The Ambiguous Smile

The history and hazards of smiling as a woman.

June 17, 2020

Sevindj Nurkiyazova
FrownPas
waldryano

ome people smile up to 50 times a day, and I might be one of them. I was born in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, and my favorite childhood song was about how “a smile can make a gloomy day brighter,” fostering friendship and warmth all over the world.

Growing up, I genuinely believed in the power of the smile, and by my teenage years, firmly adopted smiling as a personal philosophy, a proud mark of a person determined to be happy.

I lived with this notion for 28 years, until last year, I stumbled upon a particular paragraph in Jane Goodall’s book about the conservation of chimpanzees in Tanzania. Goodall described Melissa, a socially anxious chimpanzee that regularly tried to ingratiate herself with superiors, reaching out to touch any passing adult male. When the male turned toward her, Melissa “drew her lips back into a submissive grin.”

Goodall went on to describe the meaning behind the scene and explained that although the smile is considered to be our “happy face,” most certainly, it originated from a defensive reflex that showed others that you don’t dare to challenge them. I remember thinking: Should I smile less?

Not that I was utterly clueless about the hazards of smiling.

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At 18, I visited New York for the first time, instantly fell in love with its architecture, and spent much of the trip wandering around downtown Manhattan, mesmerized how one epoch spilled into another right on the facades of buildings.

One evening, I decided to walk from Chinatown to South Ferry. When I emerged from the Canal Street subway station, a young man caught up to me; I recognized him from the subway car.

He approached me and, clearly enunciating every word, said: “Do you want to have sex with me?”

I ran his words once again in my mind to make sure there was no misunderstanding. Then, I stuttered: “Thanks, no,” and walked away as briskly as possible without breaking into a run. For the rest of the evening, I kept wondering what has prompted him to believe that I might want to have sex with him.

Only one possible explanation came into my mind. On the subway, when our eyes first met, I did what I usually do: briefly — for a split second — smiled at him before looking away. In my opinion, being polite and smiling at strangers is the simplest thing you can contribute to making the world a brighter place. He saw it differently. I decided to be more careful with smiling at New Yorkers.

Ten years later, reading Goodall’s book, I grew curious: What else was there that I didn’t know about smiling?

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The scientific history of a smile started around the 1850s when a French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne decided to find how muscles in the human face create facial expressions. He jolted particular muscles with tiny electroshocks. The procedure was so painful that the scientist had to experiment on guillotined heads of criminals until he found a man with facial insensitivity.

Among other things, Duchenne discovered that orbicularis oculi, a muscle that controls eyelids, distinguishes a spontaneous — “genuine” — smile, crinkling the skin around the eyes into crow’s feet wrinkles. To this day, researchers call this smile “Duchenne,” in contrast to a posed — “Pan Am,” or lately, “Botox” — smile, which simply curves the mouth. Charles Darwin cited Duchenne’s work in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, noting that a smile can be both joyful and derisive.

This marked the onset of a great scientific journey to decipher hidden meanings behind the facial gesture. With time, biologists, psychologists, and sociologists discovered that the curvy facial gesture is innate and labeled as a positive emotion in every studied culture.

They also figured that there are at least 18 types of different smiles, and people smile in all sorts of situations, from listening to jazz music to decapitating live rats.

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In the 20th century, hundreds of studies explored why people smile.

Many papers open with Herman Melville’s quote: “A smile is the chosen vehicle of all ambiguities.” By the end of the century, researchers still argued whether to consider it as a readout of underlying emotions or a tool people use to project sociability and desire to cooperate. Ingeniously designed studies often only added more controversy. The research continues to this day.

Yet one aspect was consistent in every single research: women smile more than men.

It wasn’t merely a matter of cultural differences, which are vast. For example, American and Canadian people smile more often and more intensely than Chinese or British. One theory suggests that smiling can represent not what people actually feel, but how they want to feel, which psychologists call “ideal affect.”

Different cultures value different emotions. Americans want to feel excited, whereas the Chinese want to feel peaceful. Their smiles reflect the difference. Another theory suggests that ethnic diversity is key.

People in countries with a rich history of migration, such as the US, might smile more often and more intensely because they had to develop clearer nonverbal signals to foster better understanding between people with different cultural backgrounds.

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And yet — women tended to smile more in every culture and setting: when winning Olympic gold medals, when asked to butcher a rat, when asked inappropriate questions (96% of women did that; I guess I would be one of them). Why? Smiling turns out to be a big part of what sociologists call “doing gender:” performing prescribed gender roles. Two defining features of gender stereotypes are care and dominance. Women are expected to be caring, sensitive, and emotional; men — confident, decisive, and strong.

These expectations play out like self-fulfilling prophecies, reinforcing ideas about how we should behave. Some nonverbal behaviors got linked with gender. Think about crying. A study from as late as 2013 showed that despite the change in explicit norms, in an office setting, crying men were judged more negatively than crying women.

Experiments confirmed that women are not more emotional but more expressive, especially when it comes to positive emotions. Presumably, in the course of evolution, women learned to smile copiously to bond with their mates and children through positive emotion. Expressivity, taken as a sign of emotionality, was labeled feminine.

Women, even when they don’t feel much, are encouraged to look and sound as if they are — “Oh my God! That’s fabulous! I’m so excited!” — or face being called cold, depressed, and passive-aggressive.

Smiling is a part of “emotional labor” efforts to create positive and alleviate feelings. In terms of power, being “emotional” plays a different role. Smiling inhibits the display of dominance and gravity. It relates to “low-power” roles.

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ne study showed that smiling men are considered to be less efficient. Another proved that smiling during interviews for particular jobs, like a newspaper reporter, for example, can decrease the chances of being hired.

Being serious is masculine. Smiling, as its perceived opposite, is feminine. From a male perspective, the gesture seems more straightforward. When a woman smiles, men tend to consider it a sign of flirting, even when it has nothing to do with sexual intention. Women are more likely to perceive more nuances and distinguish happy, nervous, embarrassed, or fake smiles. These findings might feel obvious, but only because, gender norms are so omnipresent that we don’t even register them.

Infant boys and girls smile the same, but they are quick to pick up on the expectations of the people around them. By the age of 11, most children intuitively learn how expressive they should be. The cusp of adolescence is the last time boys and girls smile at the same frequency until they hit 65. The same process that teaches girls to grin more teaches boys to hide their emotions. From then on, the difference in smiling is minimal only when people are alone. But there is a catch.

The moment a woman imagines the presence of someone she knows, she starts smiling more as if playing to an unseen audience.

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On March 8th, 2017, American women went on a national “Day Without a Woman” strike. Those who couldn’t skip work could show their solidarity by striking from unpaid labor: cooking, cleaning, and smiling, acknowledged as a form of emotional labor. Coincidentally, three years later, on March 9th, 2020, I decided to run an experiment and not smile for a day too. The experiment took place in New York City, where I had moved for a graduate program.

It was a fiasco. I caught myself smiling to a security guard who, in two years, never failed to ignore my greeting, not to mention smiling back. I smiled at an acquaintance I didn’t like. At a salesman at a soup shop. At a greeter in a Muji store. At a stranger who held a door for me.

I incessantly grinned for the sake of nothing even as I tried to stay stone-faced. By the end of the day, I was painfully conscious of the slightest twitches of my face muscles, exhausted from attempts to hold them rigid. But the failure made me curious. I decided to extend the experiment for a couple more days. That week, I noticed not only how hard it was to fight an urge to smile, but also how many people don’t smile back.

I became aware of all the different smiles I have: happy, anxious, embarrassed, polite, reassuring, sad, and even mean.

By day five, I got much better at holding a straight face. People didn’t seem to notice the change except for my boyfriend, who decided that I had gotten depressed and wouldn’t let me be until I confessed the experiment.

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eminists aren’t the only women who tried to abstain from this gesture. In 2015, the British media wrote about Tess Christian, a 50-year-old woman who hadn’t smiled or laughed since her teenage years.

She was battling not patriarchy but wrinkles, partially inspired by Marlene Dietrich’s poker-face glamour. However, over the years, Christian developed a pet peeve: men who kept urging her to cheer up. She remained undeterred. The woman didn’t smile even when her daughter was born. By then, a deadpan expression was second nature to her, and she could be happy without smiling. I doubt I could do the same.

Psychologists claim that smiling is crucial for mental health. It invokes a surge of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, like as if you ate a dessert or had a tiny orgasm. Laughter therapy helps fight depression and cancer, and smiley people tend to be happier, live longer, and appear more attractive and trustworthy to others (although less competent).

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In a 1988 study, psychologist Fritz Strack and his colleagues asked students of the University of Illinois to watch a cartoon, holding a felt-tipped marker in their mouth. One group clutched it between their teeth, forcing a grin, while another gripped it with their lips, forcing a frown. The students didn’t realize they were smiling or pouting: they thought the experiment was exploring how the impaired used their mouth to write. Yet the “grinning” group found the cartoon funnier.

The study became exemplar in supporting the hypothesis that our facial expressions affect our moods (in a 2016 series of experiments, the findings failed to replicate, but another study in 2018 found that a discrepancy in methods was a possible reason for the failure).

Smiling itself can make you happier — but only if it is genuine.

In a 2019 study, psychologists from Penn State and University at Buffalo interviewed 1,592 American employees who offer “service with a smile” daily, including baristas, cashiers, sales associates, nurses, and teachers. The study showed that service workers are more likely to drink heavily after work: more than four to five drinks at a time and to intoxication. Researchers suggested that the more people do “surface acting” — amplifying, faking, or suppressing felt emotions to appear positive — the more it depletes their capacity for later self-control.

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motional labor taxes the psyche. Years after I first asked myself whether I should smile less, I still mull over this question. I haven’t quite figured how to live with all the knowledge I acquired trying to find a proper answer. My failed experiment was a crucial exercise that made me conscious of all the energy I spend taking care of other people’s reactions to my face. Now, I can’t help noticing how people ignore and misinterpret my smiling.

I wonder whether I would feel less burdened by humanity or, on the contrary, more miserable if I could give up smiling. But I figured that just as some people have a “resting bitch face,” others have a “resting smiling face,” and be it by habit or natural disposition, the corners of my lips tend to creep upward.

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