I’ve had the good fortune of spending a significant amount of time working in London over the years. I’m your typical confident American, accustomed to making eye contact and smiling when speaking to another person. But until I spent time abroad, I was never self-aware of my facial expressions—or the potential cultural misunderstandings my demeanor could construe.
In the UK, I discovered, not everyone made as much eye contact on the street or tube as I did. And it was rare to hold eye contact during a business meeting. I learned that my sweet disposition and smile could be deemed as flirtatious. But my British colleagues understood: I was American. This forward attitude wasn’t provocative or aggressive, it was just my style. Luckily, being expressively cheerful among those who keep emotions closer to their vest was mutually understood in the UK.
In other countries, however, a cultural misunderstanding of smiling can have actually have serious repercussions, especially in a professional setting. While it’s unlikely that a mistimed smile will be the deciding factor that costs you a deal or a contract, awkward social interactions can make it much more difficult to build effective business relationships.
Americans are recognized internationally for their big, white, toothy grins—though perhaps less so in New York. I’ll get into why Americans are more smiley than their international peers later, but first, let’s talk about the different cultural associations with smiling, and the potential cultural misunderstandings at stake.
What Does Your Smile Mean in Different Cultures?
Different cultures value and interpret smiling in different ways. For example, in Russia, people do not smile because it implies that you are at best foolish or at worst, sneaky and manipulative. Even in candid family photos, adults appear with stony, scowling faces.
In Japan, smiling is a way to show respect or to hide what you’re actually feeling. Although, in Japanese culture, nonverbal expressions use the eyes more than the mouth. This makes it easier for the Japanese to determine if a smile is genuine or fake. (Here’s a quick anatomy lesson to explain how this works. The obicularis occuli muscle is a facial muscle that circles the eye socket. It’s the muscle that causes your eyes to crinkle when you smile. However, this muscle is almost entirely controlled by involuntary impulses and it is nearly impossible to ‘fake’ a smile by contracting this muscle.)
Australians and Canadians have smiling cultures and typically smile to show that they are happy or content. While they might not have the same reputation for giant white smiles as Americans, they smile more than our peers in Russia, Japan, China, Switzerland, and the UK.
In America, we smile to show a pleasant face to the people around us, to express happiness, gratitude, and even when we’re nervous. It’s often our default facial expression, at least when other people are watching. If you’re from a smiling culture, I’m sure you could see how a cultural misunderstanding could arise if you’re working with a less smiley culture!
Why Do Some Cultures Smile More Than Others?
So, if countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia have smiling cultures and countries like China, Russia, and Japan do not, what does that tell us?
According to research quoted in the Atlantic and other publications, countries that were built and populated with many different cultures coming together smile more often and more enthusiastically than more homogenous nations. When immigrants from many different cultures and languages come together, they often have to rely on nonverbal communication cues to make connections with their neighbors. So, while Germans don’t smile at strangers, 150 years ago when a German family immigrated to the United States and shared a neighborhood with families from Poland, Ireland, and Italy, everyone had to learn to get along despite language differences. Smiling played an important role in pleasant, nonverbal communication across cultures.
For the purposes of getting along with others, Americans also tend to smile to reflect the preferred feelings of the people around them. We associate smiling with happiness and we all want to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is even written into our constitution. As a result, we often smile brightly to show the people around us that we are happy, like them, and getting on with our lives successfully. It’s like a beacon to our peers: “Look, we’re just like you.”
There are of course other factors that contribute to how smiley a culture appears. Historically unstable cultures or those where government corruption is rampant are significantly less smiley. For example, many Russians think that people who smile are foolish because there is not guarantee for the security of the future.
Smiling Doesn’t Always Reflect Happiness
It is important to remember that when considering what nonverbal behavior means in different cultures, view smiling is not necessarily indicator of happiness, at least on a macro scale. For example, countries like Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway have very high reported levels of happiness but are not particularly smiley cultures. On the other hand, the United States has been steadily falling in the international happiness rankings of the world happiness report, despite our smiley demeanor.
My advice for Americans who have to work abroad and foster international relationships is to make sure you do some research before making your visit or working to build relationships with your international peers. It is important to be yourself, but rather than perpetrating the American stereotype, learn about the culture you are going to visit. This will help you interact sensitively and effectively with your peers. If that means resisting the urge to smile at strangers for no reason, then save your smiles for when you are truly happy or excited during interpersonal interactions.