Smiles Amongst the Snarls

I prefer to think of smiles between human strangers as natural expressions of friendliness; automatic, nonthreatening responses to the presence of another human being. Wedged in there between amiable welcoming and symbolism of upturned corners of the mouth  suggesting the absence of threats, the smile is a visual sign of at least a touch of joy. That’s what I like to think.

A twenty-one-year-old article from Scientific American, though, offers a slightly less gushing assessment, based on both observation and research. Frank T. McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., who was quoted in that article (How Did the “Smile” Become a Friendly Gesture in Humans?), has done extensive research on facial expressions. He observed that:

In a lot of human smiling, it is something you do in public, but it does not reflect true ‘friendly’ feelings–think of politicians smiling for photographers…What is especially interesting is that you do not have to learn to do any of this–it is preprogrammed behavior. Kids who are born blind never see anybody smile, but they show the same kinds of smiles under the same situations as sighted people.

I liked what McAndrews had to say, so I checked his credentials. He is still a professor at Knox College. He is known for his work in evolutionary psychology and has been cited in the literature 2995 times (the most recent count I could find; with this blog post, perhaps the number jumps to 2996).

My interest in smiles this morning arose unexpectedly and without any trigger that I can discern. Perhaps I wondered to myself how, in the ugly face of a poisonous president and a deadly pandemic, we find it within ourselves to continue to smile every day. The reason for my interest notwithstanding, I found myself intrigued by the very idea of smiles. So, I did what I always do when a question about which I have opinions but few facts arises: I did some superficial research that only barely touches the surface of what’s “out there” for me to learn. I won’t go into the gritty details of what I found, but suffice it to say the research into both smiles and their surly cousins, snarls, is extensive; almost overwhelming. Some of what I read suggested to me (that is, my mind interpreted what I read to mean) that smiles could be in a close race with snarls for the most common human expression. Nothing said so, explicitly, but some of the articles I skimmed (very superficially, I stress) made me wonder whether stressful news and even more stressful experiences may be erasing the emotions that prompt us to smile? That’s an enormously depressing thought, one that all by itself can wipe the smile from my face. Again, though, it’s my interpretation of language that may well have been intended to be read in a completely different way. Superficial research often yields superficial (and utterly unreliable) answers.

I admit I got a bit bogged down by McAndrews’ work. He remains active, it seems, and has published extensively in his field. Interestingly (and suspiciously, in my book), much of his published work can be found in popular magazines, newspapers, television, and radio like Psychology Today, The New Yorker, Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, BBC, NPR, PBS, the Today Show, etc., etc. It’s probably an indefensible bias, but my trust of the depth of knowledge and quality of research of academicians tends to slide when I learn their academic exposure include extensive mass media outlets. So, McAndrews may be as reliable as my superficial research; but, at least, he’s a professional with credentials far beyond mine, so I’ll stick with him for the moment. To do otherwise would suggest I think my superficial interest has greater core value than does his substantially more expansive knowledge.

But I’ve drifted away from smiles and snarls, haven’t I? Let me close this trivial diversion by saying I hope I find occasion to smile a lot today and I hope I encounter others who smile a great deal. Smiles, whether our own or those of others, tend to elevate our moods and make us happier beings. Smiling tends to bring joy, however brief and however modest, to those around us. Therefore, I advocate that, at least for today and preferably for a lifetime, we endeavor to smile as genuinely and as much as we possibly can. And leave the snarls in sealed cardboard boxes.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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