Why smile? How many words is a smile worth? I interviewed Marianne LaFrance by telephone at her office at Yale University last year for an article for O: The Oprah Magazine about her book on smiling. I read the book when it first came out in hardcover, and found it fascinating.
When LaFrance told me last week that Lip Service has just been released in paperback under the new title, Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions, I dusted off my notes from our interview.
I asked Marianne LaFrance how a researcher and Professor of Psychology became interested in smiles? “As Herman Melville once wrote, ‘The smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguity,’” LaFrance answered (you know you’re talking to a Yale professor when she starts quoting Melville). “That’s where my fascination came from. The more I studied it, the more I realized it is not something that is straightforward.”
LaFrance told me that what everyone believes about smiles is true. They really are contagious. I smile, you smile, and you turn around and see someone else and that person smiles too. (Does that work for reading about smiles too, I wonder? Are you smiling now?)
She also told me that people’s facial expressions are much more complicated than we think, and that people express an array of emotions on their face at the same time. One way scientists study this is by isolating parts of the face and examining them separately.
How much and when you smile, according to LaFrance, depends on where you live.
Smiling is part of a cultural dynamic. People in colder climates, it seems, really do smile less, which is one reason young Americans (especially women from the southern States) sometimes unwittingly get themselves into uncomfortable situations in Eastern Europe.
“In southern European cultures to know someone is to be in spitting range,” LaFrance told me, “whereas in Nordic countries the assumption is that kind of closeness should come with trust, experience, and knowledge, and needs to be built up over time. Then one can be more open, more expressive facially, and more open about what one says about oneself.”
Not long after LaFrance and I spoke, I went to a conference for investigative journalists in sunny southern Florida. I noticed how friendly the Floridians were, and how often everyone smiled.
Then I met a journalist from Norway.
He probably wondered why I was looking at him so keenly.
I couldn’t help myself.
I noticed that he barely smiled.
So I told him about LaFrance’s observations that people from colder countries keep more distance, and smile less, and asked him what he thought.
Harald looked serious for a moment and then his face broke into a grin. He told me he thought LaFrance was right. That in Norway you don’t smile at strangers, unless you are trying to get them into bed.
But it’s the Danish, he called over his shoulder as we were both hurrying into different sessions, who are the real swingers of Scandinavia.
I wonder if that means that Danes smile more?