#64   (Part of the Africa series, finished up in our favorite e-cafe which offers amazing hot chocolate and wifi, while you were all still asleep. Happy father’s day!)

A quick guide to identifying people, courtesy of a Finn (a native of Finland, which is not in Africa):

When a stranger on the street smiles at you:

  1. you assume he is drunk
  2. he is insane
  3. he’s an American

As a long-time resident of the sovereign nation of Howdy, I am familiar with several foreign countries where people aren’t as openly friendly: New Jersey and Massachusetts come to mind. But despite our regional differences in such matters, Americans as a whole are apparently known around the world for smiling a lot (which is far better than some of the other things we are known for, like our loudness, our predilection toward obesity, and our tendency to invade small countries that annoy us).

I don’t know how much this has changed in daily life, but I know for sure it has changed in portraiture, which is a fancy word rhyming with, and referring to, a particular form of torture involving a camera. Everyone knows that you are supposed to smile and say cheese, or in my grandmother’s case, peaches, just as the picture is snapped, but just a few decades back, either photographers did not give this advice, or people stubbornly refused to take it. Most old portraits show people who look very much like they either just returned from a mass burial, or are just waking up from a general anesthetic (jet lag has this same effect, but these photo relics lived before the invention of the jet).

Back in the day, portraits were more formal affairs for three reasons. First, film was expensive, and making a truly convincing smile on command is truly hard, so perhaps they just skipped this and said, “okay, everyone look stoned” and took one shot, and called it good. (NOTE: they didn’t really say that because most of these antiques lived before back when ‘stoned’ meant being hit by rocks.) Second, portraits used to take a really long time, and the chance of someone holding a steady smile for thirty seconds is pretty much zero. Since the shots took so long, people often had their heads clamped to metal “posing stands” to immobilize them (I’m not making this up) and if my head is being held in place by a metal clamp I’m not even going to try to smile, because my head is being held in place by a metal clamp.

The third reason goes back to that original riddle from Finland (still nowhere close to Africa), which mirrors an old Russian proverb that cautions “laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity,” offering deep insights into the Russian mindset and national tendency to invade countries that annoy them (most countries on earth).

So why so serious, comrade? One study found that unstable countries, in which people are continually worried about what might happen next (e.g. Russia), offer little reason to smile, and as a result their residents consider individuals who smile to be a little bit cuckoo.  I’m guessing there were fewer American smiles during the Civil War when fully 2% of the US population died fighting each other over what (if anything) this nation should become, but it’s been mostly better since then. And if you wonder why North Korea’s leader smiles so much, remember that he rules a nation whose economy and culture have not changed since the 1950’s, so stability there is extraordinarily high.


Or it could just be that wearing a marmot on your head is ticklish.

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Sadly, it seems that people in these nations are less likely to trust smilers, and that their nations as a whole tend to look sideways at nations that appear more chipper, which could explain some of our current interactions with Russia and North Korea.

But why are Americans so ridiculously smiley, compared to other nations? A 2015 study says it all goes back to that term we have often used to describe our country: “melting pot.” Americans can trace their roots to 83 distinct source countries, making us perhaps the most diverse nation on earth (in comparison, Canada has only 63)..

Smiles mean different things in different countries. In the US and other diverse countries, smiles have long served to break down barriers between people from different cultures who might not even share a language. In contrast, in more homogenous countries, smiles are not displayed to make friends, but to communicate a feeling of superiority. So if you are outside the US and someone looks at you and smiles, she may be mocking you, not being friendly. Or you may just have ketchup on your nose.

Here are three reasons you should choose to smile more, regardless of what the Russians do.

  1. Smiling makes you look smarter. This one has been studied over and over and it always comes out the same. By the way, using large words to sound smarter is almost always counter-productive, so don’t be overzealous in your prioritization and selection of vocabularic forms of expression. Also wearing thick glasses can apparently help with this, though Rick Perry got decidedly mixed results when he adopted his $500 frames.
  2. Smiling makes people wonder what you are up to. I first heard this when I was a teenager and it seemed like reason enough to me. It has been oft repeated, but I don’t know who originally said it. If it was you, email me and I’ll send you a thank you note.
  3. Smiling makes you happier. Multiple studies have demonstrated that your facial expression not only reflects your mood, it can also shape it. Regardless of what the Finns think of us, smiling is good for you and many of us could stand to do more of it. (Trivia fact: when I am speaking I often get quite focused on the material, and my normal state of face when I’m focused is something that feels neutral to me, but sometimes looks angry to others. For this reason, my speaking notes sometimes have the reminder SMILE scrawled at the top of the page).
  4. BONUS: Smiling may make you healthier. Frequent smiling is associated with lower blood pressure, reduced stress, and decreased risk of chronic disease, all without unwanted side effects or expensive co-pays.
  5. DOUBLE-BONUS: Smiling is contagious. Like yawning or measles or bad attitude, smiles can be transmitted from person to person, meaning that you have the potential to work with happier, healthier people just by starting this chain reaction yourself. And once they are happier and smile more, they will be returning the favor and transmitting smiles back at you. Very few gifts offer so many benefits at such a low price.

I have not visited Russia (don’t want to) or North Korea (really, really don’t want to), and Finland may or may not make it onto my travel list, but my personal experience in Africa and Central America is pretty consistent: a simple smile can smooth the way for many things that follow. A smile, as opposed to a generic glare, acknowledges the other person’s worth, and conveys that he or she is more to you than just a tool to accomplish what you want.  It also silently communicates that you are not threatening or dangerous, which makes people more inclined to help you.

Of all the things in your life that are beyond your control, the state of your own face is entirely up to you. A smile won’t change the whole world, but it might change your little corner of it. And in the end, that’s a pretty good start.


QUIZ over the reading:


Why is this man (President Putin of Russia) smiling/smirking?

  1. He wants to be your friend
  2. He is hoping to bridge the language gap
  3. He feels superior to you and everyone else on the planet
  4. He is thinking about what he will do with all your stuff after he invades your country
  5. Both (3) and (4)

Read Laura’s latest update on our trip here at our new combined site: markandlauraphillips.com