Crosscultural skills

Do you need a reason to smile?

Reasons for smiling, when and where it is appropriate or expected to smile, what it can express are all factors that vary across cultures, and the more you know about these differences, the more successful your intercultural communication will be.

smiling culture shock living abroad
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

“The Americans’ constant smiling really gets on my nerves. Why do they always smile? I mean, without any reason… give me a reason to smile, and I will, but just like that, for no reason at all… what’s the point?” As I was listening to this girl, I couldn’t help but think that I was functioning in the exact opposite way. I am the “give me a reason not to smile and I won’t” type of person. I am sort of always smiling, it is my default setting. I meet someone, I smile. I run into an acquaintance on the street and I smile. And I don’t do it because I feel any kind of expectation.

Up until now I never thought about why I smile, I just did. Of course I am not smiling 24/7, but smiling is certainly my “normal face”, and it only changes when I am angry, sad, or just simply preoccupied, immersed in my work, reading, etc. And I am not even American! I am actually a Transylvanian born Hungarian, and the girl I was conversing with is a Hungarian born Hungarian. And with this we have a good starting point: one of my very first culture shocks when moving to Hungary occurred upon realizing that people there were much more reserved than what I was used to. Of course there is the great Hungarian stereotype of gloominess, of Hungarian people always leaning towards the sad, the tragic aspects of life, and perceiving life itself as a constant battle. This also explains why they only smile when given a specific reason to.

The language of smiling

If we mentioned these two attitudes: either smiling or not smiling for a reason, let’s see the wide variety of reasons behind smiling or not doing so! At least some of them, because as we dig deeper in cross-cultural differences, we see how many things smiling or a serious face can imply. By doing so we can see how useless or even harmful comparing “smiling-habits” can get. Because if we see how in different countries it communicates entirely different information, then we can understand how smiling is basically a language of its own. And languages have to be learned! If you don’t speak Spanish, you can’t simply presume that you will understand Spanish speakers anyway. You will have to learn the words, the grammar, and all the rules so you can speak it fluently. Reasons for smiling, when and where it is appropriate or expected to smile, what it can express are all factors that vary across cultures, and the more you know about these differences, the more successful your intercultural communication will be.

Why smile?

The first thing that comes to mind is that smiling expresses happiness, or a general good mood. This is something that maybe we can see as a universal reason for smiling. Other than this it can indicate kindness, or being open towards other people or the world in general. But this is already something that is culturally defined, and not so evident around the world. In some cultures smiling can also indicate sympathizing with someone, understanding what they are going through, and it can be a way of bonding, getting closer to someone. But one can just as well smile sarcastically, communicating their disagreeing, and looking down on someone can also be expressed with smiling. One can smile when something is funny, and just as well when something is sad. We have seen many movies showing sad, even heart breaking goodbyes where the two parts were smiling at each other. Love, understanding, letting go, wishing someone well, being sad, these all can be expressed in the same smile. These are some of the possible meanings of a smile that can probably be interpreted and understood in many cultures, but we are just getting to the more complicated meanings and paradoxes of smiling! Understanding these differences can be really important, especially in a professional setting, when a lot depends on what you non-verbally communicate towards your potential business partner.

Happiness?

Back to the US-American smile: one of the widely acknowledged paradoxes of smiling is the difference between the USA and Scandinavian cultures. Year by year we see how Scandinavian countries rank really high on the happiness reports, and yet we rarely see Scandinavian people smile “for no reason”. The same goes for Switzerland: it is known to be one of the happiest countries in the world, yet the people there are really… unsmiling. But on the other side we have the American dream, and the American must-stay-positive attitude. Smile even if you have it though, and perhaps fake it till you make it. Seeing this contrast we could think that genuine happiness, contentment on the societal level can be seen through a neutral face. When people don’t have to prove anything, and they are just fine, they don’t need to constantly smile, showing the world how good they have it. But this is yet again something that is greatly defined by culture and socialization.

Are you not taking me seriously?

In certain cultures you should avoid smiling with no reason when in a professional setting. In Russia for example, smiling indicates that you are being foolish, and you are not taking the situation seriously. In worse cases it can even mean that you are dishonest and manipulative. In India and Argentina for example smiling is also associated with dishonesty. In these countries people might have a hard time understanding why you are smiling during a business meeting, or a negotiation and you might instantly lose their trust. And if we are at the topic of trust: in Japan for example smiling can be a way of showing respect towards the other person, and Japanese people are known to be really good at distinguishing a fake smile from a genuine one. As in Japanese culture the eyes are really important in interpreting non-verbal communication, they also look at the eyes rather than the lips when interpreting a smile. When a smile is genuine, the muscles around the eyes contract as well, and it is really easy to spot a fake smile: the mouth smiles but the muscles around the eyes remain still. This is a smile that one “put on”.

Smiling women

Here’s another interesting take on smiling: what does gender have to do with it? In less smiling cultures a woman’s smile can be interpreted as flirtatious, hence really inappropriate in a business setting for example, but not only there. A woman randomly smiling at anyone on the street, for no apparent reason can also be frowned upon in not so smiling cultures, while in the very smiling ones it can become even an expectation. In Romania for example, you can often hear that a smile is the best accessory a woman can wear, or smiling makes a woman really beautiful. Also as kindness is very closely linked to femininity, and smiling is recognized as an expression of kindness, woman are often expected to smile as a means to show how kind and how good at heart they are.

Diversity and smiling

Research shows that countries with homogenous population tend to be less smiling than those populated with more cultures. A possible explanation to this can be that smiling is often a way to ease tension, and people living in heterogeneous countries got used to trying to find a way of co-existing, and not letting the cultural differences get in the way of their living together.

So…

What can we say? First of all, if you are planning to move, or you have to work in an international environment, gathering the necessary smile-language skills is a really good idea. And parallel to this, you can understand your culture’s take on smiling even better, and maybe realize all the ways your culture “defines your face” you didn’t think about before. It will surely help your intercultural communication, and you will have lots of fun while you learn!

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

At a glance

  • Smiling is basically a language of its own.
  • Reasons for smiling, when and where it is appropriate or expected to smile, what it can express are all factors that vary across cultures.
  • Understanding differences can be really important, especially when a lot depends on what you non-verbally communicate towards your business partner.
  • In certain cultures you should avoid smiling with no reason when in a professional setting.
  • If you are in an international environment, gathering the necessary smile-language skills is a really good idea.
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