Smiling and Cultural Identity


Our cultural identity helps us to create a sense of belonging, security, satisfaction and makes us feel connected. We all exist on different levels: we may identify with our nation, an ethnic group, a geographic region, social status, faith in a religious belief or ideology etc. Although we all have different types of identities – we can describe ourselves as active, timid/shy, outgoing, hardworking, team oriented etc. : all terms that describe our personality and help to define our personal identities. We all have more than one personal identity (and it has nothing to do with schizophrenia!) depending on the situation, the person we interact with, the language we use etc.

Then there is our social identity that is determined by the roles we take in family, school, groups, at work etc. We are mother/father, colleague, teacher, manager, hairdresser, artist etc. And our social identity includes being a member of a club or society – a group of persons who share the same interests. Cultural identity, on the other hand, implies “a shared sense of community and apparent similarities that generate both shared and common patterns, as well as social markers (…)
And these help give participants a sense of belonging, a sense of security or satisfaction, and some continuing connectivity.” (cfr. Steve J. Kulich, Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), Intercultural Communication)

When we try to recognize other people’s identity across cultures, we are often confused. It is challenging because other cultures have different clues and it is very easy to misinterpret social markers.
When we lack knowledge, we need to be more observant and politely ask about these clues with the intent to understand someone from another culture.

If you know the series House of Cards or have some Russian friends or collegues, you might know that in their culture, smiling is considered a sign of weakness (a well-known Russian proverb says ‘Улыбкa, бeз пpичины – пpизнaк дypaчины’ (smiling with no reason is a sign of stupidity)) and also Norwegians consider frequent smiling as a sign of stupidity (cit. from the article here below).
When I shared this article on facebook, I got some interesting reactions from people who live in an international environment and weren’t aware of the nuances of smiles (a continuum from subtile smile to laughs).

Not every smile is a sign of kindness. It can mask shyness, uncertainty and even disapproval. I have some friends who would smile and laugh while disapproving.
The article Be Careful Where You Smile: Culture Shapes Judgements of Intelligence and Honesty of Smiling Individuals by Kuba Krys, clarifies that a smile has negative attributions in some cultures:

Smiling individuals are usually perceived more favorably than non-smiling ones—they are judged as happier, more attractive, competent, and friendly. These seemingly clear and obvious consequences of smiling are assumed to be culturally universal, however most of the psychological research is carried out in WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and the influence of culture on social perception of nonverbal behavior is still understudied. Here we show that a smiling individual may be judged as less intelligent than the same non-smiling individual in cultures low on the GLOBE’s uncertainty avoidance dimension. Furthermore, we show that corruption at the societal level may undermine the prosocial perception of smiling—in societies with high corruption indicators, trust toward smiling individuals is reduced. This research fosters understanding of the cultural framework surrounding nonverbal communication processes and reveals that in some cultures smiling may lead to negative attributions. (abstract of the article)

Knowing that cultures differ in their perception of a smile is very important when living and working internationally! Many variables come into play and decoding them all is a fascinating yet complicated endeavor. – Will one be considered more honest or corrupt when smiling?

Across cultures, smiling increased attributions of intelligence and honesty more for female assessors than for males and target gender affected attributions of honesty in non-smiling targets, but not for smiling targets. These effects of participant and target gender on smile perception did not affect the interactions of culture and smiling, however, which are the focus of the current report.

Smiles come in many forms and are not always friendly but they seem to be a preprogrammed behaviour as “kids who are born blind never see anybody smile, but they show the same kinds of smiles under the same situations as sighted people”.

I wonder though: if baring one’s teeth is a threat or a show of potential force in primates, how did the smile become a friendly gesture in humans, and why do some cultures consider smiling as not friendly?

“All cultures recognize a variety of mouth gestures as indexes of inner emotional states. As in our own culture, however, smiles come in many varieties, not all of them interpreted as friendly.” (Scientific American)


What are your experiences with this? Have you ever misinterpreted a smile and what were the consequences? 

Articles mentioned:

Kuba Krys, Be Careful Where You Smile, Culture Shapes Judgements of Intelligence and Honesty of Smiling Individuals, Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, June 2016, Volume 40, Issue 2, p. 101-116.

Olga Khazan, Here’s why Russians don’t smile, 29 May 2016, on Businessinsider; original article Why Some Cultures Frown on Smiling,  The Atlantic, 27 May 2016.


Email this to someoneShare on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Facebook10Share on StumbleUpon0Tweet about this on Twitter
Please share...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *