Smile American
March 28, 2023 8:25 AM   Subscribe

As the old Soviet joke goes, how can you tell that someone is an American in Russia? They’re smiling. AI and the American Smile "Why do you smile the way you do? A silly question, of course, since it’s only “natural” to smile the way you do, isn’t it? It’s common sense. How else would someone smile? As a person who was not born in the U.S., who immigrated here from the former Soviet Union, as I did, this question is not so simple..."
posted by gwint (67 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
This article really undermines the message of Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Wooden Ships."
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 8:42 AM on March 28, 2023 [2 favorites]


This is a super interesting line of inquiry, but I was a bit confused that the author ran right past the the fact that these were prompted not as photographs in general but selfies specifically. 'Selfie' is a specific culturally- and chronologically- bound medium that has close visual ties to the 'American smile'. To me, it seems a bit like prompting "ukiyo-e print of Turkish farmers" and then wondering why the figures are shown wearing kimono-like garments.
posted by dusty potato at 8:43 AM on March 28, 2023 [28 favorites]


I am hypervigilant (years of extreme CA) and I've begun to notice that I smile at perceived predators completely differently than at children or my friends. It's like I'm begging the former to be kind to me/not hurt me, and the latter to know that they can trust me and share with me if they need help.

Even with my mask on (which I wear everywhere) people seem to be able to "tell", or at least I think they can based on the reactions I get.
posted by lextex at 8:44 AM on March 28, 2023 [5 favorites]


It's an interesting article but the author seems to have completely missed the fact they are supposed to be selfies with all that it implies.

I followed the link to the reddit post and the user that made the images posted an example prompt:
"A group of male Norse, Dane, and Vikings huddled together and is taking a group selfie picture together in 793 CE. They are drinking ale at a feast in a Viking longhouse. They are all wearing traditional Viking armor and helmets. Everyone smiling directly at the camera. The image is photorealistic, has natural lighting, and is taken with a front-facing phone selfie camera by one of the Vikings. --ar 3:2 --s 1000 --no phone --v 5 --q 2"

Like, there's no hallucination here or bias (at least from the AI side of things). The prompt is explicitly asking for the selfie smiles.

On preview, what dusty potato said.
posted by simmering octagon at 8:46 AM on March 28, 2023 [20 favorites]


On the smiling associated with lying thing: this explains all those huge-smiling photos of salespeople.
posted by aniola at 8:54 AM on March 28, 2023 [2 favorites]


This is really interesting, thanks!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:56 AM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


I, too, was initially like “oh no!” And then “oh wait!” When I saw this was about selfies.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:03 AM on March 28, 2023


For the big toothy grin being incompatible with low levels of trust in systems and government, I wonder if the American smile will last the decade.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:19 AM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


One of the many reasons I could never have made it as a salesperson or a politician is that I hate the look of and am quite possibly physically incapable of the type of smile that looks like the person doing the smiling is attempting to split their head in half because, you know, they're just DELIGHTED to be here with ALL OF YOU WONDERFUL PEOPLE.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:23 AM on March 28, 2023 [8 favorites]


Despite the "selfie" misdirection, it's still a really interesting article about cultural differences not only in smiling but also in conceptualizations of feeling.

I remember thinking (not very productively) about this when I briefly tried therapy. What's an emotion, exactly? Just a physical sensation? A physical sensation combined with a thought? Just the thought, or series of thoughts? What's the exact description of what happens during each entry on this long list of emotion words?

What is an emotion, and how do I know I'm having a particular one?

This bit:
Not all cultures understand emotions as mental states. The Ifaluk of Micronesia consider emotions transactions between people. To them, anger is not a feeling of rage, a scowl, a pounding fist, or a loud yelling voice, all within the skin of one person, but a situation in which two people are engaged in a script — a dance, if you will — around a common goal. In the Ifaluk view, anger does not “live” inside either participant.
That makes just as much sense to me as whatever an emotion, precisely defined, might be.
posted by clawsoon at 9:24 AM on March 28, 2023 [12 favorites]


I was raised in an American family with Northern European roots, and I definitely don’t have a broad smile — to the degree that people don’t always realize I’m smiling — my teeth don’t show, and an upward quirk of the lips is about as much as you get. My mom and older brother have much wider smiles though, so I have no idea.

As far as “smiling at strangers,” they get a quirk of the mouth and my gaze slides off them, assuming they aren’t trying to get my attention for some reason. Maybe I’d be happier in Russia, although not this decade.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:38 AM on March 28, 2023 [4 favorites]


I thought this was a really interesting article. I agree with others that the focus on AI maybe overstates the case, given that the prompt was "selfie" and also further refined to give the specific results on display. However, the larger point about the cultural domination of a particular type of smile is still valid, and the exercise of this particular AI project of "selfies through history" does have the effect of distorting people's perceptions of cultural variation across time and place, to make everyone look and act like a 21st century American. But as is so often the case with stories about AI, the fault here is less in the AI and more in the human using it and their decisions of what to do with it. A photographer could have engaged in the same project, to make a collection of real photos of real people posing in similar costumes and contexts as what the AI came up with, and the same cultural analysis would apply. Indeed, an artist might take on the project precisely to make the kind of point that the author of this essay is making. There are two important differences, of course. One, without the "AI" hook, it would get much less attention right now. And two, the effort involved for actually staying such photos for real is much higher. Fewer people would take on the effort for such a project, and those doing so might take more time to reflect on its implications, and make considered artistic decisions in the subject or composition of such photos to communicate a point, rather than just deciding "hey this looks cool" and posting it to the Internet.

Also the conlang example looked like fluent bullshit to me, nothing especially mind-blowing there. It's a good simulacrum of the kind of example blurb a conlanger would write to describe a language they'd created, but I doubt there's any real grammar or vocabulary behind the example text it created.
posted by biogeo at 9:40 AM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


The actual 19th C photos also aren’t proof — longer exposure time tends to lead to the easier-to-hold “solemn expression,” and the relative rarity of the even also made for less levity.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:41 AM on March 28, 2023 [25 favorites]


this explains all those huge-smiling photos of salespeople.

Their taps are small, but the juice runs through them quicker than the larger ones.
posted by flabdablet at 9:48 AM on March 28, 2023


I'm not sure that 'selfie' and 'smiling at the camera' are as tightly associated with the American smile as people are suggesting. Witness the picture of Ukrainian soldiers and Zelensky taking a selfie, smiling at the camera, but not doing an American smile. Like, we smile at cameras and take selfies in the rest of the world too, and we don't necessarily all do what I grew up knowing as a Hollywood smile.
posted by Dysk at 10:06 AM on March 28, 2023 [15 favorites]


America has fluoridated water and a comparatively safe tap water system, which may explain the big American smile. Cell phone camera came out of America, so the machine trained on a bunch of pictures with big American smiles, too.
posted by kingdead at 10:20 AM on March 28, 2023 [2 favorites]


Claiming the prompt is "selfie" is not a good excuse.

You have a choice in what prompt to use. The choice of prompt itself moves everything in a particular direction. If there is a bias in choice of prompt - this particular prompt and systemically over many prompts - that is a bad thing.

We're not saying AI is bad because it's inhuman. We're saying it's bad precisely because it encodes and perpetuates human bias.

When an outcome is biased, don't make excuses for it. See it as a valuable sign that your system isn't working.
posted by splitpeasoup at 10:35 AM on March 28, 2023 [3 favorites]


What do you mean? That the system should over-interpet the prompts to arrive at something unlike the genre of "selfie"?
posted by sagc at 10:36 AM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


I think this article is crashing into stereotypes a bit too hard. Actual Hollywood Smiles -half you can't see any teeth, about half you can.

Historical group photos from US football teams. Some are smiling, most are not. Some you can see their teeth, even if they aren't smiling.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:37 AM on March 28, 2023 [3 favorites]


This was really interesting, especially the parts about language and how emotions are conceptualised.
posted by Zumbador at 10:59 AM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


What do you mean? That the system should over-interpet the prompts to arrive at something unlike the genre of "selfie"?

'Over-interpreting' has actually been tried to some extent as a way to deal with problems in image AI output. One platform-- I can't remember which, maybe DALL-E-- received criticism about the demographic stereotypes embedded in their initial release (i.e. nurses usually female / doctors usually male, defaulting to a white man when the concept was not gendered or racialized, etc). They released a 'fix' but people somehow figured out that they hadn't actually done anything to the model on the back end, they were just inserting phantom modifiers like 'Asian', 'woman', etc into applicable prompts on a randomized basis. This band-aid approach was both kind of clever and also pretty clearly half-baked, so I think they received a fair amount of criticism for it.
posted by dusty potato at 11:04 AM on March 28, 2023 [3 favorites]


Cell phone camera came out of America

Really? I thought Japan. (Marketed as USian to the US, sure.)
posted by clew at 11:20 AM on March 28, 2023


fwiw I just tried the caption of one of the actual photos from the article, "Native American chiefs, 1865" & every single person it generated had an almost comically exaggerated frown (U.S. definition of "frown," upside-down smile), to the point where you could complain about perpetuating stereotypes in the other direction

"Maōri Haka ceremony" gave me 100% people with big exaggerated open mouths, squinched eyes, & brows angling down in the center as though yelling, less protruding tongue than the example in the article

here it's interesting that Midjourney appears to get the top of the facial expression completely wrong, afaict from real photos -- it should've given me wide-open eyes, instead it's replicated what I would recognize from U.S. culture as an angry yelling war face

then to check what kind of baggage "selfie" was bringing along I tried "a group of apples taking a selfie" & amongst the bonkers results I did in fact get a group of apples the fruit making the big cheesy American selfie smiles

like there's a LOT to talk about with AI & culture & racism (like ask me about how MJ regularly defaults to returning white people if unspecified but "warrior" is frequently a Black guy, FUN), but adding "selfie" to the prompt just muddies the waters imo

(I'd link to these but I use my account primarily for "[detailed description of my tabletop OC] on a cute date at the beach with [detailed description of my tabletop OC's romantic partner]" & in lieu of paying Midjourney for an actual private account I just pretend like fuck no one else can see that shit)
posted by taquito sunrise at 11:21 AM on March 28, 2023 [11 favorites]


Here is something that blew my mind. What is a frown? It's a downturn in the mouth, right? Not according to dictionaries which emphasize the brow.

Merriam Webster: to contract the brow in displeasure or concentration.

Cambridge: to bring your eyebrows together so that there are lines on your face above your eyes, often while turning the corners of your mouth downwards, showing that you are annoyed, worried, sad, or thinking hard.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:26 AM on March 28, 2023 [4 favorites]


(Just as an aside, I thought the article's haka point was kind of weird, why would Māori people randomly be doing a haka in any given unspecified photograph?)
posted by dusty potato at 11:31 AM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]




I'm not a smiler. I mean, I smile, but where I'm from, too broad a smile means that person wants something from you and isn't trustworthy. I'm generally happy, but many people in North America assume I'm in a grumpy mood all the time.

When I was working in assistive technology, I was asked to try out an augmented communication package that used an iPad's camera to pick out gaze and facial expression to generate spoken text. The code was out of California, and this was one of its first outings beyond the state.

It relied heavily on a "Smile for 'Yes'" confirmation for navigation. I could not navigate past the first menu. The only time I could get it to work is if I pulled a terrifying (and frankly, painful) Sardonicus-style rictus. I had to bow out of the trial. I don't know what happened to the package, but I know that several other systems use smile-for-yes as a standard for low-effort communication. Oh dear.
posted by scruss at 12:22 PM on March 28, 2023 [10 favorites]


Here's an anecdote for you. My sister in law is Japanese and has lived in New Zealand for many years. At one point she visited family in Japan for the first time in a long time. People started whispering: why is Yoshiko so ANGRY all the time? The answer is, after years here, she had lost the habit of constantly smiling, which is expected of women in Japan but not here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:24 PM on March 28, 2023 [11 favorites]


It relied heavily on a "Smile for 'Yes'" confirmation for navigation.

Dear god.

Relevant Finnish Nightmares.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:39 PM on March 28, 2023 [5 favorites]


I visited St Petersburg about 10 years ago. I mentioned to my host that I wanted to walk around the city during some free time. She said that I should be careful because I was an foreigner. Being a white North American, I asked "how would they know I am a foreigner?" She answered, "because you are smiling".
posted by Prof. Danger at 12:49 PM on March 28, 2023 [3 favorites]


I scowl in all my selfies so hopefully if I take enough, I can change the algorithm.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:52 PM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


Yeah, us Eastern Europeans smile in selfies but Not Like That. And no, it's not a question of bad teeth, it's cultural conditioning - we don't expect others to present with relentless positivity. Americans are often bemused by how much complaining is a social bonding game. (Unless they are Ashkenazi Jewish Americans, because they seem to have retained a lot of Eastern European cultural tropes along with the bagels from Cracow.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:56 PM on March 28, 2023 [6 favorites]


To my own surprise, I'm going to defend the American smile. Take the hypothetical where the subjects had "to imagine they had just made eye contact with a stranger in a public place — at the bus stop, near an elevator, on the subway, etc."

Apparently most American respondents said they would smile, then look away. In America, this is a good idea, because it signifies that you are nonthreatening to a stranger who may be:

a) suffering from untreatable mental illness
b) armed
c) immersed in a widely shared counterfactual apocalyptic delusion
d) both b) and c)

You don't know! You have no way of knowing. The smile is protective.

It can also be genuine. It doesn't have to be a "duplicitous rictus" all the damn time. Of course Don Jr. and his wifegirlfriend have a smile like that -- they haven't known joy since they met Trump, which for Don Jr. probably came when he was about five or six.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:05 PM on March 28, 2023 [7 favorites]


I hate the smile expectation. The shape of my jaw is such that when I am authentically smiling because I am truly happy, I have a small smile and don't show my teeth. It is physically very difficult for me to smile a toothy smile (I can't do that "laughing with salad" smile either) because I have to focus on pulling my lips away from my teeth enough to show them and it looks, frankly, bizarre.

When I was a little kid I would repeatedly be told that I needed to smile for the camera and confusedly reply that I was smiling. Now I mostly avoid photographs because I really hate being nagged about it.
posted by Frowner at 1:09 PM on March 28, 2023 [5 favorites]


Also, my teeth are, well, they're fine. They're strong, actually, and don't have a lot of cavities. But I must be one of the last middle class people whose parents didn't beggar the family by springing for braces, and so my teeth are not perfectly even. They also aren't the nice chiclet teeth that one is supposed to have - the front two, though not buckteeth, are visibly larger than the others. I've never minded and in general like that my teeth were accepted as functional and good even though they are not commercial-level. But again, when you're expected to gurn at the camera and everyone else has heavily processed bleach-white teeth, well, it's just one more thing.
posted by Frowner at 1:13 PM on March 28, 2023 [7 favorites]


Taking another look at it, Americans don't smile quite like those AI images either. Very few actual selfies will display such pearly whites--the AI is using the nicest, whitest, most even teeth available. It's probably training on commercial images where the teeth have already been altered to be close to the ideal, and then uses those perfect teeth for the pleasing image it's programmed to present to you. It's not sophisticated enough to do a "Medieval Times" on, say, a band of knights and give them the missing and rotten teeth that we'd imagine them having.

And who knows, maybe medieval knights did all have big ol grins, we just don't have any visual evidence to know one way or another.
posted by kingdead at 1:30 PM on March 28, 2023 [2 favorites]


To my own surprise, I'm going to defend the American smile.

Same! People will feel how they want to feel, and it's interesting so many folks have negative associations with a big smile, but I'm a compulsively smiling American and I love it. (I spent a week traveling in very serious Romania and dimmed the smile a little, but it turns out that a "not smiling" American still smiles more than everyone else.) I'm not always great with strangers, and a big smile is useful the same way boring small talk about the weather is: it's hard to misstep there! Go into an overwhelming social interaction with a nice smile and the worst anyone can say about you is that you're a little quiet. As my (not American) grandmother used to say, "Smile and the whole world will smile back at you." And if that's not entirely true...well, a big smile can at least be disarming even when the other person wants to feel grumpy about it.

...the WW1 AI selfie was pretty wild, though. not sure the unbothered frat boy grin is entirely at home in the middle of trench warfare.
posted by grandiloquiet at 1:32 PM on March 28, 2023 [4 favorites]


Take the hypothetical where the subjects had "to imagine they had just made eye contact with a stranger in a public place — at the bus stop, near an elevator, on the subway, etc."

This politely skips over the fact that most Americans' contact with strangers is through the windshield of their car - where a significant number of them appear to be completely unhinged lunatics, each armed with a 1.5 ton vehicle. (this rant less applies to Europeans)
posted by meowzilla at 1:37 PM on March 28, 2023 [3 favorites]


Frowner: if it helps to know, the braces aren't always effective forever. I needed braces -- really needed them, some stuff was going sideways in front -- so I had to live with the old-fashioned train-track kind. Now that I've turned forty, I find that the lower jaw is crowding itself out again. I like to think that it's cute, and after pricing alignment kits, I am going to continue thinking it's cute until a dentist tells me I'm in trouble.

This thread did remind me of something: when I was younger, people used "smile" to mean one that showed your teeth. I was never one to do that, especially before braces, and I had trouble understanding what it meant anyway. The literal "smiley face" didn't show teeth. What exactly was I doing when I was happy if it wasn't a smile? Why wasn't it good enough to show happiness the way they wanted?
posted by Countess Elena at 1:43 PM on March 28, 2023 [2 favorites]


Roger Axtell said in his do's and
Taboos books
that Russians think that people who smile for no reason look like fools
posted by brujita at 1:54 PM on March 28, 2023 [2 favorites]


if it helps to know, the braces aren't always effective forever.

No, they are not; you have to wear a retainer regularly forever.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:04 PM on March 28, 2023


And if that's not entirely true...well, a big smile can at least be disarming

No. A big smile for no reason makes me very wary. What are you selling? How can I avoid you?
posted by scruss at 2:07 PM on March 28, 2023 [4 favorites]


Which, she asked the participants, would you do next?
A) smile and then look away
B) look away
C) gaze at his eyes, then look away


D) briefly gaze at eyes, make small decisive nod, continue on way
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:15 PM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


"Every 2 weeks a language is spoken by a human on Earth for the last time. A third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. By the end of this century, 50% to 90% of languages are predicted to disappear." !!!!!!!!

The concept of emotional labor ties into this. Mefites, certainly kicked that around a while. I have to admit, when I have to leave my house, it makes my interactions a nicer if the people I encounter are friendly and upbeat, that attitude requires a sorta facial wardrobe, and pleasantness is easier in reflection. I have done smile exercises so I smile more, easily. That set of muscles needs exercise just like the rest of the human body. I didn't practice smirking, or rictus grinning, I just practiced getting the corners of my mouth up and even, and my cheeks raised about 3/8 ths of an inch. It positively effected my mood.

I'm not dodging Russian rockets, yet, nor do I seek out companionship by trawling public places. I just want my face to reflect some of the contentment I feel. If I don't make an effort, my face is a baleful thing. It is better for everyone involved if I at least look mildly pleasant. This is my idea, not someone elses'. I brought home my school pictures one year, and my mom actually told me she hated my new smile. (14 years old, you know, and getting an older high school persona.)

I think Russia has had a long, difficult time, coming into being, at least as a nation without monarchy. But the difficulty of their transition from feudal, to overnight world wars, has been long, and relentlessly brutal. You oughta see the pictures of my Okie ancestors some of them, anyway. These were from the aftermath of the civil war. WTFYLA? Different cultures have different ways.
posted by Oyéah at 2:25 PM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


"Russians expect, instead, a stern look from their leaders"

This explains why the former president was never seen smiling.
posted by mike3k at 2:32 PM on March 28, 2023 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I'm another with a 'resting grumpy face' and my smiling face doesn't look all that different. It's not that I'm actually grumpy (well, not all the time), but my face is just naturally inexpressive. There may be a little bit of a thing where I subconsciously avoid expressing my feelings to stop people from using them to hurt me in some way, but that's not the same as being grumpy all the time. I guess some people can't be bothered to go beyond 'smiling = happy, otherwise sad' in their interactions with others.
posted by dg at 2:34 PM on March 28, 2023


mike3k: the former president

Of which country? There are so many.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:35 PM on March 28, 2023


Dysk: "I'm not sure that 'selfie' and 'smiling at the camera' are as tightly associated with the American smile as people are suggesting."

This. Even if you just google 'selfie' and look at the image results, you notice that it's mostly the white first-world looking people doing the fake American smile. Darker folks have a wider range of expressions, including but not limited to toothy grins. So the idea that the AIs have a white-folk bias is not so far-fetched.
posted by signal at 3:07 PM on March 28, 2023


Also, the description of the bank teller being tired of having to smile all day long reminded me of the time I lived in the California, US, and how nice it was to get back to the parts of the world where customer service people don't feel compelled to perform happiness all the time.
posted by signal at 3:09 PM on March 28, 2023


...Russians think that people who smile for no reason look like fools

I can't remember if the character on my copy of "The Idiot" was smiling or not.
posted by clawsoon at 3:47 PM on March 28, 2023


I both liked the the article for telling me a few new things, and felt irritated when it overextended its arguments.

The taut, grimacing, duplicitous rictus — the modern American smile

The smile that a 9-year-old makes when you tell them to smile for the camera, and they sarcastically mock you? Yes, that is how Americans walk around all day long.

As was pointed out above, nobody of any skin color smiled for the camera in the 19th century. However, I think it's also relevant the the occasion for those photos of the chiefs was probably that they'd just lost their last battle, and they'd traveled to DC to sign away their land and culture...so maybe not going to be a cheerful photo?

Then it contrasts the WWI AI image with an actual photo of Eastern European soliders...actually smiling in a forced for-the-camera way?

Also, the lady from Russia felt compelled to smile when she worked in the American bank, but she never learned to feel the love for the other humans. OK, sure. But what if we put an American lady to work in a Russian bank? As she shoots the glare of contempt at the customers, will it start to feel natural to her? How dare they bank there? On *her* time? I must know.

I felt what the article needed was some more science. So I did some.

Instagram tag search for "selfie" in Russian
(I saw no pictures that had anything to do with war, but I can't guarantee what happens when you click)
Almost all the pictures show smiles, although they do strike me as very muted. Less than 5% show any teeth.

tag search for "selfie" in Japanese
I don't know what to make of this. Some people smile. Some people wear lingerie...

tag search for "selfie" in English
So, I knew this wouldn't be limited to the USA, but I had forgotten that English is the language of the entire internet. It looks to me like more than half the photos are from somewhere in Asia, and I can't draw any hasty conclusion about Americans or people from the Anglosphere. Nonetheless, the result doesn't seem any more smiley than when searching in Russian.

Now I want to know:
* How did they make sure to only train the AI on pictures of Americans?
* How did it know that "selfie" doesn't imply one of those stupid filters that makes you look like an anime character?
posted by polecat at 6:44 PM on March 28, 2023


But what if we put an American lady to work in a Russian bank? As she shoots the glare of contempt at the customers, will it start to feel natural to her? How dare they bank there? On *her* time? I must know.

This is a misunderstanding. A lack of some is not a glare, and not smiling doesn't mean feeling contempt, nor attempting to feel contempt. A lack of smile does not have the same but opposite function as a big smile in an American context.

I'm also not convinced that smiling at people is even supposed to make you feel "the love" or anything. It's disingenuous performance.

How did they make sure to only train the AI on pictures of Americans?

They didn't do it intentionally, abs it doesn't have to be only Americans, just in majority. They just failed to understand that their own context and experiences don't generalise, aren't universal. A Silicon Valley company thinks they're doing something generic, it matches their expectation of the world so they don't question it, but it actually shows a bunch of American biases, because no effort was made to bring in training data specifically from other contexts.
posted by Dysk at 10:02 PM on March 28, 2023 [4 favorites]


I love this article and I know Jenka, she’s super smart
posted by thedaniel at 2:00 AM on March 29, 2023


I hate the smile expectation. The shape of my jaw is such that when I am authentically smiling because I am truly happy, I have a small smile and don't show my teeth. It is physically very difficult for me to smile a toothy smile (I can't do that "laughing with salad" smile either) because I have to focus on pulling my lips away from my teeth enough to show them and it looks, frankly, bizarre.

posted by Frowner


are we uh not doing "eponysterical" anymore, did I miss a memo
posted by taquito sunrise at 2:54 AM on March 29, 2023 [5 favorites]


No. A big smile for no reason makes me very wary. What are you selling? How can I avoid you?


I'm selling that we're both humans in the same world and I'm using a universal signal of friendliness, that I mean no harm. I'm on the Geoff Dyer side of smiling.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 3:31 AM on March 29, 2023 [1 favorite]


Having such limited language flattens things.
We're all talking about different things when we say "smile".

I still can't entirely wrap my head around the fact that to some people, "frown" is something you do with your lips rather than your eyebrows, but at least we're aware of that potential miscommunication.

But we're talking about smiling as if it's a single thing. Smiling can be that aggressive chimp-smile, one step removed from "look I've got teeth but I'm not biting you so that means I'm friendly" to the smirky smile a person darts at their companion to signal that you're an outsider, to the warm eyes-only smile when wearing a facemask, that brief but genuine connection with a stranger, or a spontaneous full face smile of love and friendship.

People who are not neurodivergent tend to be lazer focused on subtleties of facial expression, but also unaware of the fact that they are so influenced by those signals.

To them, it probably feels like they can really read another person's mind. They're used to being pretty good at understanding other people's expressions and body language, they don't usually have to be self aware about that skill.

So there just isn't a lot language to express these subtleties.
posted by Zumbador at 4:17 AM on March 29, 2023 [1 favorite]


I'm selling that we're both humans in the same world and I'm using a universal signal of friendliness...

...and a bunch of people are telling you that while you may see it that way yourself, it is not in fact universal, we do not all understand it to mean what you are claiming is universal.
posted by Dysk at 5:43 AM on March 29, 2023 [2 favorites]


It jumps out at me that, regardless of smiles/non-smiles, the dominant mode of human interaction is aggression-fear. After all, we're not saying to ourselves, "look at those Americans smiling away, how cute!" or "Ah, the sober-sides Russians, what peace and dignity they project". We're assuming the worst, even at the micro level - you like to grin a toothy grin, I assume that you're trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge.

And actually, I don't think it's about unconsciously communicating neurotypicals versus neurodivergents, because if it were, people wouldn't always be desperately trying to clarify what each smile means and to enforce a standard, legible smile (or frown, whatever) on everyone else. It's about distrust and bad communication.
posted by Frowner at 6:25 AM on March 29, 2023 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of a Robin Williams line: Russians don't laugh at good jokes. They nod and solemnly say "Funny, yes."
posted by doctornemo at 6:39 AM on March 29, 2023 [2 favorites]


Yeah, us Eastern Europeans smile in selfies but Not Like That.
Indeed. The Polish passport office literally describes smiling as 'an unnatural facial expression'.
Go into an overwhelming social interaction with a nice smile and the worst anyone can say about you is that you're a little quiet.
I'm afraid that is not universally true, for example...
Roger Axtell said in his do's and Taboos books that Russians think that people who smile for no reason look like fools
Not just Russians. Poles also see unnecessary smiling as a sign of low intellect, although of course some will understand the ways of foreign cultures.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 7:42 AM on March 29, 2023 [2 favorites]


This might say more about being proud of one's teeth, which implies dental maintenance and related expenses.
posted by Brian B. at 7:55 AM on March 29, 2023 [1 favorite]


This politely skips over the fact that most Americans' contact with strangers is through the windshield of their car - where a significant number of them appear to be completely unhinged lunatics, each armed with a 1.5 ton vehicle. (this rant less applies to Europeans)

If you think about this comment more than a second, you get some pretty depressing outcomes. Do Americans smile more because they interact with fellow humans less? Does constant interaction with strangers make one more wary, stressed angry? IMO potential outcomes of those conclusions don't have positive outcomes for liberal democracy.

I also object to the idea that American's primary contact with strangers is within their cars. It is not. Stores, sporting events, school, etc all dominate travel.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:43 AM on March 29, 2023 [2 favorites]



Indeed. The Polish passport office literally describes smiling as 'an unnatural facial expression'.


The US passport office official photo recommendations: " Have a neutral facial expression with both eyes open and mouth closed. "
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:48 AM on March 29, 2023


when I was younger, people used "smile" to mean one that showed your teeth

doing the fake American smile


Reminds me of this job interview a long time ago where the interviewer kept doing what I'd call the fake American smile, just retracting his upper lip enough to display his upper teeth. But his eyes weren't smiling. 'Phoney salesman' was what I thought, watching him. And I don't see that smile so much, anymore; but that just may be an indicator of the limited circles I travel in, now.
posted by Rash at 8:53 AM on March 29, 2023


ndeed. The Polish passport office literally describes smiling as 'an unnatural facial expression'.
The US passport office official photo recommendations: " Have a neutral facial expression with both eyes open and mouth closed. "

Both the Australian and New Zealand passport photo requirements mandate not smiling. If you submit a passport photo with the slightest hint of any expression, it will be rejected. It's the same expression you adopt when lining up to go through immigration anywhere - absolutely neutral with no hint of nervousness lest you be flagged as a possible drug mule.
posted by dg at 4:08 PM on March 29, 2023 [1 favorite]


I'm aware that smiling is discouraged or forbidden in passport photos in most countries, but that wasn't what I was pointing out about the Polish passport office advice. As far as I know, the US, Australian and New Zealand offices do not describe smiling as 'an unnatural facial expression'.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 4:17 PM on March 29, 2023 [2 favorites]


Oops, sorry - missed your point entirely :-( But, then again, smiling is an unnatural expression for me ;-)
posted by dg at 4:25 PM on March 29, 2023


« Older Art in art class?   |   yeah i got a pentium: a lot of pentium up stress Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments