Faked and real smiles.

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If you travel as a tourist or on business to the Ukraine you will feel a bit odd in the beginning. You had been warned. “Ukraine still specializes in blind waiters, dumbstruck receptionists, nail-filing ticket sellers and devious policemen”. This “Lonely Planet” travel book remark is a humorous statement of exaggeration and certainly does an injustice to a people welcoming Western tourists as a rare breed of strangers with a mixture of curiosity and shyness. The “Lonely Planet” is however right in noticing that something is missing in your interactions, especially with the local representatives of the service industries. It takes some time until you finally realize that people rarely smile at you. Only after some time observing them interacting with each other do you notice with relaxation that the straight and earnest face is not only shown to you, the Ukrainians also don’t smile at each other in commerce. The exchange of goods, services and money is seen as a serious matter.
One could ask why they should smile, looking at their lives? Like the populations of most states having emerged out of the former Soviet Union they feel not having stepped through the doors of security and affluence. Only a few of the new political systems deserve the label “democratic” and life is hard. This fact is reflected in the “World Database of Happiness” by Rut Veenhoven from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam in which the Ukraine ranks number 110 of the 149 nations indexed and the average life expectancy is just 67.7 years, seven years lower than in neighboring Poland. Only 33.7 years of life are regarded as happy ones whilst the populations of the top ten countries in the survey enjoy over 60 happy years. This lack of progress is felt by a proud and hard-working people who live surrounded by statues of Mig fighters, tanks, rockets and Lenin as symbols of a less democratic but more glorious time. Big black SUVs on the streets indicate for the majority of the people that there have been winners in a distribution they had no part in.
Of course, Ukrainians do smile and when you encounter these smiles you know they are probably genuine. In psychology a genuine smile is called a “Duchenne smile” named after French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne who studied facial expression by electrical stimulation of nerves in the 19th century. Two muscle groups make up the smiling face, the zygomatic major in our cheeks and the orbicularis oculi which encircles the eye socket. In his 1862 book “Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine” Duchenne observed that only the zygomatic major muscle can be contracted intentionally. The genuine smile expresses itself around the eyes; the orbicularis oculi cannot be willfully activated and therefore this region of the face unmasks in its inertia false friends just pretending to smile. Take the test with the BBC!
Of course we hope to meet genuinely smiling people, but outside the Ukraine we more often encounter the faked smile. Smiling serves many purposes. Eminent psychologist Paul Ekman, who elaborated on Duchenne’s findings with more modern scientific methods, speaks of “display rules” for smiling and these rules vary with situations and cultures. Piotr Szarota from the Polish Academy of Sciences argues that for North Americans, smiling is related to their preoccupation with happiness, Japanese smile to fit into the cultural norm of harmony and Polish people smile to express sincerity. Besides these cultural differences of course there are situations in which we expect as “display rules” friendliness expressed in smiles even if these are probably not genuine, especially when encountering the service industries. The request to “smile” stands at the beginning and the end of many training programs for sales personnel though this isn’t always obvious.
To fake a smile to comply with social norms has rarely been seen as a problem. To twist the cheeks a little in order to get along more easily is neither a problem for the actor nor the observer. In fact, sporting a smile even if it’s not from the heart can sometimes help us to feel better. To “grin and bear” an unpleasant situation takes advantage of the feedback loop between the facial muscles and the brain, which infers a positive mood even if it is not felt. In a recent study Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman from Kansas University found that even holding chopsticks in your mouth forcing you to mimic a smile has a small but positive effect on heart rate and self reported stress levels.
However, it is evident that this result out of a short laboratory study can hardly be generalized. Regularly faking emotions as a display rule of “emotion work” in many sales and service professions can take its toll. In her bestselling book “The Managed Heart” written close to thirty years ago and still popular with general readers and in academia, sociologist Arie Hochschild wrote that if outer and inner feelings have to be dissociated as a professional requirement, the likelihood of emotional burnout increases and job satisfaction decreases.
The genuine Duchenne smile, however, is with certainty the expression of an emotionality which with its positive and happy tone has far reaching consequences. Women who smiled genuinely on their college year book pages had a higher level of general wellbeing and marital satisfaction thirty years later. Conversely, low intensity smiles in youth are correlated with divorce later in life. Smile intensity is a predictor of longevity and when it comes to the workplace, people prefer to work with those genuinely smiling. Eric Jaffe from the Association for Psychological Science gives an excellent summary of the recent research.
An optimistic temperament does help, but even then a person needs a reason to smile and this reason is regularly found in the smiles of others. Just seeing an attractive face positively stimulates the human brain and a smile is met with a high probability of a smile in response. Also however, overall life conditions with their positive events and small satisfactions of everyday life contribute. People in the Ukraine and many other countries in the world still have a hard time bettering their life situation in a way letting them smile more often.