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Why Smiling Habits Range From Country to Country

Real vs Fake Smiles

Guillaume Duchenne, a French physician who studied facial expressions in the nineteenth century, concluded that the difference between genuine and fake smiles lie in voluntary and involuntary muscle contractions. Certain stimuli reach a threshold in which the brain sends a message to the zygomatic major causing it to contract, pulling the corners of the mouth up, as well as the making the orbicularis oculi, or eye muscles, tighten, creating crow’s feet. The zygomatic element of a genuine, or Duchenne, smile can be replicated when producing a fake smile but the eyes are the window into the soul. Being able to consciously contract the zygomatic major is one thing but Duchenne writes that only the “sweet emotions of the soul” force the orbicularis oculi to contract.

Coffeeshop Observations about Smiling Trends

Customer service in the U.S. is based off of making the customer feel welcome and the ability to exude friendliness. Smiling and small talk are encouraged, but that behavior isn’t always reciprocated — especially when different cultures are involved. After working in a coffeeshop for over two years I’ve come across a variety of people who smile and are pleasant or are just borderline terrible but I’ve noticed that Europeans tend to fall in between. No unnecessary comments about the store or prying questions about the small town in which it resides… Which lead me to wonder, do differences in customer-employee interactions between countries depend on general attitudes regarding smiling and politeness?

Smiling Habits Explained

A smile, regardless of whether or not it’s genuine, tends to be a cornerstone in today’s perception of happiness and approachability. Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College, attributes people’s toothy smiles as an innate behavior from primates baring their teeth as a sign of submission. Modern societies don’t require signs of submission because interpersonal relationships have changed from surviving in the hunter-gatherer era to maneuvering present social interactions. In certain interactions, like professional settings, people don’t actively think about displaying signs of submission to their superior rather they smile to be approachable and respectful.

A possibility as to why the United States’ service industry is built on the foundation of physically expressing politeness has its roots in the history of immigration. After polling people in thirty-two countries, an international group of researchers discovered that emotional expressiveness is correlated with diversity. Countries with a history of more immigration tend to have more diverse inhabitants that rely on nonverbal forms of communication. Smiling became a way to show approachability, cooperation, and an overall nonthreatening presence.

A diverse group of women sharing a laugh

Cultural differences in smiling are also influenced by a country’s socioeconomic status. Before the Berlin Wall fell, differences in behavioral signs between Eastern and Western Berliners were measured by researchers. Workers of West Berlin, the more prosperous of the two, expressed a Duchenne smile more than their Eastern counterparts because of their levels of happiness and overall satisfaction in life.

There is a certain amount of confidence behind a smile, a representation of assertion as well as authenticity. When people are told to smile, their freedom to express true emotion is stripped from them and replaced with a sense of what should be plastered on their face. Whether due to immigration rates or economic status, growing up in a community where smiling isn’t made mainstream creates emotional reservations not absences.

Please and Thank You

A smiling cup of coffee

The inability to match levels of outward excitement don’t necessarily indicate the worst in people, especially since a genuine smile is more difficult to come by. Considering the diversity of customers whose order I take, a simple “please” and “thank you” go a long way regardless if it’s accompanied by a smile. To employees in the customer service industry and tourists alike, don’t be so quick to misinterpret the lack of a smile as something more serious than it is.


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