A smile is universal communication. But not that much

Obama’s smile compared to his Japanese peer Abe

When a stranger on the street smiles at you, you assume:

  • he’s drunk

  • he’s insane

  • he’s American

This question was actually posted by a Finnish user on Reddit, the website for news, discussions and entertainment. This particular inquiry underlines the stereotype about Americans who always smile enthusiastically, even at strangers. Kinda like George Clooney.

Northern Americans carry another stereotype, which is being casual, not like in the old motherland England. For example, they don’t use much the term “sir” to approach strangers. On the contrary, they often make fun of this expression, like it’s something exclusive of nobles. Or we can talk about the use of “may” instead of “might” to formulate questions, not to sound too polite and formal.

World diversities. Countries with more ethnicities developed forms of non verbal communication. A smile is one of those

In the same way, a smile is seen differently around the world. It can be a lack of seriousness to someone, a sign of stupidity for others, or simply a friendly behavior which make the other speaker comfortable.

In 2015, a group of researchers of the University of Wisconsin-Madison formulated their own theory on why, somewhere, people are more inclined to smile. The answer is to be found in immigration and multiculturalism. The United States and Canada have a diverse population, composed by 83 and 63 different national or ethnic groups each. Non verbal communication played a central role in socializing and building trustful relationships among communities.

This is not needed in more uniform countries such as Zimbabwe or China, where smiling is connected to a hierarchical system and the preservation of acquired social structures.

The smile of a Walmart employee. In Germany this kind of behavior was initially mistaken with flirting

But why all this enthusiasm? The study also analyzed groups of students from 10 countries and found a correlation between the importance given to positive energy/happiness and the smile of their political leaders. So, in official pictures, a Barack Obama had a much wider extension of facial muscles compared to his peers from China or Japan.

Being a country used to export and set trends, the USA got their problems of adjustments around the world. So when McDonald’s arrived in the no-more-communist Russia, the bosses had to train the employees to smile at customers. In Germany, Walmart had to face the German reality, in which a too smiling worker was mistaken for someone flirting.

Maybe because, as the writer Herman Melville said, “a smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities”.


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