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The Science of Unmasking our Smiles!

Marianne LaFrance, a Professor of Psychology at Yale University, has found that many professional photographers (e.g., those who take photographs of authors for their book jackets) actually forbid their subjects to smile as they regard smiling as a non-distinguishing facial expression.  But in a less esoteric world, people expect and want others to smile for the...

Marianne LaFrance, a Professor of Psychology at Yale University, has found that many professional photographers (e.g., those who take photographs of authors for their book jackets) actually forbid their subjects to smile as they regard smiling as a non-distinguishing facial expression.  But in a less esoteric world, people expect and want others to smile for the camera and are distressed when that doesn’t happen. People remember events (vacations, birthdays etc)  as being happy even if they weren’t as long as the photos show people smiling.

I took this portrait of a young girl at the Temple house of Kumari in Patan’s Durbar Square (Nepal) . I asked LaFrance for her thoughts on my image: ¨A somewhat bashful smile (averted gaze), that is moderately intense and probably genuine (reflects real positive feelings) indicated by raised cheeks, some pouching below the eyes and the oblique raise of the lip corners. Photograph © KIKECALVO


Five minutes with Marianne LaFrance:

A smile is… To roughly quote Herman Melville , “a smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguity.” Smiles are ambiguous because they take on multiple looks and appear in a bewildering array of contexts thus making it futile or just plain silly to attempt to nail what a smile is down to just one thing.

Why should (people) smile?  …because, smiles have multiple psychological and social effects like opening up social connections, reducing interpersonal conflict, softening embarrassing situations, enhancing first impressions, upping the likelihood of positive results both personally and professionally, to say nothing of increasing the likelihood of having a more satisfying private life, and maybe even a longer one.

How can smiling have such an impact in someone´s life?  Smiling is serious business; it impacts the quantity and quality of one’s interpersonal relationships that are themselves crucial to our well-being.  As I argue in Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions, human beings are ultra-social animals that need viable relationships with other people in order to survive and thrive. Smiling is an important device that helps us make and maintain these crucial social relationships.

Share with me five cool facts about smiling. Things people may not be aware of. 

  • Rookie baseball players who smiled in their photographs for the Baseball Register lived longer than rookies who did not smile.
  •  Bereaved spouses who showed smiles while talking about their loved one shortly after his or her death were better off at both six months and twelve months later than those who did not show some smiling immediately following their loss.
  • Babies smile in the womb.
  • Women who on average smile more than men have larger smile muscles (zygomaticus major) than men.
  • People who are guilty of some transgression such as cheating on an exam are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt if they are shown to smile in a photograph versus showing a neutral expression.

Which countries smile the most? And which are at the end of the smiling list?

 The data are not all in on this question but the evidence suggests that people from countries in East Asia (Japan) and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Philippines) on average smile the most; residents of Northern European countries (Scandinavia) and the old Eastern Block (Russia, Poland) are thought to smile the least. Bhutan in South Asia is reputably the happiness country in Asia but only the eighth-happiest in the world.

What are the basic nonverbal communications skills every aspiring photographer should keep in mind?

Be patient. Adopt a low profile. Include context.

Kike Calvo at the age of 10. ¨The Happiness of enjoying the exploration of my own kitchen as a child led me to an expedition in life full of hard work to accomplish my dreams that began early on: Never loose sight of dreams!. Image shows my beginnings as an explorer, already with a smile on my face as usual, in Zaragoza (Spain) in 1982.¨ Photograph © Enrique Calvo

Some traveling anecdotes connected to traveling or cultures?

When I talk about smiling to my European friends and colleagues (for example, French, Dutch, English), they often ask why is it that Americans smile so much.  They don’t think it means that Americans are happy; they just think it’s frivolous or dippy. Americans for their part tend to think the Japanese smile is inscrutable. It is of course is not inscrutable to other Japanese.  One difference between the American and Japanese ways of smiling is that Americans think that a smile means the smiling person is pleased or happy; Japanese people on the other hand, smile not when they’re happy but when they want others to be happy.


My dream is… I am actually living my dream. I am a professor at a great institution (Yale); I do research on topics that interest me and collaborate with smart colleagues and inquisitive students; I get to read and observe and teach and write for a living.

The biggest lesson in your career is… Be willing to move

The biggest lesson in your life is… Life is not a rehearsal.

The moment I will never forget… It’s actually moments that I will never forget and the common element is getting lost in some “foreign” place: climbing over a dune in Egypt years ago while docked on a boat cruise down the Nile and being met with two military aiming rifles at me; taking the wrong bus near Acapulco, Mexico which didn’t stop and headed up and up into the hills; getting disoriented in a snowstorm while sailing with a few graduate student buddies off the coast of Maine one early May.  It seemed like a good idea at the time to rent a boat for a week in Maine in May because it cost next to nothing.

Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions


Why should anyone read your book?

Why Smile? provides information such as how to understand the impact your smiles or lack of smiles have on other people; how to tell the difference between a genuine smile and a fake smile; how to decipher differences between types of fake smiles; why popular kids show more fake smiles than unpopular ones; and why men tend to smile less than women.

Follow Kike Calvo on FacebookTwitterWebTumblrLinkedIn or Instagram.

Learn More:

Marianne LaFrance’sLip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics [Hardcover]2011

Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions

Moving Bodies: Nonverbal Communication in Social Relationships

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Kike Calvo
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: