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Smile, dammit!

The tyranny of the cheerful face



When Michael Scanlon, former aide to Congressman Tom DeLay, left the courthouse after pleading guilty in the Justice Department's widening corruption case, he was smiling relentlessly. A reporter actually asked him why he was smiling so much, considering the circumstances.

"I always smile," he replied.

So, let me begin this rant with the assertion that smiling doesn't necessarily indicate pleasure -- or at least not pleasure that is always grounded in customary ethics. Villains smile when doing evil as often as beauty queens smile while perched on the back of convertibles.

Me? I totally suck at smiling on demand. It tops the list of things people like to tell me I do poorly. A man who, like me, uses the Ansley Starbucks as his office routinely greets me by noting the absence of my smile -- an observation that causes my expression to become even more dour. Someone else recently told me, "You're the only person I know who frowns even when he smiles." I opined that he was mistaking my smirk for an attempt to smile.

It's always been so. Not too long ago, someone unearthed a copy of my senior-year high-school annual and thrust my picture at me. "Even at 17, you looked like someone who would just as soon kill you as kiss you," he said.

There is even a popular country-western bar in town -- rumored to be patronized by "friendly people" -- that I dislike because the moment I walk in the door, people in cowboy hats bark at me to smile. "It ain't gon' kill you to smile," they say. "This is a friendly kinda place!"

"If it's so friendly," I usually reply, "why are you trying to tell me how to use my 43 facial muscles?"

"I was just tryin' to be friendly," they invariably reply, stomping off in pointy cowboy boots (a type of shoe I long ago decided is popular because it gives men an excuse to wear high heels).

The tyranny of the smile is especially oppressive in December, the jolliest time of the year. It's so jolly that a myth has developed that suicide rates increase during the holidays. They don't, in actuality -- probably because those who find the mandatory intimacy and expense depressing feel too guilty to kill themselves and spoil the fun for more extroverted relatives.

Actually, I like Christmas a lot more now that it's become controversial. I've joked for years that it should be declared a centennial holiday. Now some people really are trying to outlaw its conspicuous celebration in public space. The media trot out Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims who report years of emotional scarring from the annual sight of the illuminated plastic baby Jesus, ensconced in his plastic manger in the town square, surrounded by canned goods collected for orphans who would otherwise spend the holidays without pumpkin pie filling. "How come we ain't got no Jesus?" young infidels ask their anguished parents.

That kind of thing does make me smile, because I love the absurd and the provocative, and thus the smile it produces is true to my character. But the smile mandated by the culture today is intended, in my view, to erase individual character. We are all supposed to assume the bland demeanor of the Kodak moment. The smile becomes only a tool of politeness, the perpetually worn mask of the yellow smiley face, rather than a spontaneous expression of delight.

The smile is only one of 10,000 different facial configurations, of which 3,000 are definitely meaningful, according to Paul Ekman, a San Francisco psychologist who has spent his life analyzing the face. He teaches people, including law enforcement types, to read the meaning of facial expressions (and to detect deceit). Ekman has found that the meaning of those looks is biologically programmed since people of radically different cultures interpret them the same way.

Interestingly, Ekman has found that assuming a certain facial expression often does automatically evoke the feelings normally associated with it. Look angry and you'll start to feel angry. The one expression where that seems not to be true, however, is the smile -- despite the old song's advice that one should "smile/though your heart is aching ... you'll get by if you just smile." According to Ekman, a spontaneous smile of real delight involves muscles that cannot ordinarily be activated on demand. You can't fake a real smile.

But people have become so lousy at understanding facial expressions that a fake smile will help you escape scrutiny about your real feelings, even if it won't actually make you feel otherwise happy.

Years ago, in California, I took a workshop with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese meditation master. He instructed us always to assume the half-smile that you see on images of the Buddha. That smile, which I do try to maintain now and then, really does produce a peaceful feeling, something quite different from the outright delight of the spontaneous show of teeth and dancing eyes.

But the half-smile, I've found, often makes other people uncomfortable, being kind of inscrutable, like the "Mona Lisa's" smile (or Forrest Gump's). Oh well, there's always clown makeup.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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