What does smiling mean in different cultures?

While you may think that the smile is a universal expression used to convey kindness and happiness, it is actually perceived differently depending on one’s culture. So, which countries and cultures frown upon smiling and why is this simple expression perceived so differently around the world?

In Kuba Krys et. al’s paper ‘Be Careful Where You Smile: Culture Shapes Judgments of Intelligence and Honesty of Smiling Individuals’, the authors discuss smiling in the WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic). Krys explains that in these cultures, people who smile are usually ‘judged as happier, more attractive, competent, and friendly’ than people who do not. However, outside these cultures, smiling individuals are perceived quite differently.

While the smile may be well-received in places like America, it is not seen as an expression of friendliness in other parts of the world. In Russia, Norway, East Asia, and others, smiling without a reason is frowned upon. Taking this further, according to Krys et. al’s research, a well-known Russian proverb roughly translates to ‘Smiling with no reason is a sign of stupidity’. This proverb highlights the fact that in Russian culture, one needs to have a legitimate reason to smile. Similarly, according to the BBC, a government leaflet on working in Norway humorously warned that ‘you’ve been in the country too long if you assume smiling strangers are drunk, insane or American’.

In addition to Russia and Norway, East Asian cultures also view smiling differently. For them, the smile is used to show respect and/or conceal negative emotions in order to maintain social harmony. Zara Ambadar, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, commented on this: “Where I’m from in Indonesia, anger is usually not considered socially acceptable. Instead people tend to smile a lot when they’re angry.”

Furthermore, Japanese culture puts greater emphasis on smiling with the eyes rather than the mouth. It is interesting to note that one can easily determine whether this kind of smile is sincere or fake. The reason for this is that when a person smiles genuinely, the muscle that is to the side of their eyes creases. This muscle — the orbicularis oculi — is activated involuntary and is therefore almost impossible to fake. The BBC points out that this emphasis on smiling with the eyes extends to the way smiles are typed out; this means that rather than using 🙂 (dotted eyes and a curved mouth), the Japanese tend to use ^_^ (a flat mouth and squinting eyes).

There are various explanations as to why people around the world associate smiling with different things. One such theory suggests that smiling individuals tend to be from countries built on and populated with people from numerous different cultures. The reason for this is that when people who do not use the same language come to live together, they often need to resort to nonverbal communication cues — such as smiling. In contrast with this, homogenous nations do not need to rely on nonverbal communication as they speak the same language. However, if a person from a homogenous nation were to immigrate and share a neighbourhood with people from a different culture, they too may soon resort to smiling: a pleasant, nonverbal communication cue that helps people get along despite their language differences.

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