Written by Cornelia Mayr
Department of Sociology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria
“The circus is coming! The circus is coming!” a colorful street poster silently yelled at us as my friend and I walked down the sidewalk. Amazing trapeze artists, skilled acrobats in fabulous costumes, and exotic animals were all captured in a performing pose in front of a tent-like symbol. Right next to the artistic performers, a huge comic clown’s face smiled happily. “Clowns are scary,” my friend insisted emphatically. “Why?” I asked him. “That’s why. I don’t know. Just look at them. They’re…clownish’.
My friend’s remark made me smile, and at the same time I thought about the meaning of a smile. If you browse your family album or photos on your phone, how many smiling faces do you count? How many sly, simple, or smirky smiles are beaming at you? Can you tell the difference between a genuine smile and a knowing one? Is it important to know the difference?
Whether it’s easy or difficult, natural or staged, joyful or forced, smiling is the work of the face—literally and metaphorically. Sometimes even saying “cheese” can’t help or convince a genuinely smiling face. While biology and human anatomy class can explain the interrelationship between brain circuits, muscle tension and facial expressions, here we look at smiling faces from a sociological perspective. So, aside from neurological reactions and the cheek muscles controlling the edges of the mouth, why do people smile?
A smile, simply stretching the corner of the mouth to the corner, seems banal and associated with social change. For example, just look at the grim expressions from the early years of photography.
It’s been almost 100 years since smiles became a common expression in photographs. Shiry Ginosar et al. al, for example, explored the history of the smile in photography. In historical records of American high school yearbooks, they recorded trends over time and revealed “changes in attributes that invariably appear in portraiture,” including degrees of smiling (p. 423). If you’re more interested in art and literature, Colin Jones traces the history of smiles in paintings, satirical cartoons, scientific illustrations and novels.
Why do we say “cheese” after experiencing the smile revolution? Christina Kotchemidova can answer you because she saw camera technology as a lens that focuses on the dynamics of changing facial expressions. You’ll see why perfect smiles weren’t always the norm, how the booming photography market has contributed to the social norms of smiling, and why smiling faces have become the focus of vacations, vacations, and travel.
All these examples bring us back to the complex relationship between smiling and social change. By looking at the seemingly “banal” smile through a certain lens, we can see the widespread changes in norms, values, practices, and institutional arrangements that lie behind a seemingly innocuous social behavior like smiling. But in the strange known ways of curling our mouths up, we can also learn what happens when we break the rules of smiling.
Harold Garfinkel, an American social scientist known for an approach called ethnomethodology, critically examined the everyday interactions we often take for granted. However, he was much more interested in how people responded to rule-breaking behavior than in the actions themselves. When people resist their inclination to conform and play by the rules, their norm-breaking behavior reveals the normative expectations of society.
Let’s try our ‘breakthrough experiment’ and challenge the power of a smile. A good way to start is with occasions when smiling is considered inappropriate. In their posts, Todd Schoepflin and Karen Sternheimer introduce us to the social conventions and rules of display in the workplace, the doctor’s office, and funerals. We see how the characters in those situations follow the unspoken rules that govern them. For Garfinkel, much of our everyday interaction is indexical; guided by common understandings and knowledge of tactics that ensure a smooth flow of interaction. So what happens if we challenge the indexicality rule? What are the social reactions to smiling to show sympathy, smiling to give a bad grade, or smiling to diagnose a serious illness?
Smiling can also be seen as problematic because it can obscure authentic ways of expressing yourself or ‘being’ yourself. This case becomes particularly evident in the modern “resting bitch face” (RBF). Found in both sexes, RBF means a blank face without a smile to express, “I just look like this.” While smiling became commonplace in snapshots sometime in the 20th century, now it might mean you’re not as pretty if you smile. So, no matter how you look at the camera, the smile kind of becomes an asset – I smile when I want to. But does this mean that the rules of the social smile have changed? Whether it’s the RBF or your zygoma major muscle that controls the corners of your mouth, many of us still want to look our best in photos – and smiling is a significant part of that.
So what do you think? Aren’t we all a little “clownish” when it comes to practicing face work? Maybe we should all practice smiling more or less for a change.
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