Yale Doctor Reveals What’s Really Behind a Smile

February 19, 2014

It’s almost spring and love is in the air—or is it? While the team at Smile Ranch Orthodontics is shaking off their winter hibernation others are looking for someone to cuddle with in these six extra weeks of winter (if Punxsutawney Phil is to be believed), but according to Yale psychology professor Marianne LaFrance, PhD, men in particular might be reading more into that come hither “smile” than they should. Yes, it’s true that it takes more facial muscles to smile than to frown, but many people really are just being polite and it’s no surprise to veteran daters that most of these hospitable folks are women.


“Most people think of a smile as universal, and there is some truth to that. There is no culture that doesn’t smile, there is no historical period that has been researched that doesn’t describe people as smiling, there’s hardly a baby that’s ever been born—including those who are born blind and deaf—who doesn’t smile. As a species, we come to Earth ready to smile,” LaFrance says. In her new book Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions, LaFrance reveals that the latest research can actually lead to big social consequences, for better or for worse. “That said, a number of findings having to do with smiling and . . . relationships can be very complicated.”

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What Green Light?


Many men translate a woman smiling into the dating “green light” and see it as a woman’s cue that she’s open to being approached romantically. However, LaFrance notes that girls and women are socially conditioned to smile more whether they’re interested or not, or even happy or not. Both men and women are socially conditioned to appeal hospitable in order to fit into social situations (like smiling when you receive yet another ugly sweater from Aunt Melanie for the holidays), but females just get that social art down sooner (and often better) than males.


“Girls are much more likely than boys to get the message that nice girls smile—even in the face of disappointment, anger, frustration or sadness,” LaFrance explains. That means that women may smile even on the worst date of their life, so men might want to take that upturned lip with a sign of hope. What’s a man on the hunt for love (or just a good time) to do? There’s a big difference between genuine and fake smiles.


With fake smiles, only the corners of the lips go up but the lips remain closed and the eyes aren’t involved. Unfortunately, men are much more likely to assume any smile is genuine. In fact, LaFrance says men are truly bad at differentiating these smiles and in her study men should have gotten more guesses correct, just by sheer statistics alone. This is no surprise to any woman who’s on the dating scene, but the takeaway lesson is it might be best to not smile politely at the man sizing you up in the grocery store.


Something to Smile About


Even though humans are born to smile, we sometimes can get a little wary of flashing our pearly whites once we get beyond the toddler stage and realize our smile is less than perfect. That means even if you’re a woman who really wants to give your dream man the ‘I’m available’ in line at Starbucks, you might shy away from smiling. The good news? With so many adult braces options, like Invisalign, it’s never too late to get the grin you’ve always wanted—and maybe Mr. Right to go along with it.

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