The Body Language of Smiling: Origin, Fake vs Real, Types Smiles

Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks


We are taught from an early age that smiling is good, that we should be happy, and smiling is the way to show it. However, I intend to show you that it’s not that simple. What we may consider as trivial may actually hold a much greater value in a second glance.

We have a long road ahead of us  Starting at the origin of the smile in body language and why it’s beneficial to us today (and sometimes why not).

Next, we shall look at the differences between fake and genuine smiles (if there is such a thing), why should you strive to smile more and how, and finally what some of the various sorts of smiles that we have in body language.

These are some of the topics we will look at during these series.But for starters, I would like to begin with a little introduction to how it’s all started – how we came to smile and for what purpose exactly?

The Origin of a Smile

To this day we’re not quite sure how we came to smile that  much. It’s especially interesting subject in body language since the smile is something almost uniquely “our” thing.

Other animals don’t smile, at least not in the same context as we do (except for a few exclusions that are similar to our smile).

We can say confidently that we’re the only specie to hold so much meaning to such simple gesture of stretching the lips (it’s argued that we have about 50 kinds of smiles!).

The closest thing that we see to resemble a smile in the animal kingdom is the grimace.

“Grimace?” You may ask “isn’t that an expression of fear?”

And you’re absolutely right. What fear has to do with smiling? Aren’t smiles supposed to be happy and joyful expressions of life? What fear has to do with all that?

First of all we need to take into consideration that our specie is more adaptive and versatile in its communication and therefore we have more optional meanings to our gestures. In the animal kingdom  we have somewhat “simpler” and instinctive meaning for a smile:

Researchers looked at chimpanzees and noted that a weak chimp will “smile” at another more threatening chimp to show his vulnerability and non hostile temper.

You can say it’s sort of boot-licking behavior to help him survive – that and apparently it often works. Yeah, he smiles to appease, to show his fear and ask for mercy.

But when it comes to us, it’s a lot more complicated.

After all, we rarely smile out of fear, but our smile shares a quality with the grimace – we smile to others to form some kind of bond with them, and we do so by showing them that we’re not a threat.

It’s sort of a small appeasement offer, that mustn’t originate in fear but rather can be in the context of: “I feel good around you” “I trust you” “I like you”.

Note: think of a person who rarely smiles, he probably won’t be a very likable and popular figure, but he will also possess a certain strength of character – simply because he refuses to appease anyone.

What’s in a Smile

Smile in body language is a very ambiguous thing. We all grew on the idea that smiling is good because it’s associated with “happy”.

Depending on the social context smiles hold many other significances, some of them are even somewhat devious – we can show joy, affection, attraction, recognition, arrogance, contempt, sarcasm, empathy, politeness and fear with slightly different smiles (and this is only a partial list!).

In the following articles we’ll learn more about of these types of smiles and how to identify them, but right now I want to focus on what I believe to be the most important aspect of smiling – bonding.

Smiling often works as “insta-bonding”, especially if you’re a female. Because we’re social animals – we need to know whom we can trust – who will cooperate with us, and who can harm us and we should avoid.

A smile is a simple way to show just that – it’s a signal of well being but also a message similar to “reaching out” to others, a sign of empathy.

That’s why smiling in social interaction hold so much value – it’s tasteful cocktail of joy and trust, and we definitely like to be around other happy people who also like us.

But the bonuses to smiling are not ending there, the amount of other benefits to smiling is almost overwhelming – there’s a correlation between people who smile with many almost unrelated benefits, people who smile more seem to:

  • Live longer
  • Perform better and think more broadly
  • Will actually feel better if they’re down (one of the cases where your body language affect how you feel)
  • Will appear more successful and attractive
  • Will be judged more softly (the apologetic smile, similar to the chimp incident we talked about)
  • Will get away with “it” more often  – can you imagine hitting someone who’s smiling at you?
  • And if that’s not enough for you, just watch this video, and you’ll understand that smiling is sort of a natural drug:

The Downside of a Smile

Now I’m sure I got you excited about this rediscovered natural ability, but as always there are exceptions, and we need to remember that everything is in good measure.

So let’s examine some of the hard cases, where smiling is actually not that good for you.

Idiot’s grin

Abusing smiling loses its affect on others. After all, no one will believe a person who smiles all the time – he’s either an imbecile or a big phony.

This is especially true to fake smiling (which we will talk about later), a big plastered smiles fools no one if it’s overused.

Smiling In Courtship

For females smiling is a great tool to get male attention, a woman who sits at the bar and makes eye contact and smiles to another man is almost sure to get some attention.

The problem is that it often draws unwanted attention as well because males often interpret female smiles as sexual invitations, be it true or not.

For males – research found that smiling has an opposite correlation with testosterone (you know, the hormone that makes you a macho). And it’s also evident in body language – a man who smiles too much loses a lot of masculinity “points”. Women often prefer more strength and masculine “tough” qualities in a man, rather than a guy who seeks to appease her.

Different People – Different Story

A smile is a universal expression, we all born knowing it (and even babies in wombs seen to be smiling), but we also saw that it can be an ambiguous gesture. While some may think it’s appropriate to smile at some circumstances, others will remain perplexed by such behavior.

Smiling when you’re tense or afraid.

I personally remember that when I was a kid and was caught misbehaving – I often felt the urge to smile, although I definitely wasn’t happy, and wasn’t trying to mock my parents.

In this case my smile showed my tension and fear (just like the chimpanzee) but my parents thought I wasn’t serious – what in turn made them even angrier. Ironically, trying to resist it only made it worse, just like trying to stop a laugh makes it that much irresistible.

Of course there are also some cultural differences, because we adapt this natural quality according to our environment.

For example,  if you’re in East-Asia you may notice people smile in apology or embarrassment, as if to say “I’m sorry”. In Japan they may even smile when angry or confused (what must be a very confusing display for westerners).

How often and how long it’s appropriate to smile is also affected by culture, some cultures appear to be more grim and reserved, only because they learned to suppress their emotions.

Don’t take this to understand that such people lack feelings or feel unhappy. From the opposite perspective of a person who comes from a less expressive culture to a “warmer” one, he would feel that others are either “acting out” to get something from him or possess a somewhat “simpler” nature.

“You can go a long way with a smile. You can go a lot farther with a smile and a gun.” Al Capone

Fake Smiles

Let’s consider for a moment the term “fake smile” – what does it actually mean?

The most logical answer would be – it’s a smile that doesn’t sincerely display a positive emotions, right?

But after we discussed the meaning of smiles in the previous article, we understand that it’s not always the case.

Keep in mind that a fake smile doesn’t necessarily send a devious or sarcastic message – the person who smiles a fake smile maybe isn’t that happy to see you, but he’s being polite enough to show that he tries..

Bottom line – Faking it isn’t always bad, even a plastered smile can be sometimes better that nothing, think of it as a social convention and tool.

Now that we cleared that out, let’s see what are the characteristics of a “real smile” and how it came to be:

Dazzling Smiles

A true, real happy smile is a very strong and uplifting display. We like to see such smiles and they’re addicting to watch and mimic. “Fake” smiles however are much less efficient at such tasks, and at times they even leave a suspicious trace on them.

But how can we distinguish between them? It’s not always an easy answer…

To make things clear once and for all, Guillaume Duchenne, a famous French physician from the 19th century decided to test it out, in a rather… extreme fashion.

He was interested in the muscles that are involved in creating face expressions – which he believed were associated with specific emotions (today we know that it’s true for some emotions).

To test his hypothesis he employed a rather unorthodox method – he attached electrodes to the skin near facial muscles to a run  current (a small one!) through them.

Extreme as it sounds it was quite effective – he discovered the muscles group involved in many face expression, one of them is the genuine smile, also known today as the “Duchenne” to his name.

And what’s so special about the muscles in a smile? Well, in any smile we use a muscle called:

Orbicularis Oris” – which is the muscle that pulls away the lips and create the familiar stretch on the face. But, in a genuine smile we have a second muscle working in conjunction:

The “Zygomatic Major” – this muscle creates the small cringes around our eyes and nose when we smile, aka “crow’s feet” , this muscle also squint our eyes and make them in crescent shape.

Orbicularis OrisZygomatic Major

So the main difference is this – when you look at a smiling face, look at their eyes – see if the eyes “smile” as well. If you don’t see any change, it’s a strong sign that they’re faking it.

You can try it out in this test – spot the fake smile

But wait, there is more..

Now I know that it sounds like we found the perfect formula to identify imposters, things are not always that easy. Because while most of us will have a hard time faking the cringing around the eyes, it’s an ability we can learn to control if we practice enough, in a similar way that we learn to wink.

Fortunately we have some other good indicators to help spot the phony:

  • How fast the smile appears – genuine smiles are late-coming, they don’t appear instantly on demand.
  • How often  and long it stays – real smiles appear in succession and last somewhat longer. They don’t stay a frozen mug on the face, think about slow bursts of delight.
  • How big and symmetrical they are – it might sound counterintuitive but real smiles aren’t that big and they don’t always symmetrical.


Because when we do fake a smile we want to really show it, so we often “overstretch” it – because real smiles are big and symmetrical, right?


Tips to Smiling

Now that we know the difference between a fake and a real smile, I want to share some tips and insights on how to improve, or rather use more appropriately, your smiling.

First of all, I want to emphasize that I’m not here to teach you how to smile, after all, how can I? when it’s an innate ability that I’m sure you’re familiar with. My aim is rather to point you at things you might have overlooked, nothing more.

I don’t want to overcomplicate things so a few practical tips:

  • Know when and where to smile – of course there’s a range here (it’s not five smiles per day or anything like that), but learn from the feedback you get from the people around you. If people think you’re a happy, lightweight guy\girl, that’s cool, but maybe you’re perceived as too naive or simple or even worse – a phony, In such case maybe you should regulate some of your smiles. On the other hand, Being forever grim definitely isn’t any better – again, look how others treat you.
  • Practice at the mirror – it’s that simple, want your smile to appear more genuine or want to have a better mug in photos – try it out in front of the mirror. You’ll find that the best smiles are often “don’t feel” very tense in the muscles – they don’t need to be big.
  • Smiling to feel good or smiling when it’s good? The simple answer is both – smile to feel better but at the same time try to get to a more positive mindset as well – you want to get to a positive self-empowering cycle.
  • Use your smile to connect with others – making eye contact and smiling is the best, most direct and positive approach you have to get along with others, especially new people. You don’t need an elaborate opening line if you know how to make that simple connection.

We arrived to our final destination in the series of smiling, and in this last part we’re gonna focus on the different types of smiling faces we meet every day.

As I already mentioned there are many types of smiles – a lot more than just a “fake” or the genuine type (that we call  the Duchenne’s smile).

Some estimate that we have about 50 types of different smiles – all look pretty much the same, but the context, the personality, cultural norms and small changes in the physical appearance of the grin gives it a distinct meaning.

On this page we’ll look exactly at that – some examples of smiling faces to give you an idea what to look for, and emphasize  their distinctive features so you’ll understand what THAT smile meant.

Tight Lips Smile

Tight lips smile

The tight lips smile is perhaps the most common form of a smiling, mainly because it’s easy to fake and this is what we have in mind when we need to smile politely.

So in most cases you can say it’s fake – since when we are truly happy we don’t afraid to show teeth.

What can it mean?

A lot of things – fear, shyness, politeness, reserved mindset, or the masking of true emotions. Whatever the exact meaning is – it has a secretive attribute, in this case hiding the teeth is equivalent to hiding thoughts.

Keep in mind that some people keep their lips tight to avoid showing bad teeth or because they believe they possess a non-photogenic look. If you do have doubts about your smile with visible teeth – just try it a mirror, it’s worth it.

This smile works great in courtship because it adds some mysterious quality, Ill soon elaborate more.

The Smug Smile

You know that smile – the self satisfied, arrogant and kinda of evil smile.

Signs: Lips – Usually pressed together and only one side coming up. Can be done with a lips slightly separated. The upper lip may also rise a bit.Eyes – Can narrow a little to create some kind of suspicious look.

Meaning:Usually a sign of self satisfaction, arrogance and expression of superiority.
It can also be a sign of doubt and an attempt to dismiss someone’s opinion.
If the upper lip rises – it’s probably a sign of ridicule.Interestingly, it can be used in flirting as a sign of humor and playfulness – to try and catch attention and interest from the other side.

Half Smile

This smile is quite similar to the smug, only with a slight adjustment and a different meaning.

Half smile is one of the more confusing expressions we have – simply because it’s so ambiguous in its appearance – it’s asymmetric.

Now, many smiles are asymmetric, (we mentioned that it’s one of the hallmarks of a genuine smile) but when it’s really contrasted, when you’re unsure if that’s a smile or a frown – then that’s a problem.

So, what does it mean?

  1. It’s one of the main features of sarcasm – “an evil” or “smug” smile. You can also say it’s a sign of confidence or a feeling of superiority towards whoever the smile is intended for.
  2. Other meanings involve a mix of contrasting feelings, a shade between happy and shy, sad or a gesture of comfort. You can say it’s an incomplete or tired smile, a response to uncomfortable event, this type has a lot in common with the “tight lip smile”, both in meaning and expression.

Something to think about: I told you that the smile evolved as an appeasement gesture, a sign of submission rather than a threat, so how does this smug mug fit in?

In my opinion, it simply doesn’t – we call that expression a smile, but besides their similar features they have little in common in the meaning or context. It’s a conscious disconnect between what is shown outside and felt inside.

Open Mouth Smile

Now that we talked about the tight lipped smiling face let’s turn to the opposite – open mouth smile.I don’t talk here about the “regular” smile showing teeth, but rather on the really open smile that looks like a frozen laugh.Surprisingly (or not?) the big open mouth smile is also a fake. It’s really rare to see a person with a frozen laughter on his face – he’s either laughing or not. But whether fake or not, this “upgraded” smile has a certain magic, especially in photographs – it instills the appearance of joy and carefree attitude.So in general – it’s a good smile to use, even if it’s somewhat fake because it radiate “the feel good” energy to others.

If you want to look more photogenic and happy in your photos you can try practicing this one. Just think of something funny and smile.

Flirtatious Smile

It’s a light smile, very similar to the “half smile” we mentioned earlier. It’s attractive because it shows enigmatic features. It’s especially attractive in females because it’s as if saying “I like what I see, but you’ll have to work harder”. it’s often a sort of invitation for more interaction.

Biting the lips or licking them while smiling enhances the size and fullness of the lips and makes the smile appear more sexy and playful.

An interesting side note – while we men tend to interpret a woman’s smile as a sign of desire, a gesture of flattery that’s really hard to resist (after all it’s a big ego boost), women on the other hand tend to see smiles as support signals. This lack of cohesion in our understanding often leads to very different views on how we see each other.

Another note for the guys – while smiling has many benefits, including social ones – avoid using them too much, especially on women.

The hard truth is that smiling somewhat diminishes your “macho qualities” because you appear as trying too hard to appease her.

Other signs

148xNxsmile man.jpg.pagespeed.ic.0DDDyzaChX

Lastly, I want to mention some key ideas when you differentiate smiling faces around you:

1. Watch as smiles occur to strong emotions – it’s true that we smile when we feel strong feelings of happiness, but they also appear easily in response to fear, embarrassment and even anger.

2. While in general smiles make us appear more honest and “human” watch for them when suspecting a lie. There are two reasons for that: a. liars want you to believe their lie – they will try harder to appease you so you believe their story. b. some smiles are unintentional response to internal tension, just like I mentioned in the paragraph above.

3. On the contrary (and I’m hope I’m not confusing you here) smiling in stressful situation can actually help to alleviate moral. Just like using humor when caught in a bad spot, smiling can help you see the world through brighter lenses.


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