October 03, 2022

Smile for a Change

Cornelia Mayr Author Photo By Cornelia Mayr

Department of Sociology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria

“The circus is coming! The circus is coming!” a colorful street poster silently shouted at us while a friend and I were walking down the sidewalk. Amazing trapeze artists, skilled acrobats in fabulous costumes and exotic animals, all captured in a performing pose in front of a tent-like symbol. Right next to the artistic performers grinned the huge face of a comical clown cheerfully down on us. “Clowns are creepy,” my friend claimed determinedly. “Why?” I asked him. “It’s because. I don’t know. Just look at them. They are... clownish.”

My friend’s remark made me smile while I was simultaneously thinking of the meaning of smiling. If you browse through your family album or photos on your phone, how many smiling faces do you count? How many smirks, simpers or grins are beaming at you? Can you distinguish between a genuine smile and a deliberate one? Does it matter to know the difference?

Whether it comes easy or hard, naturally or staged, joyfully or forced, a smile is face work – literally and metaphorically speaking. Sometimes even saying “cheese” might not make it easier or more convincing for us to put on a genuinely smiling face. While biology and a lesson in human anatomy can explain us the interrelationship between brain circuits, muscle tensions and facial expressions, here we look at our smiling faces from a sociological perspective. So, leaving aside the neurological reactions and muscles of the cheek that control the edges of the mouth, why do humans smile?

Smiling, an act of simply stretching the mouth corner to corner, seems to be simultaneously banal and linked to social change. As an example, just take a look at the grim face expressions from early years of photography.

It was almost 100 years ago since smiles became the standard expression in photographs. Shiry Ginosar et. al, for instance, investigated the history of smiling in photography. In a historical record of American high school yearbooks, they captured trends over time and revealed “changes in attributes that always occur in a portrait,” including the degrees of smiling (p. 423). If you are more interested in art and literature, Colin Jones traced back the history of smiles depicted in paintings, satirical cartoons, scientific illustration, and novels.

After having faced a smile revolution, why do we say “cheese”? Christina Kotchemidova may give you an answer for she approached camera technology as a lens focusing on the dynamics of changing face expressions. You will see why picture-perfect smiles weren't always the norm, how the rapidly expanding photographic market contributed to social norms of smiling, and why smiling faces became the focus on vacation, holidays and travel.

All these examples bring us back to the complex relationship between smiling and social change. By looking at the seemingly “banal” smile through a particular kind of lens, we can see the widespread alteration of norms, values, practices, and institutional arrangements that lie behind a seemingly innocuous social behavior, such as smiling. However, by making the familiar ways of curling our mouth upwards strange, we can also find out what happens when we break the rules of smiling.

Harold Garfinkel, an American social scientist known for an approach called ethnomethodology, critically examined the everyday interactions that we often take for granted. He was, however, much more interested in how people react to rule-breaking behavior than to the acts themselves. Whenever people resist their inclination to follow and play by the rules, their norm-breaking behavior reveals society’s normative expectations.

Let’s try out our own “breaching experiment” and challenge the power of smiling. A good way to start are occasions where smiling is considered inappropriate. In their posts, Todd Schoepflin and Karen Sternheimer introduced us to social conventions and display rules at the workplace, doctor’s office, and funerals. We can see how the actors in those situations follow the unspoken rules that govern them. For Garfinkel, most of our everyday interaction is indexical; guided by a shared set of understandings and tactic background knowledge that ensures the smooth flow of interaction. So, what happens if we challenge the rule of indexicality? What are the social reactions to expressing sympathetic condolences with a smiling face, giving a poor grade with a smile, or diagnosing a severe illness with a smile?

A smile can also be considered problematic as it can obscure authentic ways of expressing or “being” one self. This instance becomes particularly evident in the modern phenomenon of “resting bitch face” (RBF). Detected in both sexes, RBF refers to a smile-less, blank face worn to express, “I just look this way.” While sometime in the twentieth century, the smile became common in snapshots, now perhaps the implication is that you are not so pretty if you smile. So, in whatever way you face the camera, smiling seems to become one’s own property – I smile when I want to. But does that mean social conventions of smiling have changed? Whether it is the RBF or your own zygomatic major muscle that controls the corners of your mouth, many of us still want to look their best in pictures – and smiles present a meaningful part of that.

So, what do you think? Aren’t we all a bit “clownish” in practicing our face work? Perhaps we should all practice smiling more or less for a change.


I agree when you are saying a smile could also be considered as problematic because someone could take it the wrong way.

A grin, like any other facial expression, may be misinterpreted, so I get where you're coming from.

Thanks for such a pleasant post. This post is loaded with lots of useful information. Keep it up.

Agree. You should embrace positivity, spread joy, and approach situations with a smile.

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