The Many Meanings of a Smile

A Smile Can Hide More Than it Reveals

1. “smile though your heart is breaking, smile even though it’s 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. People also smile when they’re lying, a fact not lost on Shakespeare: Hamlet marvels at how “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Shakespeare: Hamlet marvels at how “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

5. Finally there is The Mona Lisa with her enigmatic smile.

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

In actuality, smiling, like all human nonverbal communication, is highly complex and open to many interpretations. 

A notorious police mug shot of Jared Lee Loughner, the mass murderer and shooter who killed several people and wounded a congresswoman in Arizona is grinning. Revisit the picture on the Internet, and you will observe how wicked that smile is. Yet, his defense attorneys are trying to ban the mug shot because it reflects poorly upon him. “But he’s smiling, isn’t he?” 

Studies show that smiles express many more emotions than happiness or contentment. The basis of a smile can be conceit, embarrassment, shame, deceit, grief, tension, and uneasiness. How often have you smiled when you are with someone who has said or done something that makes you feel outraged? In this type of circumstance, well known to most of us, there is a need to smile to cover the anger. Perhaps we are not comfortable discussing our natural 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 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, people restrain their smiles. The Japanese control their emotions. When they view a person smiling, they focus on the upper part of the face, especially the eyes, to understand the true meaning of what the person is conveying. Americans focus on the lower part of the face, particularly the mouth. The reason is that, while the mouth is flexible and can take many shapes, including a smile, this is far less true of the eyes. In addition, unlike the Russians, the Japanese smile to convey politeness.

It’s essential not to come to conclusions too quickly when you meet someone smiling. Yes, mainly 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 one occasion, I asked a friend or family what was wrong, even when smiling. There is something not quite right about the smile. The mouth has the correct shape, but the eyes, eyebrows, and tone of voice suggest something other than all is well.

Finally, are you confident that your smile reveals or expresses what you feel? 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? 

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  1. […] The Many Meanings of a Smile — Explorations in Psychotherapy […]

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