Friday, May 01, 2015

Loathsome Smiles

Smiles tend to make people feel good, for both the smiler and the audience. But there are some public figures in Hong Kong whose smiles make people feel unpleasant, often intensely.  There is a Mr. L who wears a never-ending, frozen smile on his face at all times. No matter when his is making self-righteous claims for his government, or persuading the pan-demoncrats to accede to the reality of power. It feels fake and insincere.  There is also a Ms. I who smiles sneeringly and condescendingly, while making outrageous statements, some of which are obviously bigoted.  

I understand better now why this is the case, after reading Marianne LaFrance’s “Why Smile? - The Science Behind Facial Expressions”.  To put it simply, there are two major kinds of smiles.  Genuine smiles, as described by French physiologist G. B. A. Duchenne de Boulogne more than 100 years ago, involves both the mouth and the eye.  The zygomaticus muscles pull the corners of the mouth up, making the familiar U shape mouth.  At the same time, the orbicularis oculi muscles that encircle the eyes contract, lifting the cheek, brightening the eye, and producing the familiar crow’s feet wrinkles.  Hence genuine smiles are called Duchenne smiles.  

The zygomaticus muscles are voluntary - easy to control, while the orbicularis oculi muscles are involuntary - hard to control.  Hence if you smile with your mouth but not your eyes, it feels fake and insincere.  And if you try to smile, while you are carrying ill-feelings, your smile gets distorted, and it becomes a sneer.  In addition, genuine smiles tend to be shorter than fake smiles. Now I understand better why the smiles of Mr. L and Ms. I generate such intense loathing. 

To adapt Tolstoy’s famous words on marriages, “All genuine smiles are alike, all fake smiles are fake in their own way.”  Thank you, Dr. Duchenne and Dr. LaFrance.  

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