The science behind smiles

The science behind smiles:

The true meaning behind 10 of the most iconic smiles

Centuries of research conducted on human behaviour and communication concluded that there are 19 different kinds of smiles that humans make, each with their very own meaning and characteristics.

Of these smiles, only six occur when we’re genuinely expressing happiness. The other 13 smiles—whether by instinct or entirely fabricated—occur when we’re attempting to express (or hide) an emotion of fear, sympathy, embarrassment, anger, disgust, and more.

Edoardo Binda Zane, communication expert and author, said that while a smile is generally and traditionally thought to express a sense of happiness, humans have acquired the ability to create many different smiles with different meanings.

“Most of the time, a smile is an unconscious reaction. When we are happy, we smile. When we are sad, we frown. But when we want to appear friendly or kind or approachable, most of us force our faces into a smile. We do it automatically and unconsciously,” said Edoardo Binda Zane.

Each of the types of smiles reflects how a person feels on the inside, and it’s extremely difficult to mask an authentic emotion.

“Studies suggest that smiling really is something we do without thinking about it,” said Edoardo Binda Zane. “But it also raises an interesting question: can you really fake a smile in a believable way?”

While it may be difficult for the general population to manufacture one of the 19 different smiles, award-winning actors and actresses have mastered the ability to portray a specific emotion on their face.

Below are the top 10 most common and most studied smiles we see in society and media today, along with the iconic television and movie scenes and characters that perfectly portray and represent each smile. How many can you recognise?


1. Fear smile

The fear smile is characterized by a broad grin and flashing teeth. And as the name suggests, people often use this smile to mask their emotion of fear.

You’ll often see this smile on roller coaster riders or those who are “smiling-out-of-fear.” However, the fear smile is most commonly used in situations where an individual want to appear likeable to someone they are intimidated by, such as a boss. There’s no boss quite as fearful as Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, in the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada.

As the terrifying and powerful editor-in-chief torments new journalist Andy Sachs, played by Anne Hathaway, you’ll see Hathaway use the fear smile to show her character’s submission and fear.

2. Miserable smile

The miserable smile is best described as someone “putting on a happy face,” even when that’s not what they’re feeling inside. This smile is characterized by an uneasy expression on the face paired with an asymmetric smile.

If you’ve ever wondered if someone likes a gift, especially during gift-giving games, the characteristics of the miserable smile will help you decipher. In the hit comedy series, The Office, you’ll see the hilarious and expressive boss Michael Scott flash the miserable smile when the office holiday party isn’t going according to plan—particularly when he received a pair of homemade oven mitts for his gift.

3. Dampened smile

The dampened smile is an authentic smile that is being repressed in situations where excitement needs to be contained. The characteristics of this smile include raised cheeks with the lips pressed together in a straight line or corners of the mouth pulled downwards in an attempt to not smile.

If you’re a fan of The Office TV series, you’ll recognize this smile as Jim Halpert’s iconic glance toward the cameras after something strange, awkward, or ironically humorous happened.

The excessively eager (and a bit nerdy) character Jessica Day, played by award-winning actress Zooey Deschanel in the hit television series New Girl, is a perfect representation of the dampened smile—as seen here when she must contain her excitement for jury duty in the court room.

4. Embarrassed smile

The embarrassed smile appears on our face when we try to hide or brush-off embarrassment from something that we experienced or witnessed, such as tripping or incorrectly saying a word.

This smile includes raised cheeks and pressed lips, but the biggest giveaway when determining the embarrassed smile is by looking at what happened just before the smile appeared.

The hilariously goofy dad Phil Dunphy, played by Ty Burrell on Emmy award-winning television series Modern Family, never seems to run out of dad jokes with his happy-go-lucky personality.

Phil’s comedic efforts often result in an embarrassed smile on his family’s faces, as seen here on Phil’s wife after Phil announces, “That’s a $500 bottle of wine—that’s like 100 bottles of your wine!” to the table.

5. Qualifier smile

The qualifier smile, which includes a variety of subcategory smiles, is often confused with the fake smile due to the obvious fabrication of it. This smile is used to dampen bad news or to “kindly” show compassion for someone’s situation and includes a smirk with a heightened lower lip.

Given that the hit Netflix drama series Bridgerton is built on secrecy, disloyalty, and shocking twists while following the lives of a variety of star-crossed lovers, the qualifier smile is used throughout the series to give unsettling news.

Lady Danbury, played by Adjoa Andoh, is a powerful character in Bridgerton’s London high society. This well-respected character often offers harsh, but crucial, advice on navigating the society, making the qualifier smile an iconic characteristic of Lady Danbury.

6. Contempt smile

The contempt smile is one of the more recognizable smiles, and is characterized by a tightened, nearly straight-lipped “smile” with the corners of the mouth heightened ever so slightly.

This smile is used by someone who is showing contempt and feels disapproval, disgust, or resentment.

For fans of The Office, the character Angela Martin, an aggressively unfriendly, tightly wound accountant, immediately comes to mind as a spot-on representation of the contempt smile. Actress Angela Kinsey masters the contempt smile to represent her character, even when smiling in photos.

7. Anger-enjoyment smile

The anger-enjoyment smile, which includes a variety of subcategory smiles, is a mischieveous, villanous smile used to express satisfaction or enjoyment derived from another’s discomfort.

While more common in media than in reality, the characteristics of these smiles include a disturbing, fixed grin with tense facial features and flared nostrils.

This malicious smile often accompanies the face of villians, most notably “The Joker” and “It.”

8. Flirtatious smile

The delicate and mysterious flirtatious smile accompanies someone who is engaging in a flirtatious behaviour. Generally, the flirtatious smile is accompanied with a lift of an eyebrow and a head tipped down slightly.

You will find this smile throughout romantic movies and television series. However, there is no better character that represents the flirtatious smile than the iconic flirtatious character Joey Tribbiani, played by Matt LeBlanc, from the Friends television series.

Paired with his signature catchphrase—"how you doin’?”—Joey has mastered the art of the flirtatious smile, making him one of the most memorable flirts in TV history.

9. Fake smile

Believe it or not, the fake smile is arguably one of the most frequently used smiles.

More often than not, a fake smile is used to greet people, thank people, say goodbye to people, and exchange decencies.

This polite smile qualifies as a “fake” smile because nothing necessarily happened to spark joy, but this smile is used out of kindness, such as greeting a cashier. However, in television and movies, fake smiles are often used by characters hoping to mask a malicious plan or falsify affection.

The iconic mean girl Regina George from movie-turned-Broadway-musical, Mean Girls, is undoubtedly the queen of fake smiles. Often accompanied with false compliments, Regina George, played by Rachel McAdams, embodies a fake smile perfectly.

10. Duchenne smile

The Duchenne smile, named after French scientist Duchenne de Boulogne who studied the smile, is the most authentic smile someone can make and represents genuine pleasure, happiness and enjoyment.

The Duchenne smile is characterized by the constriction of the eyes, and this eye-squinting appearance is how one can determine if a smile is a true smile of enjoyment.

Notable character Dustin Henderson, played by Gaten Matarazzo on the record-breaking television series Stranger Things, is a perfect representation of the Duchenne smile. Dustin, with his optimistic personality and adorable charm, is undoubtedly the happiest character in Stranger Things.

Smile with iFolor

With so many different smiles humans can make, it’s important to celebrate and look back on all the happiest of smiles we share with the people we love.

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With seasonal design options and premium materials, iFolor photo products allow you to bring the gift of smiling every single day by remembering the most beautiful moments with the most important people in your life. Best of all, you’ll never be left questioning the meaning behind a smile when giving a memorable photo gift (unlike Michael Scott’s oven mitts).

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