The more that I travel the more that I become aware of apparent cultural differences in smiling (or “smile behaviour” as psychologists would call it). It seems that smiles are more evident in some countries than in others, for example Thailand is often called “The Land of Smiles”…, Now, this got me pondering a number of questions: could my noted smile difference just be that more people used to smile at me than they now do ? am I more of a ‘smilable at’ target in some countries rather than others (am I more liked in certain countries ?) do certain cultures find me threatening or repulsive ? Is smiling a negative public behaviour in some cultures ? I remember reading John Howard Griffiths account (in the book “Black Like Me”) of transforming from white man to black man years ago. Griffiths said that the biggest difference that he immediately noticed on his first day as a black man in the then segregated south was that far fewer people smiled at him than they used to when he was a white man. Writing this post in Thailand (aka “The Land of Smiles”) I am struck by the range of smiling found in Asia, and elsewhere. I detect a lot less smiling in W.Europe, N.America and N.E Asia than in the Theravada Buddhist societies of S.E.Asia. So, I decided to have a look at the psychological research on cross-cultural studies of smiling, there is a substantial body of research out there on smiling. There are some interesting findings in this research :

  • there are significant cultural differences in both the frequency of smiles and the context in which they are produced.
  • real smiles are signifed by movement in the eye muscles, not the mouth.
  • we attribute personality characteristics according to whether we receive a smile, obvious cross cultural problems can therefore ensue.
  • Most research shows that women tend to smile more than men, and that the young tend to smille more often the old, irrespective of culture.
  • Culture is also time based. A study of Yearbook pictures from 1968 to the present showed that the number of people smiling in their pictures increased over the years.
  • Researchers are divided over the relationship between smiling and power. Some say that the powerful are more likely to smile, others say the exact opposite.
  • Evolutionary Psychologists are divided over the function of the smile. Some see it as denoting an emotional state (usually happiness), however others argue that the smile is the human equivalent of the primate silent bare teeth glare, which functions as an appeasement device. The evolutionary thread here is temptingly obvious: imagine the smiling victor – smile evolved to appease the disgruntled & the potential challenger..,
  • Reactions to different smiles are also culturally specific.., e.g. in some cultures there is a stronger reaction to the sad smile than in other cultures etc

whatever the truth behind smiles may be it is clear that increasing globalisation requires us to have a better understanding of inter-cultural body language…,   many of the findings cited here come from this wonderful article, and this one !


About danieltrump

breathing and sensing human. Learning to observe, learning to write, exploring ideas and thinking.

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