Before You Board That Plane: What a Smile Means Around the Globe

Smiles have different meanings around the world. Americans are known to be especially smiley, and our counterparts in the U.K. like to grin, too.

But you won’t see as many free-smiling faces in cities like Beijing, Tokyo, Munich, and Moscow. As we know, Putin’s smile is seldom seen, but it turns out he isn’t always angry. In Russian tradition, people are taught from a young age to smile only when they are especially happy or excited, and these smiles are normally reserved for close friends and family. It’s considered somewhat phony to smile for no reason and may indicate silliness or deeper problems.

In Germany, how you return a smile matters. It is not routine to automatically smile back, and they actually see the American style of instant return-grin to be a bit bogus.

People in many Asian cultures have learned to hold back – to wait and carefully control their impulse to smile and, in general, reserve their emotions until they know the people and situations more intimately. In Japan and China, smiles are not as commonly seen, but interestingly, when Japanese and Chinese people immigrate to the States, this changes over time and their children go on to share the easy-smile spirit of the new neighborhood. In preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, event volunteers were actually trained to share a welcoming smile, but were cautioned to show only 8 teeth, so as not to embarrass and overdo.

But, we Westerners actually have more in common with our brothers and sisters in Bangkok. Again, social scientists looked at yearbooks and other photos over years, to gauge the grin factor in the Thai tradition. They found that, as in the U.S., smiling is frequent and can express happiness, sadness, tension, anxiety, fear and much more from an early age.

Finally, no matter how much research is applied, some smiles really do seem to come naturally, since birth, and are not taught by cultural tradition. The USABA (United States Association of Blind Athletes) often shares photos of the beaming smiles broadcast by their athletes as they win their event. No coaching needed for that grin from the heart.

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