Culture and the Meaning of Smiles

I mentioned back in my post “Smiles are the Tip of the Biggest Iceberg” that in my professional life as a university professor I conduct research on the human smile and how we understand its meanings. Carl Zimmer did a nice Science Times piece on a model that I developed with others that tries to describe the behaviors and brain processes that help us in these matters.  I was glad that he could make the work understandable.


One of the questions that people always ask researchers of facial expression of emotion is how smiles differ across culture. There are differences in the frequency with which people spontaneously smile and how they use deliberate smiles across countries.  But for me the question is, how do the differences across countries relate to culture?  Does every country have its own culture when it comes to smiling (or facial expression in general), or are there bigger groupings of countries that, together, use and interpret facial expressions in roughly the same way?

A while back a thought occurred to me while reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (such as Little House on the Prairie). These books tell a story of what life was like for immigrants who came to the United States and settled the land.  The series is usually read aloud to little girls who are about 8 or 9 years old.  That is, anyway, when my mother read them to me. Of course, when I reread the books a few years ago, I was astounded by the pain and suffering and bad luck depicted in them.  And as an adult woman I saw Pa’s passive aggressiveness in an unappealing new light.

In the way that stepping out of your office and looking around in the real world typically does, these books suggested an idea to me. I thought about how in some countries of the world, migration was responsible for the settling of the country as it exists today.  What was it like to live next door to a German when you spoke only Norwegian or Polish?  How might you have used eye contact and facial expressions differently in order to make sure you were understood (and, maybe, were not attacked)?  It could be, I thought, that people in countries founded on migration have developed different ways of using smiles and perhaps other facial expressions than people in countries whose populations have stayed roughly the same for centuries.

I started searching through the literature in history, sociology and comparative politics, and finally in the economics literature, I found it!  Two economists at Brown University published, in 2010, a matrix that represents the extent to which the current population of 165 countries of the world originated from peoples other than those who occupied the country 500 years ago.  (The researchers chose to start the analysis with the year 1500 because that is approximately the date at which Europe started to colonize other continents, and the means – such as Portuguese boats -- became available to do so). In other words, the economists published a score for each country that tells you the extent to which the population stayed the same over 500 years (in that case the country receives a score of 1) or changed through migration (in that case the country receives a score of 0). The score can vary from 0 to 1, and you will not be surprised that the United States receives a score of .03 (similar to Canada and New Zealand) and Japan receives a score of 1 (not far from France and Germany at around .98). 

In their research the economists used the matrix to predict outcomes of interest to their fellow economists.  For example, they found that the matrix does an incredibly good job at predicting present day income and income inequality.  And it does a better job, because it considers the long history (500 years) of migration, than does merely considering present-day ethnic and language heterogeneity.  Their analysis suggests arguments and interpretations other than those heard by ideologues who thrash around in their discussions of economics.

I discovered the matrix just after having collected data from 67-100 respondents per country in nine countries (the United States, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Canada, Israel, Japan, and New Zealand). The data I collected were the respondents' beliefs about what causes people to smile and to whom smiles are addressed.  With this questionnaire information, we could first ask the question, how do these countries group together in terms of similarities of beliefs; or do they? Does each country have a unique culture of smiling or are there similarities. 

Our analysis showed that the countries clustered together according to their long history of migration. That is, we uncovered two coherent “cultures” that contained [the US, New Zealand, Israel, and Canada] on one hand and [France, Germany, Japan, India, and Indonesia] on the other.  Moreover the actual matrix score for each country explained a lot of variation in their beliefs about smiles.

In other words, the extent to which your country evolved from migration over history very much influences how you use the smile.  One implication is that your smile use will be better understood when you find yourself in a new country that has a similar long (not recent) migration history to your own.

Neither use can be called good or bad or true or false.  I’ll report back when I know more.