What do you think when a person smile? I smile when I’m happy. When I’m sad, sadness seeks a natural expression, but there are such a moments when I’m sad but I’m smiling. Sometimes I might even get “a sour smile” when I predict happiness. Probably the same as you. I smile when I’m being ashamed. Or sometimes when I make a mistake – I probably think that smiling can take me out of stupidity or make things easier. When I’m embarrassed and sometimes shocked. I smile at the sentences like “Okay, see you” or “Tina, nice to meet you”. But why, what’s the meaning of that smile? I know that smiling is a way of my expression, and more often than not it is my mute language, but I also realize that sometimes we need to awaken positive feelings to others, or not to show weaknesses in the moment, which certainly involves false smile caused by anxious situations or smiling in situations when it is expected of us to do so.
Just a week ago I came across an article that is explaining how to recognize when a dog is smiling. I read it because I was searching for it with an intent to find out how to make my dog happier. So, at the end, Nietzsche was not right when he thought people were the only animals that laugh. However, for people, and in this case for my dog, the situation is similar – smiling is related to the game, to interaction.
How many times have we heard that smile is the best remedy, it has the power to instill our immune system, relieve pain, repair memory, reduce pressure and achieve even more wonders for our health. All right, I’ll consider it as the truth. The truth is perhaps the oldest torture with tickling as well, that took place in ancient China during the rule of the Han dynasty when it was used as a form of punishment for the nobility because it did not leave scars, and the recovery lasted briefly and was easy. When the officer and his men barged out their victim with goose feathers over the tabs, between the legs, under the armpits and other parts of the naked body. The loud laughter of the detainees would soon become the groan of the pain while crying with the body tilted in the chains. I can fully imagine this. I hate tickling so much that I’ve had a nightmare with me dying from tickling. We are not far from China, so here I will briefly remind you of our utterly bizarre tradition when they were pouring sol on the soles of the tied person, and then brought a goat that would lick the soles, and thus tickled the victim.
What can one learn from a smile? How has evolutionary, cross-cultural and social psychological research contributed to our understanding of the smile? Is it completely absurd to state that there is (or can ever exist) a science of smiling?
The broad, genuine, expressive, spontaneous smile can be defined physiologically in terms of what muscles do to different parts of the face lips, cheeks or eyes. There is also the wry, miserable smile, often lopsided, that indicates recognition of the vicissitudes of life. The polite smile—often more like a grimace—is as much a sign of embarrassment as happiness. Fake smiles are used for various purposes often to pretend to show enjoyment, or sociability or agreement. These are easily noticeable because they involve the mouth and not the eyes.
The “science of smiling” as such was initiated by Charles Darwin. He noticed that the cause, consequences, and manifestations of smiling are universal whereas many other nonverbal of body language behaviors (like gestures or touch) differ between cultures and are therefore probably learned. Babies born blind smile like sighted infants. We begin smiling at five weeks: babies learn that crying gets the attention of adults but smiling keeps it. Darwin also observed that smiling and laughter often occurred together and therefore had similar origins. Happiness, he thought, was similar to amusement. Smiling, it is argued is the outward manifestation of happiness and serves to begin to connect us with others. We are “prewired” to connect with others via this system. Thus it has been shown that people who cannot smile, because of facial paralysis, have more difficulty in social relationships.
Anyway, I can now say that cultural differences in the rules of smiling are certainly existing: When etiquette dictates it is appropriate to smile or not (and in what way).
Many Japanese people often mention the angry faces of gaijin (foreigners) who are not smiling as Japanese people do, or vice versa, many foreigners may even more often speak about Japanese insincere smile or kindness. Just a few months ago I talked to a friend who got the chance to move to Japan.
First impressions? – I asked.
I’m gonna die from this amount of kindness – was his reply, among other things.
He reminded me that I was confused myself about the same when I went to Japan. I remember talking to my mother and telling her after a month in Japan, “I still can’t understand if they are really kind or are their smile fake”. The Japanese smile confused me from the beginning and then raised my suspicions. Do they smile because they are afraid of me or because they are looking at me like a deity? But then I noticed the same smile in times of trouble, pain, disappointment.
Here’s an example. I was heading back home late in the evening and my plan was to go with a metro to Shinjuku station, where I had to change the train and catch the last one to the house. Before the connection, the first train stopped. After a few seconds, the words “jinshin jiko” came through stations throughout Tokyo after they reported that the service on the line I was traveling to catch the last transport to the house, was suspended and other lines could also cause delays. “Jinshin jiko” literally means “accident with the human body”, announcing that someone was injured or killed in a traffic accident. More often this means that somebody took its own life by throwing under the train (more about this probably in some of the next posts). However, the panic occurred because suddenly all the trains in that direction were suspended due to two suicide cases. It was necessary to go back to the starting station, and then ask how I could reach my house from the other direction. I did not have a map with me, nor did I have a phone or internet. Tokyo is a safe city, but I was also a new to the city, and in a complete panic imagining spending the evening in a nearby izakaya with unknown people, catching in the morning the first train (there is no night transportation in Tokyo, the last train is around midnight and the first morning train is around 5 am) and heading straight to work. I went to the information desk to ask for instructions, and I came across the man kindly smiling at the counter. When he gave me instructions, he began to explain something that I could not understand. I asked him to repeat – I could not understand again. I asked if he can explain to me in English – he couldn’t. He talked about my transportation ticket. I knew it was valid, so I could not even guess what he was talking about.
I could not go any further and there was a huge line of people standing behind and waiting for me. The conductor just smiled while repeating that I should try again and again. I was trying to pass the gate, but I was trying not to panic as well, not because of the card, nor because the conductor smiled while I was going crazy, when an unknown girl took me by the hand, dragged her card twice and led me to the train. She smiled. I asked if she could explain why my card did not work – she said she is not sure, but it does not matter, we are going with the same line so I can follow her and I can use her card. She smiled. I said, “I am Tina, nice to meet you”. She smiled. When we switched the train last time, after a couple of stations, she got out of the subway, with no smile and without greeting.
Lafcadio Hearn writes in his essay about a Japanese smile: A smile should be shown on every pleasant occasion when talking to higher or equal, and it should not be avoided even in unpleasant situations because it represents a good behavior. The smiling face is the most brilliant face, and a lifelong rule is to show it to parents, cousins, friends, and patrons. Further, the second life rule is to always show to the world a happy, smiling face, so to leave each other with as pleasant feeling as possible. Even when the heart is breaking, it is a social duty to bravely smile. On the other hand, it is impolite to look ferocious or unhappy, because it worries and upsets those who love us, but it is also unreasonable because in those who love us it raises excessive curiosity. When it is as such nursed as a duty since the smile becomes instinctive. When someone reports a sorry or disturbing event, his/her report needs to be followed with a smile – that’s a custom. The more serious situation – the smile should be more emphasized. Further, as I understand, Hearn refers to the Japanese smile as a form of self-control, rooted in Japanese culture. Smiles that indicate affection, agreement, and sympathy are the same wherever you go. But this smile of self-control is something that puzzles foreigners.
Smiling is a universal gesture common to everyone. But whatever smiling is used for, it is usually seen in the most obvious situations.
The situation with the conductor standing just next to me with a smile, while repeating for the twenty-eighth time what should I do with my card is surely not the most obvious smiling situation. Hey, the huge raw of people is standing just behind me, Tokyo is in a peal of suicides on two stations, and all of these people including me will miss the last train because you are standing, smiling and not helping.
Since when does that self-control in smiling exists and, in general, how it happened that it has enrooted in Japanese culture?
It is said that the Japanese smile started in the samurai society during the Edo period. Back then, when rakugo was used as entertainment during the war, it was fashionable for men to smile instead of laugh. This ‘macho grin’ became as a means for them not to express their feelings so openly. In the Meiji period, it became known as the Mysterious Japanese Smile. Since then, it has been customary for the Japanese to not show extreme emotions.
Later this wasn`t strange to me anymore. Moreover, when I developed loneliness as a crust for a pie, it felt good being welcomed in the store and follow out from it with a smile, it felt good that when I was heading to work, an unknown old woman was waiting for me at the door of her house, smiling and bowing. It felt good that when I made a mistake, we all smiled. And I did not appreciate that the old man with a Walkman in his pocket, who watered the garden every morning for three hours next to my place, never smiled to me. Well, there’s something else I did not like. What I knew was that a smile is necessary for that country, but smiling with mouths slightly “too open” and the mouth corners raised “too much” is weird. How else can I smile if the smiling is the way of my expression? Oh, there is no end to Japanese madness.
Just for a better understanding of the significance of the smile in Japan, here’s another example. In fact, that’s how I figured out what the smile of the conductor at the station meant at the moment of my panic. Namely, these are new rules that are required from employees at the railway station. Since 2014, employees are asking to smile more, and their smile is electronically controlled.
Japanese rail company “Omron” has introduced these new rules. Employees have to smile more, since it is prescribed that they have to be less serious and more cheerful to the passengers, in order to improve the relationship with clients. In addition to the new regulation, a system of controls has also been introduced to ensure that employees are smiling enough. With computerized scanners that are programmed by a Japanese company, they measure a smile on the fifteen Tokyo Railway stations! More than 500 employees in the company must stand in front of the smile scanner every morning. It performs rapid analysis based on morphological data such as the shape of the lips or wrinkling of the skin around the eyes. The machine then estimates the potential of a scanned person’s smile and gives her or him a rating ranging from zero to one hundred. In Osaka, the same system was to be introduced for staff in hospitals.
How important this smile is to them, says one Japanese invention. I am sure there are dozens of products with a similar goal, but beware of this one. The article on the new invention sounds like this:
Do you want your child to stop frowning and instead of a sour face, would you like to see a smile from ear to ear on his/her face? If you want to achieve it by any means, this gadget is the right thing for you. This new invention should be put like a glasses to your child’s ears while the other part is placed under the chin. It is that other part that sends electrical impulses over the child’s faces, writes News Weird Magazine. Sounds like electro-shock therapy? It’s almost like it, but it’s harmless. If you do not take into account the side effect of “twitching” the facial muscles. Put the smiling electro-simulator to the greatest possible strength and you will no longer have to worry about the grandmother who feels that the kids are not very happy to see her. A sudden jolt of electricity in the muscles of the jaw will make your child stretch the lips into a wide smile with the excitement of the entire body, giving the grandmother a feeling that is really missed by the kids. ???????????
I’m not even surprised at all that I managed to find that professor of the University of Osaka proposed the name for a new psychological disorder – the Smile mask Syndrome when the subject develops depression and physical illness as a result of prolonged, unnatural smile.
And while I’m writing this, I’m texting with a friend from Japan. He just sent me a message containing the characters (;.;) It would represent a face, eyes, a nose, and two tears. Or on our emoticon language :’-(
You can notice that the Japanese version doesn’t show the mouth. Not this emoticon, not almost any of them. I have just finished googling it, and I found a research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. It suggests that people from a Japanese cultural background may be better than anyone at detecting when a smile is genuine or false. Japanese people tend to focus attention on the eyes rather than the mouth when expressing emotions or reading them in others. And, as I have written before, it is being thought that the eyes may be better at portraying genuine emotion than the mouth, which may be why the Japanese can be best in distinguishing true smiles from false ones.