Last week I was on a plane from Chisinau to Rome. A lady from Southern Italy said Eastern-European women were beautiful, but they never seemed to smile. They looked as if they had an icicle inside. This is a recurrent observation of westerners traveling east. It happens because our culture influences our way of smiling.
Why is smile culture-related?
Smiling is one of the basic acts of non-verbal communication. Babies start to manifest “social smiling” from the third month of life. it serves them as a response to a smile or an invitation to interact. Later they learn the context in which they should smile in their particular culture. A smile usually shows happiness but is not always connected to it.
Countries with social smiling
One of the symbols of “social smiling” is the United States model. In this country, wide smiling is a sign of respect, a tool that helps to improve relationships. It also shows you feel confident with the situation. People smile to everybody, including strangers, as a sign of social interaction safety. If you don’t smile, people will assume you are low-spirited.
When people with the culture-related social smile setting travel to countries where the smile shows happiness, they may develop a wrong perception of the whole culture, based on their own cultural bias.
In European countries like France or Italy, the smile is less wide but still required. Here you have to smile in many social situations; like entering a shop or greeting.
Countries where smiling is an act of happiness
On the other range of the spectrum, there are countries like Japan, Norway, or Russia. Here smiling shows happiness and reserved to people one knows well. Jeanne Tsai, a Stanford associate professor of psychology, made a comparative study about culture-related smile. She discovered that a political leader’s smile reflects the country’s cultural values.
When people with the culture-related social smile setting travel to countries where the smile shows happiness, they may develop a wrong perception of the whole culture, based on their own cultural bias. This was the case with the Italian lady in Eastern Europe.
In this image, you can see the difference in the smiles of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama. The Japanese smile is usually much more modest than the American one. As a part of non-verbal communication, smiling is a code. People must perceive it as such to be able to read it. This is something we all do unconsciously.
The Japanese tend to focus on eye position more than the mouth. They communicate through the upper side of their face. Even the Japanese emoticon describing crying is different.
For instance, Japanese culture tends to suppress emotions to improve relationships. And when Japanese people do smile, it can be confusing for other cultures. Nakiwarai (泣き笑い) is a term that means, “smile through one’s tears”. Japanese tend to smile when they are happy but also when they feel embarrassed, sad, or angry.
As a foreigner how could you possibly know what causes their modest smile? You may not even capture it, interpreting this expression like a neutral one. The Japanese tend to focus on eye position more than the mouth. They communicate through the upper side of their face. Even the Japanese emoticon describing crying is different (; ;). As you can see, it shows only the eyes, not the mouth.
A different perception of the smile
In Russia and other Eastern and Northern European countries, the smile is not casual either. There’s a Russian way of saying: “laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity”. Yes, if you smile at strangers there you are not regarded as friendly or respectful, people might think you are a fool. This is slightly changing, as young people do smile at strangers more, but the elderly are usually rather inflexible. When you know them better, they may be the nicest people ever but don’t expect a greeting smile.
As you can see, the smile is culture-related and we need to be aware of it when we interact with other cultures.
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