That Midwestern Smile

The students in my honors course here at UW-Madison, mostly from the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, were shocked and hurt by some things they learned in the class recently.  The focus of this honors section of my Psychology of Human Emotions course is “the smile.”  We are reading a textbook that summarizes very well psychological research on the topic.  But there is a twist.  The author is Polish, and he does not hold back when writing in English about what some Europeans believe is God’s truth – raw reality – about the American smile.  Here is what the (late) French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, has to say, for instance: 

“This smile signifies only the need to smile.  It is a bit like the Cheshire Cat’s grin: it continues to float on the faces long after all emotion has disappeared .. The smile of immunity, the smile of advertising: ‘This country is good.  I am good.  We are the best.’ It is also Reagan’s smile – the culmination of self-satisfaction of the entire American nation – which is on the way to becoming the sole principle of the government.  Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are.  Smile if you have nothing to say.” 
The day that the kids in my class read the chapter that cites the above quote from Baudrillard, they slunk, stunned, into the seminar room.  They looked pained, and I have to say, I felt like I had beaten them.  The several kids from China, Malaysia, and Poland, could see it too.  “Why?” the Midwestern students wanted to know, "would someone not think that my smile was genuine?"  “Even when I smile on purpose, I mean to be nice,” they almost whispered.  The student who waits tables to earn money while at the university was just as perplexed: “I smile a lot at customers,” she said, “and I touch them too.  That is just who I am.”  While it took my breath away to see my students so full of hurt and self-doubt, I told them that that this was a learning experience and that hearing these things could inspire scientific, not ideological, research, and that was a very good thing.  Over the course of that class discussion, they did indeed become motivated to figure out how and why people arrive at different interpretations of this seemingly straight-forward expression.  
I am expecting good things of these honors students.  They are the crème de la crème of the Wisconsin undergraduates, who are already highly selected.   They are truly nice and motivated and considerate, in addition to be selected for academic achievement.  But the next time I teach the course, I think I’ll need to give them a pre-inoculation before they get the full-on vaccine that is intended to make them more resistant to the reality of international relations.  I am sure I do not want to see the smiles washed off their faces by a few quotes.  I am already so glad to see them each week.

P.S.  That Midwestern smile up there is my own father's.  He was from Kansas.  Is that also the Midwest?  I don't know, but that'll be the topic of another post.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 12:18 PM SEP 23, 2011