The Shadow of Your Smile – Part II

Cheshire Cat

Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend/Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within.*

Let’s face it, dear readers.  The smile is not always Duchenne.  It’s actually a rather complex human communication tool we use to send an array of messages.  It’s a core component of facial expression and body language — surprisingly difficult for us to understand in each other.

Psychologists tell us that our smiles are tied to emotions — intricate in an of themselves.  Ironically, emotions were not even considered a topic worth of scientific research for many years, as they were deemed an illogical, even unhealthy aspect of human behavior.  In the 1970s, though, there came an explosion of human emotions study, paralleling the advent of brain research.

So the smile is not a consistent conveyer of joy, contentment, and amusement.  It carries some rather negative stuff, including anger, disgust, fear, pain, and sadness.  And therein lies its complexity.

Dr.  Paul Ekman, psychologist and researcher at the University of California, who has studied human emotion, facial expression, and body language, has written extensively on the difference between the Duchenne smile (the happiness/genuine smile) and what he terms “other smiles,” or smiles that are used to communicate happiness when in fact this emotion is not felt.

Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes they don’t tell the truth.

Grinch Smiling

These “other smiles” were briefly referenced in my previous post on smiling.  They help us cope with embarrassment or emotional upset, among other things.  These “outer” smiles conceal the “inner” feelings.  They may also  send messages to our fellow humans that all isn’t exactly well and we could use a break .

Ekman describes three types of  “other smiles.”

The “false smile” is used to communicate happy feelings when the individual is not actually experiencing a positive emotion.

Rachel Ray with Fake Smile

This smile has also been referred to as the Pan Am smile, a not-so-friendly reference to flight attendants on this now-defunct airline who apparently cast careless grins at all passengers at the beginning and end of each trip.  (Remember the Saturday Night Live skit in which David Spade and others  offered the perfunctory “Buh-bye” to all passengers as they exited the airplane?)

The “masking smile” is a purposeful effort to hide a negative emotion.

The “miserable smile”  communicates an individual’s effort to cope with an uncomfortable situation.

Britney Spears and Unsure Smile

Ekman’s research and similar studies describe the main outward difference between genuine smiles and other smiles centering on  the eyes:  a genuine smile shows the muscles around the mouth turned up and laterally wide, along with the ocular muscles around the eyes pushed upward;  an “other” smile shows muscle movement around the mouth only , with no muscle movement around the eyes.

The truth is in the eyes ’cause the eyes don’t lie, amen.

The Duchenne smile is effortless and natural.  The “other smiles” require conscious effort.

We’ve all got both.

We know  that smiles are reflections of emotion — or attempts to camouflage negative emotion.  And we’ve actually been practicing these “other smiles” for some time.  The roots of emotion can be found in infancy.  Children actually begin learning to hide their emotions around the tender age of three years.   Many researchers believe emotions actually come first in development; they are powerful tools for communication and survival.  A scene in the 1986 NOVA episode, Life’s First Feelings, shows an experiment requiring mothers to maintain a neutral facial expression while interacting with their infants.  In one instance, we see a male infant smiling at his mother as she stares at him, her mouth in a tight line across her face, her eyes gazing straight at him but devoid of joy.  In an attempt to engage her, he flashes a big, full grin — a Duchenne smile — to which she does not respond.  To calm himself in this unsettling circumstance, he looks away, and plays with his hands.  He makes a second attempt to bring her back in with a smile — to no avail.  At this point we see him begin to “de-regulate,” as a developmentalist might say:  this unfamiliar experience is so upsetting he begins drooling, tonguing, and even hiccupping.  After a third unsuccessful attempt to bring his mother back in,  he resorts to crying to get her attention.

This is a difficult scene to watch.  I have shown it many times over the years in a Child Development class, and students find it uncomfortable but quite educative.  It shows our intense need to bond and how critical our emotions are to our survival.  For a baby, if that smile doesn’t work — you sure as heck better cry.

But I have often thought that smiles may also convey much darker emotions and more deeply negative messages.  I think they are the other reality of the smile.

These are the smiles that convey mal-intent: contempt … intimidation … abuse … evil.

Joker Smiling

These smiles include the bully who rattles his mark.  The rival who gets inside the head of her opponent.  The abuser who has broken his victim.  The psychopath who feels no remorse in an act of evil.  The enraged individual who seeks revenge.    Those are the smiles that creep us out.   They are the smiles that convey something isn’t quite right.

Remember a smile is just a frown turned upside down.


These smiles  represent the dark side of our humanity, and they are no less present than that Duchenne smile.  We are a bundle of complicated feelings and motivations .  Perhaps that’s where emotional intelligence comes in:  recognizing the opposing forces we experience, accepting that they exist, and working to manage them as we bump through life, in all our daily interactions and experiences, and in all our relationships.

It ain’t easy.

We smile for joy and we smile for survival.  I hope you experience, at the very least, one Duchenne smile today, and that it crinkles your face up so tightly that your eyes close in delight.

I’m off to hug my Teddy bear.


*Lyrics from Strong and Whitfield’s, “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” hit record by the group The Undisputed Truth, 1971, and recorded later that year by The Temptations.

3 thoughts on “The Shadow of Your Smile – Part II”

  1. “O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!…one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” – Hamlet

  2. I think Strong and Whitfield must have glanced at Hamlet. I am smiling out of both sides of my face just reading your post – one because I am impressed by my sis and the other because I am jealous! Great essay.

Comments are closed.