Smile: Are You Happy?

A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on July 8, 2015, at the Firehouse Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois

July 8, 2015 |   Print this essay


Civilizations could not develop without spoken and written language as means of communication. But, long before verbal language, people were communicating with facial expressions and body gestures. Certainly this non-verbal communication did not promote technical and intellectual products, but it was essential to relations between people. Because we often relate to people, not so much by what they say, but by what we see, facial expressions function as signals which convey social information. In many ways, such information is even more fundamental and ‘real’ than what is communicated with words. According to Raffi Khadourian in a recent essay in the New Yorker:
Our faces are organs of emotional communication; by some estimates, we transfer more data with our expressions than with what we say…:
We express ourselves and understand the feelings of others by facial expression, usually in exchanges of expressions, accompanied by words. In a sense, we ‘read’ the faces of those with whom we are interacting, reflexively searching for signs of subtle feelings that are not verbalized. What we see affects how we respond. Unless we are acting, these expressions reveal to others what kind of people we are. They tell us about what kinds of people others are or, often, what they want us to think they are. They communicate how we want others to think we feel and tell them how we want them to feel. For example, if we want them to like us, we smile and hope that they smile back at us; if we are speaking seriously, we would be troubled by a smile and take it as possible criticism. We take facial expressions for granted and respond without being aware that we are, but face to face social relations are impossible without them. It is a dynamic, if unacknowledged, part of any social event.

Because its content is subjective and often unconscious, most people are oblivious to the effects of this kind of communication, but such expressions are not only vital to our personal lives; their recognition is now also playing an increasingly important part of in our public, economic lives as well. There are now computer programs that can read the most subliminal, facial responses to ads and products. Such information is being used in advertising by companies such as AOL, Hitachi, eBay, I.B.M, Yahoo and Motorola.

Like verbal communication, we have a whole vocabulary of facial expressions. We express despair, love, lust, suffering, joy, sadness, surprise, grief, bewilderment, anger, frustration, resignation, anticipation, loss, boredom, disgust, curiosity, fear, concern, snobbishness, aloofness, imperiousness, superiority, thoughtfulness, exhaustion, inspiration, alarm, doubt and many others which are too subtle to be labeled. In that they are psychological responses rather than interpretations of symbols, facial expressions are more direct and immediate than words. We respond to a smile more intensely and intimately than the word, ‘smile’ or even the most elaborate description of a smile.

It is impossible to look at a face and not respond to its expression, even though we might not be aware that we are doing so. Sometimes our faces may even contradict what we are saying. Even an expressionless face communicates. It may be expressing neutrality, boredom, superiority, rejection or thoughtfulness. People who don’t generally show facial expressions are often thought of as being cold and insensitive. In certain circumstances, they might be considered either serious and superior or, on the other hand, stupid. Or deaf. But whatever their causes, we respond to their absence.

There is an innate base to facial expressions. Not only are there similarities between the ways in which facial expressions represent emotions in different cultures; chimpanzees are able to communicate many of the same facial expressions as humans. Congenitally blind people laugh, smile, cry and frown without having seen such expressions. Infants also display emotions with facial expressions that they have not actually seen. Newborns everywhere express disgust in response to bitter tastes, show distress in response to painful stimuli, and interest in response to novel sounds and other sensory changes. Most people laugh or smile when they are happy and frown when they are sad or angry. A pulled down mouth always means some kind of negative response. It may represent disgust, disapproval, rejection or skepticism.

Our responses are shaped by past experiences. Facial expressions are modified, concealed, exaggerated, pretended or suppressed by how people respond to them As a result, different cultures have developed their own codes of emotional expression. If we have grown up in a particular culture, we will unconsciously use its code. We will have learned what to expect when we interpret facial expressions and would be expected to respond appropriately. Any expression that deviates from the code can disrupt social relations. In public and formal situations many Japanese do not show their emotions as freely as Americans do. However, more privately and with friends, Japanese and Americans seem to show their emotions similarly. Many Mediterranean cultures including Latino and Arabic, exaggerate grief or sadness while most American men hide grief or sorrow. They see “animated” expressions as a sign of a lack of control.

Like verbal languages, such codes can be used independent of what we feel. Presidential candidates must look sincere (even when they have just contradicted their previous positions), comedians appear funny (even when they are depressed) and TV news anchors look serious (even when they are lying). Actors, salespeople, negotiators, doctors and teachers also express emotions they don’t necessarily feel, but use them to enrich or contradict what they are saying. The dramatic arts depend on facial expressions. Theater, film, (especially silent film) and TV drama (especially close-ups) depend on facial expression to dramatize the dialogue and to make it convincing. Japanese theatrical masks, the makeup on the faces on Japanese Kumadori actors carry this even further by exaggerating and dramatizing stereotypical facial expressions of the characters in plays. Commercial advertisements and political speeches are inconceivable without facial expressions making products and people popular, attractive and saleable.


Smiling is probably the most common human facial expression, so much so that it often is a cultural convention in our society. For example, when we take a photograph of a person, we say, “smile”. The photograph will show a happy person regardless of how that person was feeling. A smile is the expected expression in such a photograph; a frown would raise questions and we would wonder what was wrong. Although smiles can show pride, contempt, and embarrassment, it is usually associated with good feelings. As such, it suggestsÊpleasure,Êsociability, love,Êhappiness orÊamusement. It is usually intended to have a favorable influence upon others and make one likable and more approachable. We smile on greeting friends. Salespeople, announcers, entertainers, and other public performers always smile while performing. Unless suffering from flatulence or shingles, everyone in TV commercials smiles. Old people, in ads for retirement homes, always smile, indicating how great it is to be old, but only if you lived in their institutions. Their children also always smile and we might wonder whether they are happy because their parents are happy or because they no longer have the responsibility of taking care of them. Women smile more than men.

But smiles can have different meanings. Although college presidents look dignified and don’t smile in official portraits, like political candidates and celebrities, they do in school advertisements, I assume to attract potential students to a friendly institution. A woman's smile at a police officer does not carry the same meaning as the smile she gives to a young child. No one smiles in Renaissance or Neoclassical paintings, where deities, mythological heroes and royalty express noble emotions. They do in Dutch painting, where ordinary people are enjoying themselves. “In the 17th century in Europe, it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainers. Showing the teeth was for the upper classes a more-or-less formal breach of etiquette. St. Jean-Baptiste De La Salle, inÊThe Rules of Christian Decorum and CivilityÊof 1703, wrote:
There are some people who raise their upper lip so high…: that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.
Even today, the public expression of emotion is sometimes frowned upon as indicating lower class status.

When Franz Hals paints a smiling man, the man is having a good time, but when Caravaggio paints a smiling boy, the boy is lustful. In James Bond films, the villain always smiles while explaining to the captive hero why he is going to kill him. We don’t smile at Jewish memorial services for the dead unless reminiscing about a humorous memory. We would have at a traditional Irish wake, however, which was, among other things, a happy celebration of a person’s life.

A recent study examined publicly available photographs of 533 members of Congress, and found that conservative politicians were less likely than liberals to display smiles involving facial muscles around the eyes, a measure that previous research has found to be associated with genuine emotion. A genuine smile, called the Duchenne, is typically accompanied by eye crinkling, and it demonstrates real happiness. The alternative, called the Pan Am because it was used by Pan Am hostesses, also known as the Botox smile, is a counterfeit smile. The use of Botox injections to artificially remove wrinkles around the eyes can result in the paralysis of the small muscles around the eyes, preventing the appearance of a Duchenne smile. The point is: When we are truly happy, our smiles are genuine. I guess Republicans are better actors than Democrats or Democrats are more sincere. Artists have always had problems with expressions when painting portraits. Of course, it is hard for a subject to hold a smile for a long period of time while sitting, but, beyond that, for cultural reasons, it has also been inappropriate and undignified to show a smile in a public portrait. Historically, in most of these portraits, the subject is likely to have a smirk rather than a smile on his face. “A smirk in a portrait may offer artists an opportunity for ambiguity that the open smile cannot. Such a subtle and complex facial expression may convey almost anything Ñ piqued interest, condescension, flirtation, wistfulness, boredom, discomfort, contentment, or mild embarrassment. This equivocation allows the artist to offer us a lasting emotional engagement with the image. An open smile, however, is unequivocal, a signal moment of unselfconsciousness.

“Smiling is a signaling system that is advertisement of sexual interest. Female smiles are appealing to heterosexual males, increasing physical attractiveness and enhancing sex appeal. However, recent research indicates a man's smile may or may not be most effective in attracting heterosexual women, and that facial expressions such as pride or even shame might be more effective.

Although cross-cultural studies have shown that smiling is a means of communication throughout the world,Êthere are large differences between different cultures. While smiling is perceived as a positive emotion most of the time, there are manyÊculturesÊthat perceive smiling as a negative expression. A smile is frequently used to coverÊemotional pain and embarrassment. Japanese people may smile when they are confused or angry. Many Asian cultures suppress facial expression as much as possible. Vietnamese people may tell the sad story of how they had to leave their country but end the story with a smile. Too much smiling can be viewed as a sign of shallowness orÊdishonesty. Many people in theÊformer Soviet UnionÊarea consider smiling at strangers in public to be unusual and even suspicious behavior. Yet many Americans smile freely at strangers in public places (although this is less common in big cities). Some Russians believe that Americans smile in the wrong places; some Americans believe that Russians don't smile enough.

Smiles are often combined with movements of the eyebrows. Eyebrows also send messages. Lowering eyebrows, accompanied with lowered head, can indicate deception or annoyance. Lowered eyebrows can be a sign of a dominant person. When a person is surprised, their eyebrows are often raised. Raising the eyebrows can also ask for attention from others and can signal general interest. When the eyebrows are raised after a question is asked, this is a clear invitation to answer the question. Raising eyebrows may also be a submissive move or indicate openness. Widening one’s eyes by intentionally raising the eyebrows is sometimes done in order to be perceived as less aggressive. Lowering the eyelids while raising the brows and slightly parting the lips is a complex facial expression that was always used by women to show their sexual submissiveness. Dominance and attractive signals can often be similar and raising eyebrows to expose eyes can also be a signal of attraction. Raising a single eyebrow can show skepticism or cynicism. Different kinds of squinting can show relief, anxiety, anger, frustration or intense concentration. It can indicate confusion or an attempt to perceive better. Some variations show sadness. When we see people we know, we often give a quick single up-down 'eyebrow flash' in recognition and greeting. This is a common signal across all primates, including monkeys and gorillas. It is a long-distance “hello” signal that is used unconsciously to acknowledge another person. The person will raise his or her eyebrows for a split second and then drop them back. The purpose of this signal is to draw the attention of another person to the face, so that other signals can then be exchanged. The person who doesn’t do it on initial greeting is perceived as a potential threat or danger. Rapid and repeated up and down movement may be an exaggerated signal, meaning 'Well how about that then!', in the way that Groucho Marx used it.


Given this range of possible responses to facial expressions, how do we read them in historical works of art where we are not sure of what their intent is? Of course, we can enjoy works of art for any reason, without knowing its original meaning. In fact, we may have no choice. Because so much has changed since the time historical objects were made, it is unlikely that we see them as they were intended to be seen. Both we and the objects have changed. The objects may have been damaged, inaccurately restored and most often relocated in museums. Our perceptions, values and assumptions about reality are not those of original perceivers. We cannot perceive a 13th century painting of a Crucifixion as a medieval man would, let alone as a Muslim or a Jew. Our responses to historical art may be projected into the expression based on our knowledge of its history, but we have to be careful not to project our own perceptual habits on to the products of other cultures and assume that that was their original intent.

We may be ignorant of the intended symbolic content of the object. For example, “we may enjoy images of monkeys in Medieval sculptures as evidence of the whimsy or freedom of the medieval artist, but most likely they are following iconographic rules and traditions of their own. They may represent sin or the devil. They may have been drawn from popular culture, have ancient pagan roots or represent purposeful warnings meant to contrast with the solemnity of the adjacent images of holy men.

The function of an object may have changed and, therefore, the meaning of its expression would also have changed. For example, how do we read the expression on the face of a young athlete on a Roman statue that has been re-identified, several hundred years after it was made, as a statue of a beardless, young Christ, a statue, by the way, that also was once brightly colored and is now colorless? A pagan head obviously does not have the same meaning as a Christian head. The meaning of an expression thus depends on the significance we give the person represented. It also has to do with the general significance we give to heads. For us, the head is the center of the intellect, for some, the location of the soul. It is the location of our personality and we might expect a representation to show that. Portraits establish identities by describing appearances, but it also may idealize that appearance. The head may be that of a particular individual, but it also may be that of a king or a merchant where status, not personality, matters. It may also be that of no particular person, a generalized person or a symbol of a saint or martyr. It may be used as a corporate identity, eg. a smiling Col Sanders for Kentucky Fried Chicken. It may have magical power, the power to protect, heal or do harm. It may be a votive offering to a deity, a surrogate for a person. In each case, these expressions will have different meanings.

Given our ignorance, how do we interpret the traditional smile on the faces of Archaic Greek sculpture or on the faces of angels on the facades of Gothic cathedrals? We have to guess, based on what we do know. As a result, however, there are a many possible interpretations. Some anthropologists maintain that the Archaic smile was probably meant to interpret ignorant happiness. Other experts think that they were blessed by the gods for their life works. The smile may indicate that the person was still alive. Some modern anthropologists believe that it may simply be a pre-planned smile just like we do today in modern photographs. Perhaps it was mechanically difficult to fit a semi-circle of a mouth onto the typical shape of the Archaic structure and that, therefore, it just appears to the viewer as a smile.

One anthropologist describes smiles on angels’ faces on Gothic cathedrals as “The smile, between a pronounced chin and eyes too sharply defined, is winsome and mysterious, but tinged with smugness. It lands somewhere between a Botticelli maiden and the “Mona Lisa.” A rather personal, subjective projection, but, seeing that we don’t know, why not?

Perhaps the most important smile in the history of western art is the ‘enigmatic smile’ on the face of Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of “Mona Lisa”, painted in 1503. For 500 years, no one saw such an expression. No one saw an enigmatic smile on Mona's lips until the early 19th century when the Romantics said she had one. Since then, the Mona Lisa has been called sweet, divine, perfidious, mocking, sinuous, serpentine, doubting, licentious, Epicurean, deliciously tender, ardent, sad, provocative, ineffable, cruel, sibylline, voluptuous, uncertain, satanic, symptomatic, symbolic and more. The obvious interpretations of facial expressions like smiles then are not only those intended by the person expressing the emotion or those of the artist representing that expression, but, especially when the meaning of the expression is ambiguous, irrelevant or not known, also, the sensibilities of the observer. In this sense, all facial expressions in historical art are enigmatic. Sometimes the meaning of expressions seems obvious, as in mythological images or in descriptions of historical events, but since as our cultural backgrounds are different than those of their creators, our responses are likely to be different. We cannot avoid responding on the basis of our own experiences. But we do respond.

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