Missing your smile…

When last did you see a smile on someone’s “exposed” face? I have found myself looking forward to whatsapp video calls where I can see peoples’ unmasked faces…and that got me thinking about smiles, facial expressions, how much communication happens non-verbally and what effect masks will have on our communication now and in the future. So I thought I would write something upbeat about finding alternative opportunities for communicating and smiling more with our eyes. A quick look at the internet and my blogpost would be done. That was Monday – I have emerged almost 3 days later with more questions than answers. I did not realise that the science of the smile is so complicated!

Apparently there are between 19 and 50 different smiles meaning different things. The consensus seems to be that 6 of them are positive. The rest happen when we are experiencing pain, discomfort, misery, anger, contempt, embarrassment, confusion, surprise and horror. (Some of the experiments that demonstrated this are horrific!) We also tend to smile when we are lost and when we are lying. There really seems to be a smile for every occasion! So, how do we actually understand what a smile means?

We have a subconscious practice of mirroring the expression of people we are making eye contact with. As our muscles are guided into the same expression by our mirror neurons, our brains produce similar levels of oxytocin and similar brain electrical reactions. As a result, we feel the emotion that is linked to that expression. This explains why emotions are contagious, and helps empathy to develop between people. It does, however, raise many questions and issues:

What happens when eye contact is not culturally appropriate? Do we still mirror emotions and does empathy develop?

Apparently some research has indicated that we as people are more likely to mimic our own culture or nationality. What does that mean for the inter-racial conversations that are so important in our context today?

Some other interesting observations are that extroverts, women and less educated individuals are more likely to mirror others. I assume this is a subconscious attempt to build connections with others. (When we actually focus on mimicking other people to build a connection, we may come across as fake and manipulative.)

People who are lower down in the hierarchy tend to mirror those who have more rank. Usually the national majority group is less likely to mimic the national minority group. In South Africa I would guess that the hierarchy of Apartheid turned this on its head, and most black people became very good at mirroring white people as a survival tactic. I wonder how this still affects our non-verbal communication today?

What misunderstandings are exacerbated by our inability to understand each others’ expressions and emotions even when we do mirror them? In our world different cultures have very different views on smiling: I read that many Russians are suspicious of people who smile because they are foolish, weak or about to ask for something. In cultures where government corruption is high, smiles are often regarded with suspicion. People of Germanic background may think you’re mentally unstable if you smile at random strangers. Thai people also smile to indicate embarrassment, confusion, and even anger. If you smile a lot in the UK, people might interpret it as flirting. In Japan, smiling is a way to show respect or to hide what you’re actually feeling. In the early days of America where many people speaking different languages were thrown together, the non-verbal communication of the smile was a means of drawing out positive emotion in each other. It created a shared subjective experience. With time, it seems that American smileyness developed the reputation of being superficial and even becoming a mask in itself…

So, who needs a cloth mask, when the smile – the symbol of happiness – has in itself become a mask that people can hide their true emotions behind?

In conclusion then, I am not going to take this opportunity to tell myself, or you, to put a smile on our faces, or grin and bear it. Let us take this time, where our facial expressions are largely hidden from each other, to reflect on how easily we can misunderstand each other given cultural differences in non-verbal communication. Let us try and find out more…

I would love to hear more about your non-verbal communication heritage! Please share your cultural experience of smiles, eye contact and other non-verbal expressions in the comments, or drop me an email or whatsapp.








  1. Micro expressions are remarkably accurate I find and universal in nature. Expressions of disgust, resentment, anger – are almost always predicted by a frown, smirk, grin, grimace. I think micro expressions are a purer strain of unfiltered visceral emotion. It’s the secondary layering which is ‘political’ & can be manipulated; so If am trained to show openness and courtesy at work I might have to smile intentionally at the office, even when I don’t feel like it. It’s political. However I still observe that when someone is happy, joyful, relieved, excited, they tend to smile naturally. It’s a powerful display of emotion. I read a French tourist book on a train from Amsterdam to Paris which discouraged tourists from random smiling at people in Paris, needless to say, all I did the five days in Paris was smile randomly at everybody. What were they gonna do – lock me up? Curse me for being courteous. Nonsense!

    1. Thanks, Nduluma, I would love to be able to engage face-to-face about this topic! I am wondering what your experience on South Africa has been like in comparison? When I was working in London in 1993 I realised that South Africans smiled as a lot more than the average UK citizen. However, I have also heard people here talking about the “fake white smile” and wondered how that judgement is made. What defines a smile as fake or genuine in our cultural context?

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