There is a saying in the United States that “the language of laughter is universal.” While it is true that people all around the globe feel positive emotions, these feelings are conveyed in a variety of ways. Here, we examine various interpretations of a smile across cultures.
In the United States, displaying emotion publicly is frequent and Americans smile often. Smiling not only shows happiness, but is also used to recognize the presence of someone else. Americans may smile at strangers in passing. They also smile during moments where they feel uncomfortable or are unsure of how they should act. There are many types of smiles that are familiar to Americans but need to be taught in cross-cultural training. The English language recognizes this by having words such as “grin, smirk, smug smile, beam, grimace, and sneer.”
In Russia, it can be considered poor taste to smile without a reason. Neutral faces are more common in Russia, especially when working or meeting new people. Smiles here are seen as a more private view of the self that is reserved for close friends and family.
Similarly, smiling at a passerby in Germany will not usually elicit a smile in return. Some Germans find Americans too quick to smile and may perceive this as dishonesty or goofiness. In other countries throughout Europe, smiling at a stranger may convey unintended messages, especially when exchanged between a man and a woman.
Some Asian cultures, such as Japanese, discourage overt emotional displays. This is because humility and building consistent relationships with others are highly valued characteristics. Therefore, Japanese people may not smile as wide or often as Western cultures. However, the smile in Thailand is seen as the most appropriate reaction to every situation. It is used to show not only happiness, but also embarrassment, fear, tension, and regret.
One thing that researchers do agree on is that facial expressions are not a learned trait, but rather innate knowledge. A way to gauge the frequency of smiles in your destination country is to browse social media profile pictures in that area. From looking at these pictures, you can see the age and gender of people who smile the most, the type of smile, and sometimes even the situations in which people smile.
A more comprehensive understanding of subtle cues can be achieved with intercultural training. After arriving at your destination, observe everyday interactions until you get a feel for appropriate facial expressions.