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October 9, 2011

In putting together my guest lecture on Public Speaking, pretty much all of the materials I found said that it is important that you smile. According to one source, “smiling is an expression that indicates happiness, friendliness, warmth, and liking. So, if you smile frequently you will be perceived as more likable, friendly, warm, and approachable. Smiling is often contagious and others will react favorably. They will be more comfortable around you and will want to listen to you more.”

I find it interesting that this person says “they will want to listen to you more” when you smile. It was clearly written by an American, because this emphasis on smiling just does not exist in other cultures.

Americans are known around the world for smiling. When I arrived in Ukraine, I heard a lot about this fact, both in cross-cultural training sessions and from Ukrainians themselves. Many of them seemed mystified that I don’t smile all of the time, as they had been told we do. I have to explain to them that not ALL Americans smile all of the time. Indeed, many do smile a lot, because it is part of our culture – we as a culture are known for our optimism, and in our culture it is polite to smile (especially when you work in Customer Service).

Another source  I found says “while most Americans prefer a friendly smile to a frown, many put on a smile even when they are not feeling especially friendly, in part because their communication style emphasizes the relationship side of communication…”

This is true, at least in my experience. We are trained to smile in the U.S., even when we are not so happy. Most of the time, I don’t do this, and I find it quite annoying to have to deal with the expectation all the time. In the U.S., people expect others to smile all of the time – it is like a personal affront if you are not. I cannot tell you how many times in my life people would command me to “smile”. This, of course, usually had the opposite effect. In fact, I myself wondered who these people thought they were to command me to smile. I mean, what is wrong with NOT smiling all the time?

You see, for me personally, I smile when there is an occasion – if I am pleased, amused, happy, etc. But otherwise, to me, to walk around with a big smile on my face seems…artificial. I am not happy all of the time, and find it dishonest to pretend that I am.  Even when I am not UNhappy, I don’t walk around with a big smile on my face. I have what I consider a normal expression.

Except when I was dancing. I was taught that, as a performer, you always, always smile. It enhances the dance performance and if you made a mistake, no one would know. The last part may not be true, but after seeing a number of dance performances here, I can definitely attest to the former. For example, yesterday when I was at a local celebration (trying to figure out the math…Kirovograd is 267 years old or so, and we celebrated the 165th anniversary of the birth of the city’s first mayor), there were a number of dance performances, and it was so strange to me that none (save one) of the dancers smiled. I realize they were nervous, but after asking the woman I was with, I found out that they are indeed supposed to smile…

Well, that’s a relief. At least in some ways, smiling crosses boundaries. In this country, people generally don’t smile as much as in the United States. You go to the bazaar, and unless they know you, they don’t smile. They don’t smile in restaurants, in stores…well, you get the idea. Most of the time the people are not unfriendly – they just don’t have the same cultural norms as in the U.S. However, the customer service aspect, well, that’s different too.

As for the smiling Americans, sometimes the smiling works in our favor, and other times against us. For example, in many countries, a woman smiling at a strange man on the street is considered a sexual invitation. This is one of the reasons American women have the reputation of being sexually “easy” in such countries. Is it right or wrong? Neither – it just is, but it is most definitely something to be aware of.

So, to make a short story long, I fit in here in that respect – the smiling thing. Although I do smile when doing public speaking, meeting someone new, etc. I can’t help it…I’m an American.


One Comment leave one →
  1. RuBoo permalink
    October 9, 2011 4:18 am

    Interesting blog!

    I have heard about the effect of “smiling therapy”. It really works I experienced that. But are there any other reasons of why do they teach people to smile artificially if everyone (in most of the cases) realize the fact that it’s an artificial emotion?

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