The American Smile


When we smile at someone, we expect them to smile back.

No matter what country we’re in.

Smiling is the universal symbol for friendliness. Right?


As it turns out, smiling is quite cultural.

Here are some things I discovered about foreign smiling:

In Cuba, women did not smile back at me – until I got to know them. Then they were all smiles and loyal friendship. Men did not smile back but instead puckered their lips at me. (And, FYI, Cuban men have the sexiest lips ever.)


Photo: Sylver Blaque / Cienfuegos, Cuba

Yeah. Loooved, Cuba.

Throughout Argentina, women remained expressionless initially, but warmed up to beautiful smiles later on.


Photo: Sylver Blaque / Iguazu, Argentina

Argentine men not only smiled back, but flirted, hit on, and went out of their way to make themselves available.

In Iran, men rarely smiled back; some would nod ever so slightly but that was about it. Although a couple of cuties asked me out. But that’s a whole other story…


Photo: Sylver Blaque / Yazd, Iran

Depending on which part of the country I was in, Iranian women either remained expressionless or came up to me and took my hand, asked who I was, where I was from, why I was alone, was I married?


Photo: Sylver Blaque / Isfahan, Iran

Ultimately, I formed close friendships in Iran.

In Afghanistan, depending on what part of the country I was in, women would either smile back, stare curiously or just look confused. But just like everywhere else, I made great friends there. Afghani men would either smile like Cheshire cats, laugh out loud, or scowl at me in a reprimanding sort of way.


Photo: Sylver Blaque / Kabul, Afghanistan

My Afghani friend, Sabrunah, finally revealed to me that when I smile at men, they think I am a prostitute soliciting them – which explained all their reactions!

In Madagascar, smiles radiated from all sexes all over the country.


Photo: Sylver Blaque / Fianarantsoa, Madagascar

They could almost have been…well, American.

Ah, the American smile…can’t beat it with a stick.

Or can you?

The fact is that we smile. And we smile often. We have a whole repertoire of smiles – from big and toothy, to tight and tolerant. And we don’t need a logical reason to whip ‘em out.

But when someone doesn’t return our smile, we most likely think, “What’s their problem?We judge the person’s lack of reciprocity harshly. We decide they have issues, are anti-social, or just plain rude.

But what are they thinking when we smile at them?

Well, If you’re in Russia, they are most likely thinking, “Psycho!”

To Russians, a smile is an honest form of communication, not a social requirement of politeness. In fact, Russians view ever-smiling Americans as unnatural and false.

Which, when you think about it, is a teeny-tiny bit true.

Sure, we smile when we are happy, or amused. But we also smile to mask upset or embarrassment, and to qualify bad feelings.

We smile to be polite or friendly. But we also smile to hide animosity or contempt.

We smile even through tears in our very American way of staying positive, and keeping a stiff upper lip.

In volatile situations, we smile enormous Joker smiles to keep the peace.

Just like our ancestors.


I have seen some of the widest American smiles on the faces of our nastiest American backbiters in politics, Hollywood, the corporate environment, between frenemies.


Okay, fine. We are the Kings & Queens of insincere smiling.

But, I mean, smiling is good. Right?

Not according to some Russians who, in studies on the phenomenon of smiling conducted by Voronezh State University professor I.A. Sternin, expressed such observations as, “Americans smile as if they are electric lights turned on,” and “Their smile is something chronic.”

This makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of a culture who considers a polite smile to be “a smile on duty,” expressing only insincerity and unwillingness to show true feelings, as expressed in Sternin’s research.

And, if we are willing to view it from their eyes, an element of truth becomes evident.

An observation about Americans that I’ve overheard/been told by a myriad of foreigners in different countries comes to mind: “We don’t trust Americans because they never say what they really think. They lie, and then smile.”

But, wait.

Can smiling be a bad thing?

Well, from the Russian viewpoint, absolutely.

Russians believe a smile should fit the situation. According to a Russian proverb, “Laughter without reason is the sign of foolishness.” Therefore, a person smiling inappropriately has problems in his head.

inappropriate smile

Photo: mjeprie


That could explain the actions of a lot of our smiling politiciansAfter they’re in office. But that’s kind of worldwide, isn’t it?

Unlike most Americans, it’s natural for most Russians not to mask their moods or feelings in any situation. Which, I must admit, I admire. But it is natural for most Americans to do just the opposite. I mean, you know, we’re all about the p.c.

Still, I like smiling. I like people who smile (genuinely). And I like people who don’t smile. Because either way, I’m learning about – and embracing – different cultures.

And that’s always something to smile about!


Do you smile automatically? Why/Why not?

Do you expect people to smile back?

 What do you think when they don’t? (Be honest!)


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