Claims about American smiles

by on May 4, 2017 at 12:46 pm in Data Source, Political Science | Permalink

It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication—and thus, people there might smile more.

For a study published in 2015, an international group of researchers looked at the number of “source countries” that have fed into various nations since the year 1500. Places like Canada and the United States are very diverse, with 63 and 83 source countries, respectively, while countries like China and Zimbabwe are fairly homogenous, with just a few nationalities represented in their populations.

After polling people from 32 countries to learn how much they felt various feelings should be expressed openly, the authors found that emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.

People in the more diverse countries also smiled for a different reason than the people in the more homogeneous nations. In the countries with more immigrants, people smiled in order to bond socially. Compared to the less-diverse nations, they were more likely to say smiles were a sign someone “wants to be a close friend of yours.” But in the countries that are more uniform, people were more likely to smile to show they were superior to one another. That might be, the authors speculate, because countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures.

That is from Olga Khazan, file under “speculative”!  Via Conor Sen.

1 B. Reynolds May 4, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Should we then expect smiling Germans to be common in the coming years?

2 Russ Mitchell May 4, 2017 at 1:14 pm

Half my family is German, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany. Good sense of humor, lots of smiles. Well, maybe not Berlin.

3 Art Deco May 4, 2017 at 8:14 pm

Southern part of the country?

4 Lingthusiast May 4, 2017 at 1:55 pm

I immediately had the same thought; I always said there must be “a tax on smiling” there when we lived in Germany. But that was back in the 1990s. 🙂 Have only visited 4 times since then

5 Vivian Darkbloom May 4, 2017 at 3:33 pm

The trend with regard to laughing Germans points to “nein”:

6 Alvin May 4, 2017 at 12:58 pm

I would add that smiling to strangers in many foreign countries by a woman might invite trouble or immediate harassment and stalking, and smiling by a man to a strange woman may imply flirting and counter-threats or force by the woman’s father or older brother against the man. At the very least, regardless of who is doing the smiling, the recipient will feel puzzled.

7 Sisyphus May 4, 2017 at 12:58 pm

This is not just speculative, it is demonstrably wrong. First of all, diversity is not the same thing as immigration. Territorial empires such as Russia and China are very diverse despite having negligible immigration, and neither Russia nor China are much given to smiling at strangers. Nor is the U.K., for that matter, which has a great deal of both diversity and immigration.

8 Melmoth May 4, 2017 at 2:37 pm

China is 92% ethnically Han, its hardly very diverse. But agree with your overall point.

9 FG May 4, 2017 at 3:44 pm

The article snippet seems to indicate that the authors mostly mean diversity of *language* as a driving force here. May as well ask, since I don’t know, how much diversity of language is there in China? In one of those massive factory cities, how many different languages are you likely to run into?

10 Troll Me May 4, 2017 at 5:50 pm

There are lots of dialects.

Because almost everyone has at least primary education, there is decent communication between people who speak different dialects. Then there’s the difference between Cantonese (southeast) and Mandarin which is spoken in many other places.

There are also many traditional languages among indigenous peoples referred to as “national minorities”.

But basically everyone in Cantonese areas can speak Cantonese, and elsewhere Mandarin is a lingua franca even if speaking different dialects or other languages.

11 FG May 4, 2017 at 8:56 pm


12 Alvin May 4, 2017 at 1:01 pm

An interesting follow-up study would focus on the effect that time spent traveling in diverse countries, like the U.S., has on visiting foreigners when they return back home. Do these foreigners smile more to strangers in their native countries after visiting the U.S.?

13 Kris May 5, 2017 at 8:43 am

I lived in the US for 10 years. Returned to India. Smiled at strangers, got scowls in response. Opened doors for people, people pushed past me. I stopped smiling and being unduly polite in public after a few months.

Someone further down mentioned that Indians smile a lot. They probably do that to Westerners. Amongst ourselves, we just scowl at each other. If a stranger smiles at us, our inner radar is activated; the guy is very likely out to scam us.

14 Chip May 4, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Canadians definitely smile when seeking a connection.

As for other cultures, in Asia a smile often meant the person was getting angry or uncomfortable.

15 Slugger May 4, 2017 at 1:13 pm

My family emigrated to the US from Germany when I was 10. During my teen-age years I was told that I should smile more on several occasions. I long thought that this reflected cultural differences. More recently it has occurred to me that I am not totally neurotypical. Is there a Turing test for Germanic formality versus Aspberger’s?

16 Careless May 4, 2017 at 2:54 pm

what about eye contact?

17 JWill May 4, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Shouldnt this predict that New Yorkers would smile more than midwesterners? I suspect that is not true…

18 Will Barrett May 4, 2017 at 2:27 pm

I had the same thought about the South. I think it even applies to mid-sized Northeastern towns. Smiling is frowned upon. Hurts my wife’s feelings.

19 Picador May 4, 2017 at 9:25 pm

In my experience New Yorkers are much friendlier than southerners, especially toward people who don’t look like locals.

20 Sam the Sham May 4, 2017 at 9:52 pm

I just figured Americans smiled more because they weren’t stuck in Europe or Russia. Shows what I know…

21 Thiago Ribeiro May 4, 2017 at 3:00 pm

The big difference is not the quantity of smiles, but the quality.

22 Barkley Rosser May 4, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Among the least smiley in public are Russians, who walk around their streets scowling mostly. It is my understanding that there is a general perception that somebody who smiles is out to pull a fast one on you and mess you over somehow, not to be trusted. Of course Russia famously also has low levels of general trust and social capital, as well as low levels of reported happiness. Some of this is certainly the legacy of the past when so many people stabbed each other in the back to get ahead, with those stabbing resulting in prison or death. Hard to overcome all that.

People tend to only trust and be open with a very narrow set of people, close relatives and very close friends. However, this is also tied to a positive, that people who close friends in Russia tend to be very strongly so, with many Russians dismissive of the superficial nature of friendships in many other nations, especially in the too smiley US>

23 Art Deco May 4, 2017 at 5:25 pm

Russians might work on their hygiene and drinking habits before moving on to their mood.

24 Sir Barken Hyena May 4, 2017 at 4:17 pm

This implies diverse societies are low-trust.

25 chuck martel May 4, 2017 at 4:48 pm

Like so many such studies, it’s worthless toro feces.

26 Joy May 4, 2017 at 5:40 pm

This dumb American was introduced to a Muslim man in an Arab country, and I looked him in the eye and smiled and shook his hand like the gun-slinging American cowgirl (read: bookish New Englander) that I am. Found out later that I violated at least one sacred norm. I did not mean to offend, of course, and I was doing what I was taught to be polite and welcoming. Couldn’t smiling be a public good on some level, since it makes people happy?

27 Art Deco May 4, 2017 at 8:12 pm

It’s not a sacred norm, it’s a local shtick. If he’s an Arab of a common sort, he’ll go nose-to-nose with you and breathe in your face in conversation, get creepy close behind you in lobbies and other public places, and jostle you in other places.

28 The Centrist May 4, 2017 at 6:26 pm

I’m not sure why some of the fluff pieces merit their own thread, whereas some of the more important — as I see it; I doubt if I’m completely off base — pieces get stuffed into a thread with 5-6 other things.

29 Picador May 4, 2017 at 9:22 pm

Fascinating and plausible. My first thought was that India, which has relatively low levels of immigration, has a very smiley and otherwise demonstratively friendly populace in my experience. But this is consistent with the trend: the degree of cultural diversity WITHIN India itself is staggering, with 37 official languages last time I checked.

30 Taeyoung May 5, 2017 at 10:05 am

Once you get past the basics (e.g. smiling vs. frowning), nonverbal communication doesn’t travel between cultures all that well. And even smiling doesn’t necessarily communicate — e.g. in my experience, a lot of Americans don’t register smiling as an expression of embarrassment. So I think it may be an artifact of what they are looking at.

More generally, if you think about communication, I’d drop it in three buckets:
Verbal communication
Nonverbal communication
Shared understandings (i.e. no communication needed)

Culturally consistent populations will be able to rely much, much more on shared understandings, so all things being equal, I’d expect them to rely less than diverse populations on both verbal and nonverbal communication. In linguistically diverse settings, verbal communication may not work at all, so it makes intuitive sense that nonverbal communication would be prioritised. But I suspect that in linguistically uniform settings, you’d see a lot more verbal communication in culturally diverse groups than you would in culturally consistent groups.

Without doing any deep research on this, my impression is that the US — particularly the urban US — has leapfrogged ahead of, e.g. Prussia, in the breadth and depth of regulatory pettifoggery partly because diversity undermines shared understandings and expectations, so everything has to be set forth in minute and exacting detail. And part of it is just the rise of a highly verbal mandarinate trained in law, to whom everything looks like a nail in need of a legal hammer.

31 Jacques René Giguère May 5, 2017 at 3:06 pm

In Québec, the extreme american smile ,especially among women, is known as “américaines à dents” “toothy americans women”…

32 Ritwik Priya May 6, 2017 at 9:03 am

At a very minimum a theory like this should try to integrate/investigate with existing speculations e.g. the theory of low-context = high verbal communication Western esp Anglo cultures vs. high-context = low verbal communication Eastern/ old world cultures.

File under ‘speculative as well as underwhelming’.

33 REF May 6, 2017 at 7:24 pm

This analysis fits perfectly with Paul Seabright’s “evolutionary biology” of economics in “The Company of Strangers, A Natural History of Economic Life.”

34 Lord May 7, 2017 at 11:03 pm


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