing submission to a dominant rival. One theory about the origins of the smile is that, when smiling, the teeth are revealed thus showing the stranger or would-be aggressor that they are not about to receive a ferocious bite, in other words, that we are not hostile but come in peace.

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This may partly explain why men smile less than women. Males cannot afford to appear submissive or overly compliant in the rough  tough world of inter-male relations. My nephews began to refuse to smile for photos around the age of 12. It seems the fear of a picture of them grinning inanely appearing on Facebook and inspiring derision from friends was the cause of this reluctance. And it is clear that smiling is rarely done by the cool – to achieve a chicly defiant look, a reluctant half-smile is the most that should ever be mustered. See the photos of the likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Jimi Hendrix chosen for the US National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition ‘American Cool’.  Little boys under 12, however, have a stake in maximising their sunny cuteness while still dependent on adults to provide for their needs.

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The first person to really study the smile was a French neurologist called Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne who famously discovered the difference between a fake smile and a real one. The eyes have it. Both a fake and a real smile use the zygomatic major to broaden and raise the lips, but for a real smile, it’s all about those crinkled up eyes that bring on crow’s feet in later life. A genuine smile also lasts longer than a fleeting pull of the zygomatic major, and involves the eye muscle that surrounds the eye, the orbicularis oculi. American psychologist Paul Ekman has reaserched the Duchenne smile as it is known and established that positive emotions are only present when the eye muscles spontaneously react, and this is hard to fake. Genuine smiles can even make politicians look more endearing. If you want to test your own ability to spot the difference you can do an online test on the BBC website

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Fake smiles can be reassuring though. When being interviewed for a job, it is calming to be confronted with a smile no matter how contrived. The false smile also became known as the Pan Am smile after the now defunct airline whose flight attendants were obliged to smile winningly at passengers, a convention that continues for most airline crews. In China today trainee flight attendants are required to work towards the required state of grace and charm by holding chopsticks between their teeth to maintain a smile while balancing bottles of water on their head. Of course, modern dentistry has made it more palatable to show off our teeth in a smile, and portrait painters of the past refrained from asking their subjects to smile, no doubt with good reason. Dental health may also be the historical reason behind the custom among Japanese women of covering their mouths when they smile.

A false smile or a half-smile can offer sympathy to a stranger in trouble. In the words of Emily Dickinson:

They might not need me; but they might.

I’ll let my head be just in sight;

A smile as small as mine might be

Precisely their necessity.

Obviously, false smiles given away too freely, like the free newspapers at stations today, can lose their impact. But there’s always the chance of a smile returned and in that moment of warm interaction the possibility of the fake smile becoming a real one, and the pleasure of the upsurge of positive emotion – the facial feedback hypothesis in action. So, next time you’re in the supermarket and nobody is smiling, try radiating a little warmth with a friendly smile at a stranger. William Blake’s poem referred to the meeting of the smile of love and of deceit as The Smile of Smiles, and optimistically suggested ‘…. when it once is smiled, there’s an end to all misery’.


All photos from Wikipedia Commons


  1. Peter Ellis says

    A wonderful article, Carole. What was best about it is that it created a dialogue with the reader … they would think about their own RBF and come back to you with questions which, for me at least, you answered!

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