Smile Like You Mean It

Posted by sepoy on April 19, 2005 · 4 mins read

I stood in the International Student Registeration Line a long time ago. Barely two days in the States, I was expected to know which classes to take and how to take them. A california sky-kissed beauty welcomed me with a radiant smile, "How can I help you?". My first reaction, I remember vividly, was the thrill that she TOTALLY wanted to marry me. She was smiling so warmly. My second reaction, after some thought [and the lack of any marriage proposals], was how insincere Americans are; throwing their precious smiles at strangers. It took a long time for the second reaction to wear off. It took even longer for me to learn to smile at strangers.

No Smiles AllowedThere are no public smiles in Lahore. Strangers greet each other with a poker-face. Those above you on the social power-relational scale [clerks, traffic cops] greet you with a hostile sneer. Those below you [clerks, traffic cops] get greeted with a contemptuous sneer. There are no smiles when you complete a transaction at the store. There are no smiles when you open the door for someone. There are no smiles when you find yourself looking at the same thing or sharing the same public space. There are no smiles when you ask directions to Mall Road. We don't even smile at our weddings [aside: I used to love "reading" the newly-wed pictoral in Akhbar-e Jahan. Some real stories in those snaps. For example, look at Mr. Majid' wife (column one, row four)]. Why not? Are we humorless prigs? Isn't smiling a universal emotion? When I asked some desi friends [two were f.o.b's], they said that American smiles were hollow and empty. "They just show you their teeth. There is no warmth".

On the contrary, they claimed that, desi smiles were genuine and heartfelt because of their rarity. A smile is something precious in Indo-Persiante culture. The smile of a beloved, in classical Urdu and Persian poetry, is all that one needs and pines for. Khandidan, tabassum, muskarahat are playful words for a beloved's smile that can be easily found in the works of Rumi or Hafiz or Mir or Ghalib. Why isn't it more accepted then? Perhaps, it is the poetics that have made the smile into such a loaded category. We cannot smile without thinking of Mir or Ghalib. Cultural barriers of propriety and shame are so entrenched that a smile is almost always transgressive.

Why, then, do the Americans smile so much? Did Shakespeare and Whitman asked them to? Or is this a genetic issue? A cultural one? Is it learned? I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist. But, I am sure the answer can be found in the literature of those fields. Little I know, from reading Thomas Frank and Steven Fox, is that smiling was not always so prevalent. It was the WWI army that introduced teeth-cleaning to US men. Public projects re-inforced the message and the advertising agencies selling toothpaste told everyone to smile brightly. See. We can blame the ad agency for almost ANYTHING.

All this because a dear friend visited Pakistan for the first time recently and was struck by "how very few people smile at newcomers in a welcoming gesture of cheerful unilateral acceptance? not a one. guess i never really knew just how american i am." [quoted without permission and with apologies]. Everyone I know who came from homistan to vilayat had this run-in with the smile. Everyone I know who went from here to the old country, asked me why everyone is so grim all the time? It is an odd sign of our collective other-ness. Unsurprisingly, I am constantly reminded by my friends and relatives of how American I am [the no-accent thing is my inside joke]. I do smile at strangers. I even mean it sometimes.


rob | April 19, 2005

Interestingly, ditto in Russia: smiles valuable, American smiles considered cheap. Or so it is often generalised... I think, personally, that it's not just smiling. The superficiality of American civility in general confuses me (this is the pompous, "as a Brit" moment). I had to deal with a lot of Americans last summer on a fleeting, anonymous basis. 90% would introduce themselves with "how are you?", and I'd always fall for it, thinking they actually expected an answer, not realising that the question part of the question had no significance; or at least, a different significance. "How are you?" "I'm OK, yours--?" "We'd like to..." *rob is left open-mouthed, mid-response, feeling half-presumptuous, half-annoyed*

dacoit | April 19, 2005

There are corresponding theories regarding the artificicality of people in the various regions of the US where folks are 'nice' and 'friendly' (and also smile lots). Accordingly, only the very occasional friendliness of the usually grumpy folks in New England and the mid-Atlantic are truly genuine, whereas the warmth of the populace of other regions is somehow false or sinister (southerners are secretly racist, midwesterners are just going through the motions, Californians think they are better than you, etc). Does this mean that people from Boston, New York and Philly (or the subcontinent, for that matter) do not brush their teeth as much?

tsk | April 19, 2005


sepoy | April 19, 2005

Rob: Favorite moment from my "Orientation" was when the International Advisor told us that: "When American girls say 'See You Later', it does NOT mean you have a hot date that evening." Dacoit: One can keep peeling an onion, no? And they def. don't brush their teeth in NYC. sheesh.

sharon | April 19, 2005

I remember as a kid we watched American TV programmes and found the *teeth* somewhere between hilarious and terrifying. HUGE. WHITE. SMILES. The more you spent on your teeth, the greater the compulsion to show them off?

Zack | April 19, 2005

Interesting thoughts. After more than 7 years in the US, I still haven't caught the smile bug. I wonder why. As dacoit points out, even in the US, smiles vary. I have not seen a New Yorker (city, not state) smile, for example. When my wife moved back from Jersey to Atlanta, she was surprised at how many people here say hi to strangers. The Pakistani sneer I have never liked, especially when it is so status-conscious. And at the wedding, no one allows the bride to smile. I have seen family elders admonishing the bride whenever she smiles during the ceremony. There is a stereotypicality to the idea that American smiles are fake but smiles, "hi", "how are you?" to strangers here are just that, nothing more.

swati | April 19, 2005

sepoy, any thoughts on the frightening prospect of having "bless you" barked at you evertime you dare to sneeze? It must be some Pavlovian reaction, I have now stopped sneezing in public.

Anand | April 19, 2005

dil ke tukde tukde kar ke muskara ke chal diye... smiling, when you don't really mean it, is one of the crullest things you can do in the hindi film song tradition, a direct continuation of the hinustani-urdu poetry tradition.... and oh, i've had a whale of a time in lahore without anyone smiling much - except once they figured i was indian. then the wattage came on, and the conversations, and the discounts/freebies. and boy, did that feel great... people in delhi/elsewhere get really puzzled becuase i have a big goofy absent minded grin on my face a lot... 'why does he smile this much?' i would recommend watching the newwest indian advertisement for 'happydent' gum - a bizzzare twist on both sub-coninental 'smiling' and chris pinney's camera indica...

Ikram | April 20, 2005

It's all about good teeth, innit? American is a dental superpower, and the introduction of tooth whitening technolofy (the famed 'Revolution in Dental Affairs') has extended America's lead over the world, and even created in a significant dental gap (no pun intended) between the US and countries like Canada, which had previously been able to match the USA in toothsomeness. Pakistanis don't floss, don't use mouthwash, don't wear braces in childhood, don't have electric toothbrishes, don't whiten, don't use waterpicks -- what do they have to smile about? Hairy Mango pits and sugarcane are not substitutes for flossing, and cardomom is not a breathfreshener. Keep your yellowed teeth to yourselves.

dani | April 21, 2005

the best is when the groom is frowning like a badass while wearing pink flowers AND TINSEL around his neck. so, ok, i know it's crazy, but just for the sake of science let's say that it's occasionally possible for an american smile to be FELT and MEANT. the question that plagued me most in the land of the pure was not, why aren't they smiling, but, what are they FEELING? (since my regular signposts - words and faces - were no longer reliable). let's set aside the smile of the Beloved for a moment (along with the arch of her eyebrow and her fragrant curl). let's get down to brass tacks with ordinary internally mirthful, loving folks. certainly non-smilers feel what i would consider to be smiley-feelings (love, happiness, a general bubbling over of warmth) in at least some circumstances similar to those which make smilers smile. i wonder how those feelings (where they come from, where they end up, the pictures they create or emerge from in the mind...) might be different when they have no physical manifestation. i tried, as an experiment while in pakistan, to resist the upward tugging of mouth muscles when i felt a tiny leap of glee or a sweep of gratitude or appreciation (ok i'm not counting sitting in a chair being solemnly presented with wedding money by a string of aunties while the tv in the background blared the good, the bad and the ugly...). in those situations not smiling felt much like holding in a sneeze, only harder. so...i guess for me the question is: are the non-smilers holding back, are they stifling an impulse ? (perhaps without much effort, having practiced from any early age.) or, is the facial impulse simply not there, are the muscles not connected to the emotional center in the same way? there's gotta be a study....

Ms. World | April 21, 2005

I'm from the Midwest. I was raised by Southern Black people who believed in good manners which meant that you smile and greet people. I went to college in New York and everyone was aghast that I smiled and spoke to complete strangers. I guess I was raised by hopeful people. I really hate this idea that American smiles are so insincere. DARN IT! I smile because I want to. I smile because I'm feeling blessed to be living my life. I understand why some people aren't smiling. Of course, my angry look scares the hell out of everyone. I also get a lot of "angry Black woman" b-s from non-Black people. So, I can't win. And I'm trying to prepare for my travels around Southeast Asia, India, & the Middle East by not smiling at people, especially males, but it is so hard because I'm happy to have the opportunity to travel.

omarazam | April 21, 2005

Do you think it might be a question of urban vs. rural Punjabis? Nobody smiles as much as Punjabis, so with Lahore it might be a metro thing. For example, you won't see much public smiling in NYC, considering it's in the smiley U.S.

sepoy | April 21, 2005

dani: I don't think they are stifling mirth. It may be that the mirth that is different. Or that the first response upon meeting someone new is not "pleasure" but "deference". Not to mention, the 800lb. gorilla in this debate: the white "other" in the room. What if the natural impulse of mirth IS consciously stiffled because one has no way to calibrate it across cultural lines. I dunno, just shooting my mouth here. Also: for the record, I must state again that I do NOT think American smiles are sincere. That's silly.

SK | April 21, 2005

It's amazing but I had the same experience when I went to get my new student ID made, upon arrival here on an F-1 visa a few years ago. The blue eyed, blonde haired beauty flashed her pearly whites with such warmmth and conviction that I couldn't help fall madly in love with her!! All I could think of was ' Waah Beta, do din hue nahin US main, aur tune to gori pata li.. Kya baat hai" I actually would go to the Student center every day and only after doing so for a week did I realize, to my chagrin, that she ( heck, everyone in the office) would smile as radiantly at every student who came to get their IDs made. It took me a few days to let go of my crush..!!

Sin | April 23, 2005

You know what really helped me get comfortable with the non-smiling thing? Gay men in clubs. They never smile, they just stand around all day controlling their bladders and trying to not fall over while drinking. When I'd start getting smile overkill (and I don't smile easily or readily, because I'm an arrogant SOB), I'd head straight over to Dupont Circle, where I'd know for a fact that a smile would actually lead to a date that night. ;)

BillH | April 25, 2005

In old family photographs (pre WWII), no one smiles. But when we had school photographs taken each year (post WWII), we were told to smile. However, while I always thought my smile was bashful, like Hugh Grant, after 40 years I was told it came across as a supercilious smirk. (I still don't think that's what I was feeling inside.)

sepoy | April 25, 2005

bill: Sounds like the graph I linked to above is on the mark.

Knightmare | July 20, 2005

There is nothing wrong with a smile and they could certainly use lots of them back home. It took me some time to learn to smile back. But, I still find it creepy even to the point of feeling dirty when a complete unkown whitey smiles at me for no good reason. And knowing they are all fake smiles(at least most of them), I even get a little pissed because I have to show the same fakeness back. Seriously, It's bad enough enduring their oppresive ways and now they want us to smile at them? We're not your monkies! We don't dance for no one White-Devil! ;-)

kuffir | July 20, 2005

about cleaning of teeth- it's been my understanding until now that the goras discovered the toothpick long before the toothbrush(and quite reluctantly at that). and in the sub-continent you'd find the brush among other items of personal use excavated from mohenjodaro. the neem twig ,i hope, is what the toothbrush would evolve into when it grows up.

Sundara Gul | July 07, 2007

Haha! I agree with you for most of the parts! I experience the same thing. Recently, I moved to Calgary, Canada and here you find many desis. Mainly Pakistanis and Indians. I was in "Karachi Bazaar" (grocery store) and I saw this aunt and I smiled at her and Said, "Assalam-O-Alaikum!" n I find it very rude and I was offended by her behavior that smile back was by far different thing, she didn't bother to say "Walaikum-Salam" instead she said, "excuse me!" I was like...WHATTTT!? lol. I thought, I should share 'coz I have experienced it a lot!

Robert Schulte | May 14, 2008

I am an American and yes I do have a tendency to smile alot to strangers and in public. Yes, there is SOME false pretense smiles in certain individuals that is used to get what they want in our culture. But for the most part our smiles are sincere in one degree or another the possible reason for this is because we as a country havent had to deal with dictators, communist, or just plane tyrants so we have had the ability to express our own emotions without worring about offending someone or worse getting thrown in jail or shoot for smiling at the wrong moment. So as some of you would say I am just another pompous American for thinking in such a way then yes I am pompous and those how are offened should for once think for themselves and not be controlled by others, instead try indulging in a little bit of everyones culture if you do then you could get a better unstanding. As for the rest thank you for trying to understand.

Not insincere, just misunderstood | March 20, 2010

As an American I can see why our smiles may be considered "insincere" but to truly understand you have to first understand why we smile. To do that you have to put yourself in our shoes. In most places, or even in simple conversations it can be thought of as rude if you don't acknowledge someone politely and for us, it goes hand in hand with a simple smile. It doesn't mean much more than that if you're a stranger. In our culture, (depending on the situation) not smiling can be considered rude, hostile, or give the impression that somethings wrong. We are taught that not smiling is associated with depresssion, sadness, shyness, unfriendliness, and a whole list of other negative things. Although you can use New York as an example of people not smiling, they are only one state and clearly one of the exceptions. Even a New Yorker will ask "how are you?" and not care for the answer. On the flip side if you ask an American that you just met how they are doing, it's normal to get a short response or sometimes no response at all. To call it "insincere" is really not understanding it. True, we may not value a smiles' meaning as much as other cultures. It may seem superficial and unusual for us to smile at you but rest assured we are simply being polite, nothing more.

Smile like you mean it? | March 27, 2010

"Smile, though your heart is aching Smile, even though it's breaking When there are clouds in the sky You'll get by... If you smile With your fear and sorrow Smile and maybe tomorrow You'll find that life is still worthwhile If you just... Light up your face with gladness Hide every trace of sadness Although a tear may be ever so near That's the time you must keep on trying Smile, what's the use of crying You'll find that life is still worthwhile" I think these lyrics sum up most Americans attitudes about smiles. Some say our smiles are insincere. But to this I say bah. Americans are optimistic people. We know we are not perfect. But in our heart of hearts, we would like to think we are honest and hopeful. This is why we smile. I know as a woman. I have had entire conversations with other women who I did not even know just by smiling. The smile conducted between me and a little old lady said this: Me- hello little old lady, I respect you as my elder, so here is a smile. I hope it brightens your day. Old lady- thank you for smiling young lady. You seem respectful, and lord knows there are so many young people who aren't. So I thank you for your smile. Have a nice day young lady. Me- Thank you mame. I will and I hope you do to. And that is what our smiles said, and I held the door open for her as she left the library because she had a crap load of books. Now you do have contradictory situations. Where the smile is more of a feral act of bearing your fangs towards your enemy. I think the best example I have seen of this was the during the last vice presidential debates. Biden and Palin seemed more like they were snarling at each other than smiling. But even then. There was still some optimism because both debaters were trying to project confidence and create a political victory. They were both smiling because in their own minds they were manifesting their victory, and in America winners smile (especially on the box of wheaties cereal). This is the beauty and power of a smile. You can enrage, frighten, and disarm an enemy by smiling in their face. But you can also use the same smile to shower feelings of love, respect, and warmth on loved ones and strangers. If anything. I would say Americans have gathered an understanding of the smile from frequent practice and use. We respect and love what smiles stand for, and can't imagine not having those frequent reminders in our lives as Americans.

radu | April 09, 2010

American smiles are sincere! But sadly, Americans don't notice how artificial they are when they smile... and instead use cheap shallow ideas to legitimize themselves. Get a mirror people, and use the "you deserve more than this" slogan!

Fluffy | April 11, 2010

It's not that American smiles "aren't sincere," as is often the interpretation by those outside the culture. In the U.S., smiles are used to express a larger number of different emotions and nonverbal cues than they are in other cultures. In America there are "over 50 different types of smiles," whereas in some other countries there may be only 1 type of smile (in which case a smile is typically only used to reflect a limited range of emotions, usually happiness or love). Hence the confusion on behalf of many new to the U.S. Americans use smiles to express a wide range of emotions and unspoken meanings. Smiles can mean anything from a sign of mere acknowledgment or a greeting, a sign of true happiness, a sign of love, and even a sign of spite, resentment, or condescension. In this way it may be similar to speaking Mandarin. The word for "love" means something completely different based on it's verbal tone. In American culture, a smile means something completely different based on it's physical "tone." If you never grew up experiencing these tones, you might listen to someone speaking Mandarin and think that they love you or that they're not genuine when they use the word love. (This is probably an exaggeration, but it's the same type of "lost in translation" situation.). In another similar example, in Italian culture it is not atypical for someone to hold your hands while you speak. Americans view this as an act of Italians being friendly, since physical contact is only used as a sign of affection (much like smiles are only used as a sign of affection in other cultures). However, many Italians do this as a sign that they want you to shut up (lol). If you weren't brought up with the different types of physical contact in Italian culture, you might not recognize these differences. This might shock some foreigners or cause some to think Italians are "insincere in their physical contact." As such, it might be difficult for someone who isn't raised in American culture to tell the subtle tones of one type of smile from another (in some cases being culturally brought up with only one use for a smile), and so they may have a difficult time adjusting to the smiley Americans or simply cast the phenomenon off as "Americans just aren't genuine with their smiles like we are." Overall, although the U.S. is largely a more verbally expressive country, Americans are much more non-verbally communicative through their smiles than many other cultures are. This just may take some getting used to.

Ali | April 12, 2010

It's not just us Americans you know. I have family in El Salvador and Mexico and when visiting I always find myself surrounded by beautiful smiles. Of course the lady at the market is smiling from the excitement knowing she can easily double the price without us barley noticing, never the less it's a sincere smile. Also, in English it's common to say "I love pizza, I love my house, I love this wine, I would love to go shopping, ect" The words I love (yo amo) have a very profound meaning. In Spanish one would never use the word "love" to express something you just "really like". It's only used when referring to a person or anything that has to do with people. For example in Spanish you can say I love my country or I love my home, being that your country and your home are made of people. So if a smiling American says to you, "I love your hair!" Don't think they are trying to convince you that he/she has affection towards your hair, or that your hair brought out such a great emotion that it caused a rare smile on his/her face. Just enjoy the compliment, smile, say thank you, don't read too much into it and move on with your life.

Jen | July 24, 2010

Some people are just genuinely happy and smiley. There's this one girl at Walmart who can brighten your day just by being within 15 feet of you. She's so happy and perky, and if any of it is fake, she sure fools me! However, she's a definite minority. As weird as this would sound to most people, since I've been researching other cultures, I've been trying to cut down on smiling. A decent amount of my smiles are definitely fake. It's a defense against how badly I'm treated where I live. In school, I'd smile constantly to show the people who bullied me, "You haven't broken me, and you CAN'T break me!" Years later, I barely even know how to smile sincerely anymore! American fakeness is all-pervasive and quite pathetic.

Waqrdahh | September 23, 2011

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