Researchers believe they have finally disovered why the wide, white-teethed smile is so important in American culture - immigrants and cultural diversity.
Across different cultures, a smile can mean many things. In more expressive cultures such as the USA, where showing emotions is not necessarily a bad thing, and in which hierarchy and social differences are less acute, the smile is a lot more common.
As a result, it is common to hear stereotypes about certain cultures such as, "Russians are always miserable" or "Americans are very fake" due to misunderstading the cultural differences around smiling and why we do/don't do it.
So, Why do Americans Smile?
Although there have been different theories as to why some cultures are smiley and others not, new research suggests that the answer is very simple - it comes down to how much immigration and cultural diversity a country or culture has experienced.
Where people from different places have come together without a common language or culture, they have had to use the smile as a way of expressing good intentions. It is a non-verbal tool of diplomacy used to build trust.
In cultures where the people are pretty much all from the same culture, there is no such need to communicate in this way as everybody shares the same spoken language, knows their place and share the rules of engagement of all others.
Interestingly this was further made evident by the researchers who discovered an interesting difference between the intention behind the smile.In countries that smiled they saw the smile as a way to bond with someone else. However in less smiley cultures they saw the smile as a way of showing superiority over someone else. The researchers believe this is due to the hierarchical nature of such cultures and the need to constantly maintain power structures.
Who would have thought the simple smile could unearth such deep value differences between cultures?
Even today, with our supposedly interconnected, globalised world we don't all agree on what a smile or or what it does. In this great article on Smiling and Culture the author draws upon research which shows that in some cultures they find smiley people less intelligent!
[Countries left of the red line consider smiling people significantly less intelligent than non-smiling individuals; those to the right are the opposite.]
So next time you travel abroad, remember a smile is not just a smile!