Appearances Can Be Deceiving (3. Smiles and Liking)

What you see isn’t always what you get

Indeed. As I wrote in two recent posts about solitude (not always loneliness) and fidgeting (not always impatience), common behaviors don’t necessarily originate with common causes. Will Shakespeare would have us think otherwise, as he suggested when he had Julius Caesar say this of Cassius:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 190–195

The Bard makes two assumptions here: they who are fat are happy, and they who are gaunt are plotting to take your dinner (or throne). All who are fat are not happy, and all gaunt persons are not dangerous.

Take smiling. One might assume that, when someone smiles at you, they like you. Friendly smiles, however, are not always friendly. Body language research has demonstrated that most of us interpret someone’s smile aimed at us as evidence that they like us. But smiling can also be a subterfuge, a stalking horse that masks inner hostility at worst, or boredom at the least. Or it could suggest amusement, but not necessarily liking. Even if a smile does convey truly positive feelings, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is flirting with you. Research shows that the typical heterosexual man tends to interpret a woman’s smile as meant for him in a romantic way, while women do not typically take a man’s smile as a come on.

The 19th century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne defined a true smile, i.e., one

duchenne smile
Duchenne smile, by RealWann, 2006. CC BY 2.0

that reflects positive affect, as one that entails both a contraction of the muscle that raises the termini of one’s mouth, and also the muscle that raises one’s cheeks with the effect of forming bird feet flanking one’s eyes. Today, psychologists contrast this genuine Duchenne smile with the Pan Am smile, named for the desperate flight attendants who try their best to put on a polite, happy face to their often unpleasant travelers. That Pan Am is caput suggests that fake smiles don’t work.

To ensure that you don’t misinterpret someone’s smile, look for bird feet at the edge of their eyes and cheek creases at the edge of their upturned mouth edges. If these two signs are present, assume that a) the person is feeling positive affect, or that b) they are a fine actor and may be seething with hatred, evaporating from boredom, or maybe deeply amused at something. In a good way, or not.

Like most behaviors, a smile’s motive must be confirmed, or clarified, through dialog.

It turns out that Julius Caesar (via Shakespeare) was right in his interpretation. Luck of the Romans.

But after all is said, it sure is nice to be around smiles, rather than frowns, even if smiles, like flowers, are resting on something rotten and smelly below!

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