Say it Right

It Turns Out Smiling Won’t Always Make You Attractive

What smiling means in different cultures
What smiling means in different cultures
What smiling means in different cultures

Next time you find yourself talking to someone who speaks a different language, use facial expressions to get your message across. After all, smiles and frowns mean the same thing around the world, right?

Probably not. Depending on your culture, smiling at strangers can make you seem friendly and trustworthy, or it can make you look like an idiot or liar.

I remember two Russian exchange students at our university, and how their classmates (and even some teachers!) felt a little intimidated by their non-smiling faces. We Cebuanos thought they were simply being unfriendly, and at the end of the semester, they complained how difficult it was to make friends here in the Philippines.

For us, the reason was obvious — you never smile! We like it when people smile when we’re introduced to them, when we talk to them, when we mess up and apologize.

smiling 2

It turns out, though, that Russians have this proverb: “To smile/laugh without reason is a sign of idiocy.” If we’d known that’s how they felt about smiling unnecessarily, we might have felt more confident striking up a conversation with our Russian schoolmates.

And it’s not just Russians. A Dutch saying goes: “All are not friends who smile on you,” while a Korean proverb claims: “He who smiles a lot is not a real man.” During the 2008 Olympics held at Beijing, Olympics hosts practiced trading their close-lipped Chinese smiles for more Western-style, toothy grins by clenching a chopstick between their teeth.

“It’s normal for us Filipinos to giggle when we’re embarrassed, but others might find that insane”

Where does this difference come from? Does this mean that smiling isn’t just an expression of emotion, but of culture? Some cultures read beneath the lines (or in this case, read beneath facial expressions) more than others do. The Japanese look at the eyes more than the mouth to figure out a person’s intentions or emotions, and that’s one reason their emoticons are so different from ours. And while it’s normal for us Filipinos to giggle when we’re embarrassed or smile when we’re apologetic, people from other countries might find that insane!

How facial expressions differ across cultures.
How facial expressions differ across cultures.

So next time you try to get your message across to someone from a different country, consider your facial expression and remember that you both come from different cultures. Culture, along with other factors like your personality and history, can affect the meaning of simple phrases like “It’s okay” or “It’s nice to meet you”.

And next time you meet someone — Filipino or not — who isn’t smiling, don’t jump to the conclusion that he or she is unfriendly. (Remember the resting b*tch fact syndrome?) Say hello, ask questions, and find out more about the person.

“Next time you meet someone who isn’t smiling, don’t jump to the conclusion that he or she is unfriendly”

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