While we tend to associate smiling almost exclusively with joy or happiness, this may lead us pretty far astray.
In fact, there are many different types of smiles and only a few can really be classified as happy smiles. As a recent article in the BBC outlines, of the perhaps 19 different types of smiles, only six indicate pleasant emotions. Instead, the remainder can designate contempt, anger, or even deception. If we want to effectively read people, exploring the differences between smiles is necessary.
One of these is, of course, the relatively well-known Duchenne smile. This smile was identified as part of the 19th century experiments of Duchenne de Boulogne who sought to explore the underlying muscular configurations behind facial expressions. While he identified over sixty facial expressions, the Duchenne smile is perhaps his most famous discovery.
This expression, characterized by a wide, almost comically overblown, smile, is generally associated with genuine happiness and pleasure. Importantly, this expression is usually associated with “crow’s feet,” particular creases around the eyes. These crow’s feet are often seen as indicating genuine happiness.
Not all cultures encourage such open smiles. Instead, in Scandinavian, Russian, or Japanese cultures, overt smiles are frowned upon. This tends to lead to more “dampened smiles” where the mouth is slightly raised and the lips gently pushed together. While the mouth in these smiles is hardly affected, there is instead an emphasis on showing happiness through the eyes.
However, these sorts of genuine smiles are not the only kind of smile to be aware of. There is also the “miserable smile.” While this appears quite similar, it is usually asymmetrical and overshadowed by a grimace-like look of sadness. It was Humintell’s own Dr. David Matsumoto’s work which identified this smile among silver medalist athletes, including blind ones, suggesting that it is a universal expression.
There are also more concerning smiles to look out for. One of these is the “contempt” smile. This expression combines both expressions of disgust and resentment but looks quite close to a genuine smile. Instead, it is similar in most respects but the corners of the lips remain taught rather than crinkled. This smile is especially common in East Asian cultures where overt anger is discouraged.
Similarly, there are fake smiles and blended smiles. In the former case, false smiles differ only subtly from the Duchenne smile. Unfortunately, these differences are hard to detect, as the Duchenne smile is easily faked. Testing the accuracy of a smile often demands that we compare it to other smiles that we have seen, ideally from the same person. It is the deviations from these norms that help determine if it is false.
Finally, blended smiles exist when people express a genuine Duchenne smile but layer on contempt, fear, or sadness. These smiles may look very similar but are tinged with clearly different intentions. This may be determined in a similar fashion to fake smiles but also by looking at whether a genuine smile even makes sense for that person in that context.
Hopefully, this gives some indication to how many different variations of smiles there are. It is important again to emphasize cultural differences here, as that can have a significant impact on what sort of smile is being displayed.