Smiles are the Tip of a Huge Iceberg

A number of years ago, my friend Jennie and I decided to write a book together about living in France.  We were tired of all of the (Anglophone) books out there that repeat the same  stories about going to the market, or waiting for the artisan to come, or talking to the rude neighbor, or being amazed by the wine or the amount of wine.  Or the fact that Mitterrand had a mistress and everyone was OK with that.  In 14 years maybe 50 people have told me the tired story of Mitterrand’s mistress as if I hadn’t heard it yet.  We were incidently also tired of the same types of books written about the U.S…. the stories about fast food, or ignorance of something, or ways of being religious, or being religious at all.  Or especially of how easily people tell you the story of their life on a bus, but then do not really mean it because they don’t become your best friend.

Jennie and my book was going to be more insightful and well informed.  It would have much richer stories by people (us) who had to work, make babies, deal with the administration, and cook dinnerwithout time to go to the market, and whose husbands were not famous writers, lawyers or ambassadors.  But then time passed, we wrote some chapters and filled out some stories, and then we stopped (perhaps thankfully after seeing in writing the summary of our personal characteristics).  Although we never talked about stopping, I know why I at least stopped writing those chapters: I realized that I didn’t have anything important to say.  If I wrote those stories, they would only further fill the garbage can of stories and repetitive observations that, I truly believe, ultimately hurt international relations.  And furthermore, I didn’t have any insight.  I had feelings of being fed up, exalted, hurt, awed, insulted, delighted, and a lot of other states.  But no insight whatsoever.

Still, now I am writing a blog, so the question is (motivationally speaking): why?  I am certainly no more insightful, but at least I have taken on this issue more empirically.  Here is why:  In the cobwebs of my mind, I have known since my first intensive French class that (and this was said in this way to me recently by a very wise German psychologist – not my husband, someone else – and so these are not my words) Europeans hold very dear to their heart the belief that Americans are superficial and have superficial relationships. (The German psychologist noted with wonder that some of his closest friends are Americans who he got to know over the course of a single year on sabbatical whereas he has no friends from a certain town in Europe where he lived for over a decade).  There are hundreds of internet sites devoted to the topic of American superficiality.  It must be very important to believe.

The full importance of this belief came to me one day when I got a call from a Russian science journalist who wanted to interview me about my research.  At the end of the phone call, having not too much to do with the interview, he reflected, “So, you are American, but you live in France?”  I said yes.  He continued, “so you know then that Americans’ smiles are all false and those of the French are true.”  Although a New York Times article that recounts this story depicts me as being a little more polite than I actually was, I told him that I didn’t “know” this at all.  And as I said to the New York Times journalist, I didn’t live 36 years in the U.S. only to come to France to discover what true smiles are.  But like I said, I am empirical, so I wanted to figure out why people hold this belief about American false smiles to be absolutely irrefutable.  Before I could even get to that question, I had to do a lot of reading and thinking about what smiles are and how they are perceived.

While I was doing the reading and thinking, a post-doctoral student and I conducted a little lab experiment.  The post-doc was German and he mentioned that one of the suspicious things about Americans, a thing that might lead to a false smiles conclusion, is the fact that there are so many smiles there.  Smiles are just shared all around.  They can’t be “true” smiles.  So the experiment went like this:  We took 25 photographs of people smiling “true” smiles (in that they were rated, on average, as true smiles by a group of other individuals) and also obtained photographs of the same people expressing a neutral emotion on their faces.  We put the photographs on a slide show program on computer and invited experimental participants into the lab. The participants learned that they were going to see the faces of a group of people and that they might be asked to make judgments about some members of the group based on the information (i.e., the photograph) provided.  The first 24 faces constituted the “group” and the last face, which was always smiling, was the face of interest.   We manipulated the percentage of the faces of the group that were smiling.  That is, some participants saw no smiling faces, some saw 25% of the faces smiling, some 50% smiles, and the remaining participants saw all 24 of the individuals with “true” smiles on their faces.  The target face, the 25th person, also had a “true” smile.  Participants’ task was to rate the extent to which the target face expressed a “true” smile (on a scale from “not at all genuine”, to “very genuine”).  Contrary to the theory that if everyone is smiling the smiles cannot be real, the percentage of people smiling in the group had no effect whatsoever on the average ratings of genuineness of the target smile.  This may or may not be a good test of the hypothesis, but we tried.

Still, smiles are it.  Smiles represent everything ideologically wrong with the U.S.  The smile, the tip of the iceberg, when unpacked, is all about capitalism and imperialism.  Smiles are for sales, and these are all false smiles.

The reason for me to take the most empirical stance possible about smiles and about the insistence that smiles in the U.S. are all phony and all about saying cheese for the camera is what happened then: I started to collect data about smiles in different countries.  I designed a very simple questionnaire concerning when people smile and what they mean by their smiles (for each culture).  One of the individuals helping me with data collection was a professor in Indonesia.  In an email exchange, I told him that I wanted to maybe collect data on Bali because I had heard that people smiled a lot there.  As if he had turned into the Russian journalist, he said, “But they just want tourists to come there.  On Bali the smiles are all false .. On Java ….”  You won’t be surprised to learn that people in the north of France also think that people in the south of France are superficial and smile falsely too.  In other words, this accusation is actually rather common.  And if people really think that we can rank the world’s countries and regions of countries into an empirically based rank ordering of genuine smiles, then I think they have another thought coming. 

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 2:50 PM JUN 8, 2011