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Miles and Miles of Smiles

April 20, 2003

Not counting dogs with gas and monkeys mimicking zoo visitors, humans are just about the only species that smiles. Smiles express pleasure, delight, satisfaction, a nonthreatening demeanor. Or do they? Women smile much more than men because they're just nicer folks. Or are they? About time some psychologists stopped joking around and did a major study of smile studies.

Marianne LaFrance and her Yale colleagues studied 186 smile studies involving some 111,000 smilers. They found women do indeed smile a lot more than men. In fact, smiling is the female emotional default emotion. For men, smiling feels too eager; safer to play it straight. Studies say the smiliest earthlings are teen girls, the least are teen boys. Uncertain, both play their presumed gender roles, the girls reducing tensions and facilitating social interaction and the boys trying desperately not to appear feminine by smiling for no good reason. But LaFrance found that women smile more only when they feel watched. Erase scrutiny and put men and women in equal social roles and they smile pretty much the same.

The study of studies also found North Americans smile more than Europeans. The French, for instance, find Americans dopey due to over-smiling. Americans find the French -- how does one say? -- rather smile-free, perhaps due to poor central heating and that glossy European toilet paper.

Smiles are super communications tools. American soldiers are trained to, if captured, smile to be nonthreatening. But smiles require precise timing and translation. A chastised child probably ought to refrain awhile from smiling, as should any male asked, "Does this skirt make me look fat?" Sudden smiles upon meeting are warm and welcoming. But a sudden smile for no apparent reason may connote more guilt than happiness; think smiling husband when wife asks, "Who ate all the pizza?"

Here's a News Flash for Smile Lovers: Smiles can also be phony. Males: Picture a smiling woman saying, "I'd like to be just good friends." Women: Think Jack Nicholson's creepy smile. (Check for clenched jaw before proceeding.) Women also are alert for that cheesy noncommittal look of a couch-riding husband whose static smile and vacant eyes are on her but whose attentive ears are more likely on The Game.

Now we need a wink study. Talk about silent communications.

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