Watch Your Mouth!

When a woman smiles at you, is she flirting — or simply being polite? And why do some cultures smile less than others? Here, Dr. Marianne LaFrance explains the hidden secrets behind our smiles.

By Kimberly Dawn Neumann

t's been said that it takes more muscles to scowl than to smile, but that's just one of the many reasons why you might want to consider turning that frown upside down — especially when you're dating. "Most people think of a smile as universal, and there is some truth to that…there is no culture that doesn't smile, there is no historical
In polite society, females are socialized to put on a happy face.
period that has been researched that doesn't describe people as smiling, there's hardly a baby that's ever been born — including those who are born blind and deaf — who doesn't smile… as a species, we come to Earth ready to smile," says Yale psychology professor Marianne LaFrance, Ph.D., author of the new book, Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics, which delves into the latest research on smiling to explain how one little lip twitch can have huge social consequences. "That said, a number of findings having to do with smiling and heterosexual relationships can be very complicated."

So if your date is flashing his or her pearly whites at you across the table, what does it really mean? Here, Dr. LaFrance helps us dig deeper into the "smile files."

Smiley-face fact #1: Women smile more than men do
"In general, women and girls — we researched down to 12- and 13-year-olds — smile significantly more than men, but it's not necessarily because they're happy," says Dr. LaFrance. Though both sexes are given signs early on that they should "cover" their true emotions for the sake of social protocol, women tend to "get" the message sooner; in other words, in polite society, females are socialized to put on a happy face. "If you get a tacky gift, you're told you should say 'thank you' and smile. Or if Aunt Isabelle and Uncle Charlie arrive, you are supposed to indicate some modicum of pleasure to see them — even if you don't feel it. Girls are much more likely than boys to get the message that nice girls smile — even in the face of disappointment, anger, frustration, or sadness," says Dr. LaFrance.

So if a woman's out on a bad date, she's still going to grin and make the best of it. In other words, don't automatically assume that her smile indicates that she's having an awesome time.

Smiley-face fact #2: Love and lust smiles look different
Did you know that there are "love" smiles and "lust" smiles? "Married couples who are deeply in love show significantly different kinds of smiles than those of people who are equally steeped in lust," says Dr. LaFrance. The key to spotting the difference between the two can be found in someone's eyes. "In a genuine, spontaneous, deeply felt and positive smile, you get changes around the eyes in addition to the classic upward outer corners of the mouth," explains Dr. LaFrance. What kinds of changes? Well, with a "genuine" or "love" smile, the area around the eye socket will contract, which raises the upper cheeks, pulls down the eyebrow, creates a fold in the upper eyelid and closes the eye a little bit. Thus, people who "genuinely" smile a lot get wrinkles in the corners of their eyes as they age, so be proud of your crow's feet…they're signs of a life that's been filled with authentic smiles and lots of love!

On the other hand, when lust-filled couples smile at each other, there's no eye-socket action going on — but there is more activity involving the tongue and lips. "It's not like people are tonguing each other across the table," says Dr. LaFrance (which we're pretty sure would be a clear giveaway); rather, "it's actually as subtle as it comes." With a lustful smile, the tongue doesn't protrude from the mouth; instead, it's visible for just a split second as it touches the upper or lower lip.

In other words, check for wrinkles around the eyes or stealthy lip-licking to learn the true intentions hidden behind your date's smile.

Smiley-face fact #3: Men confuse smiles with sexual interest
Men are generally more inclined than women to almost always interpret a smile on a woman's face as an indicator of sexual interest when it actually could've been something else (see fact #1 above). This is true even when the woman was simply offering a "social" smile (sometimes called a "fake" smile), which is commonly seen in the course of everyday interactions with one's coworkers — or strangers on the elevator. In this particular type of smile, the corners of the mouth come up — and more often than not, the lips stay closed. It's friendly, polite, and sociable without resembling anything like a warm, flirtatious or "let's talk" kind of smile.

Dr. LaFrance actually did a study comparing recognition patterns between genuine smiles and social smiles by showing men and women very brief videotaped examples of both expressions, and then asking them to differentiate between the two. The results showed that women are significantly better than men at being able to tell the difference between genuine smiles and fake ones. And men are, in fact, actually bad at it — their guesses were not only less accurate than those of the female participants, they were statistically worse than chance. These results show that men are much more likely to interpret any smile from a woman as being genuine and heartfelt until otherwise indicated. Translation: If you're female and really not interested in a man you see out on a Friday night, it might behoove you not to smile too much in his direction, "or don't be surprised if he approaches with the assumption that you've already given him the green light," says Dr. LaFrance.

Smiley-face fact #4: Smile while you work
Another reason why women smile more than men do is because they're more likely to be working in occupations that require them to be sociable and friendly, such as teachers, daycare workers, waiters or PR reps — and there's no better way to communicate cordiality than by smiling. "But the data is really interesting on this, because if you put men in the same occupations, they end up smiling just as much as women do because it's a requirement of the occupation," says Dr. LaFrance.

Case in point: the sales industry. Salespeople — regardless of whether they're male or female, selling automobiles or makeup — sell more products when they smile than when they don't.

So if your date happens to be a very smiley person, feel free to probe into his or her work history. "You might even be able to guess [your date's] field if [he or she is] smiling a lot," says Dr. LaFrance. "It's a very high-probability occurrence." Keep in mind, however, that you may have to dig a little deeper with these types to find out what they're really thinking; after all, they're conditioned to "sell" you with personality because of their chosen careers.

Smiley-face fact #5: High-powered people are less intimidating when they smile
Are you a woman with an intimidating career? Then it's probably in your best interest to flash your pearly whites instead of your power moves when
Each country or culture has its own ways of smiling.
you're on a date. "Sometimes, men are threatened by a powerful woman…even in this day and age," says Dr. La France. "If a woman is in a high-powered job and afraid her date might be ill at ease with that, she could make an effort to smile more…which will probably have the effect of making him more comfortable subconsciously." While this may sound like a sexist suggestion, it's not. This isn't about dumbing oneself down for a date, but rather, giving the other person a positive signal that takes the edge off any perceived power differential between you two. Historically, it's the same reason that people in lower social positions (like servants or porters) were taught to smile; people who do so appear to be less threatening and more accommodating — which also makes them more appealing to potential dates.

Smiley-face fact #6: Smiles have accents
Believe it or not, Dr. LaFrance says that smiles actually have their own accents. "Each country or culture has its own ways of smiling. That is, subtle differences in what actually shows up on the face as well as different, often implicit 'rules' as to when it's appropriate or inappropriate to smile, at whom, and how much," she explains.

For example, Dr. LaFrance says that in the U.S., most people — both men and women — see smiling as a positive thing, and Americans tend to do it fairly promiscuously, even while traveling (which can sometimes lead other cultures to think of Americans as "dopey," unfortunately, because they'll smile indiscriminately at waiters, museum docents, retailers, and so on). Meanwhile, Northern Europeans — including French, British and Scandinavian countries — regard smiling as something that's reserved only for the people you really care about; they believe that you don't just smile at anybody. Rather, you smile at the people with which you've already established some kind of relationship, lest you look a little crazed in their eyes. And the Japanese are taught to smile — even in the face of tragedy, like the Fukushima disaster — not because they see anything good coming out of an unfortunate situation, but because their culture tells them not to make others uncomfortable with their personal misfortunes.

There are also regional differences in smiling, asserts Dr. LaFrance: "People in the U.S. Midwest and Deep South smile significantly more than people in the northeast, western or mountain states." So if you're on a date with someone who was raised (or spent a lot of time) in another country, region or culture, you might misinterpret the absence of smiling as an indicator that the person is a sourpuss, or the presence of a milder smile as a sign that your date's not really interested in you. "It is possible to misread 'foreign' smiles, especially during early encounters like first dates," says Dr. LaFrance. Therefore, if you feel there's at least some interest coming across, give it time to see if you can translate the other person's smile dialect.

Smiley-face fact #7: Frozen smiles are off-putting
Beware of Botox. While some people may find themselves looking for "beauty by injection," according to Dr. LaFrance, paralyzing your facial muscles may also freeze up your dating life. "We, as humans, need to see other people's faces show variation in expression," says Dr. LaFrance. "Most of us, most of the time — women more than men, of course — have something going on in our faces…we react quickly, our eyes open and close, our nostrils flare, our skin gets redder, and when people don't express things on their faces, it has the effect of creating a profound sense of disengagement from the world, which often leads to alienation."

In fact, Dr. LaFrance cites one study that showed when regular people were given Botox injections which paralyzed some of the most expressive facial/smiley muscles, they became depressed. Not showing expression or not smiling can also be a trait that some high-testosterone men exhibit, either because of a lifetime of squelching any emotion or the fear that someone could take advantage of them if they allow themselves to feel something. "This type of guy may be tall, dark and handsome…but the 'dark' also refers to a general stance towards minimal joy, minimal excitement, minimal interest, minimal giddiness and humor, and minimal smiling," says Dr. LaFrance.

The bottom line here is that if an open and reciprocal relationship is your goal, you might be wary of people who are afraid to show their emotions through facial expression.

Smiley-face fact #8: Smiling for the camera works
Having a good time with your date? Quick: Get someone to catch you two saying "cheese!" and snap a photo. "Just having your picture taken with someone (since you're often smiling in photos) can lead you to have more positive feelings towards each other," says Dr. LaFrance. "Since so many pictures we take are with people we like — people we're having fun with and people that we want to have in our lives — there is a spillover effect from this, even if you don't know each other very well." In fact, Dr. LaFrance says that one study (which is mentioned on pages 222-223 of her book) showed that when strangers were introduced, if they had their photos taken together, they ended up saying they liked the person they took a snapshot with more than other new people they met with whom there was no Kodak moment.

In other words, if a second date is on your wish list, don't leave home without your digital camera or smartphone. Now that you know, are you ready? Say 1, 2, 3…and smile!

Kimberly Dawn Neumann ( is a popular New York City-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Redbook, Maxim and frequently online. A certified dating/relationship coach, she's published two books: The Real Reasons Men Commit and Sex Comes First and is the founder of She smiles a lot…genuinely.

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