Of Shabbat, Pinot Gris, Smiles, and O Magazine

photo by Christopher Briscoe

You may have seen this picture of me and the baby on the Contributors Page of this month’s O Magazine, which is on newsstands now.

I have a short article in the magazine, inspired by the excellent new book by Marianne LaFrance called Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Memory, Sex, and Politics. LaFrance is a professor at Yale. She’s also an excellent writer. I read the book after an editor assigned me the story and I was impressed how LaFrance manages to turn social science research into a compelling narrative about the historical, political, and psychosexual implications of the smile.

Here are some interesting factoids from the book that didn’t make it into the article:

Mona Lisa wasn’t just smiling: Scientists are developing computer programs to codify facial expressions with numerical values in order to really understand how the face shows emotion. (“We seldom have a single expression on our faces at one time,” LaFrance explained to me. “I can smile at you but feel a bit put out too. My inner brows might be lowered and narrowed.”) In 2008 a team of Dutch and American researchers decided to test their Facial Action Coding System by analyzing Mona Lisa’s smile. They examined her eyebrows, eyelids, cheeks, and mouth corners and found that she was 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful, and 2 percent angry. No wonder da Vinci’s painting has intrigued art historians for over four centuries.

Don’t smile at strangers. Though Americans are partial to flashing those pearly whites at strangers, smiling—even in welcome—can get you into cultural hot water. Smiling at customers or other strangers is considered inappropriate in some Islamic cultures as it can imply sexual interest. Northern Europeans consider a frostier demeanor fitting for people they don’t know, reserving smiles for more intimate friendships developed over time. In Iceland, Norway, and other Scandinavian countries you don’t smile at strangers because that is seen as an invasion of privacy. “Americans think smiling means being friendly,” says LaFrance, “but a lot of other countries regard it as being silly or imposing emotions, which is a demand. And if I have no relationship with you, you have no right to make a demand on me.” In Japan a stranger is usually greeted with a close-mouthed smile, often accompanied by a downward turn of the eyes—an expression that shows goodwill but not friendship or agreement.

Smiles were once frowned upon. Though today’s talk is all about happy marriages, happy moms, and happiness projects, this emphasis on the smiling side of life may very well fall out of vogue. In the 18th century melancholy people were thought to be morally superior to people who were always cheerful. In the 19th century Americans saved their highest praise for the serious and self-denying. Social historians theorize that the smile may fall from its privileged position in the future. “There are already signs that people are distrustful of the happy-talk newscasters and politicians who are always smiling,” LaFrance says. “Too much of a good thing makes us doubt how genuine it is.”

We have a game we play on Shabbat that always makes me smile. We pass around a wooden spoon and take turns saying the best thing about the day, the worst thing about the day, the silliest thing about the day, and one thing we are grateful for. Tonight’s Wooden Spoon game was especially smiley because it was just me, James, Athena, and Leone. We ate outside. Leone smeared plain yogurt into the sidewalk while the three of us enjoyed a peaceful meal (it’s never peaceful in our house) and traded silly stories.

I have a not-so-silly column up on BlogHer today, Lessons From a Mother-Daughter Book Club, about one of the children who was absent from dinner. If you read it, you’ll understand better why our Shabbat dinner tonight was so easy.

I also have a new wine column up, In Praise of Pinot Gris, on the Southern Oregon World of Wine site.

I’m not religious but I try to stay off the computer and out of the car on Saturdays. The past few weeks I’ve been slipping, surreptitiously answering emails and sneaking in some work at nap time on Saturdays.

The nice thing about a goal is when you don’t achieve it you can always try again.

I’ve got my work cut out for me from sundown tonight (which is now) to sundown tomorrow: to do no more work.

What do you aspire to do (or not do) on the weekends?

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Categories: on writing and reflections on life.


  1. Add France to the countries where people do not smile at strangers. It was hard for me to adjust to that. I did it for 25 years. Now, back in the USA, it is hard to learn to smile at strangers again.

    • LaFrance mentions that in her book, Alexandra. There’s a picture of Catherine Deneuve smiling a frosty smile. It must be strange for you to have had to learn all these cultural mores just to un-learn them again when you came back to the U.S.

  2. I try not to work on the weekends. I usually check email a couple of times, but I just do not do real office work on Sat or Sun. In the winter I end up doing crossword puzzles on weekends, but in the summer there are usually outdoor activities. I also really try to just not think about work at all on the weekends, which is harder to accomplish! I do find I really need that two day break whenever I can manage it.

  3. Congrats on the O story and that photo is adorable. And your Saturday goal is admirable. It’s hard not working sometimes, isn’t it, when we work at home? I find I literally have to get out of the house to stop myself from checking emails etc. So much for modern technology freeing us from the tyranny of constant work.
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