The Atlantic: “Why Americans Smile So Much”

by Joseph McKeown

When a Reddit user asked, “What’s a dead giveaway that someone is American?” many responses listed one particular trait: wide, enthusiastic smiles. A study suggests that the reason Americans smile so much may have something to do with our immigrant past. In this study, a group of international researchers examined the number of “source countries”—where individuals have emigrated from since the year 1500—in various countries. Canada and the US, for instance, are very diverse, with sixty-three and eighty-three source countries, respectively, while countries such as China and Zimbabwe have only a few different nationalities in their populations. After polling individuals from thirty-two countries to learn “how much they felt various feelings should be expressed openly, the authors found that emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity.” In other words, in places with a lot of immigrants from different countries all speaking different languages, you might have to smile more to build friendship, trust, and cooperation. Olga Khazan of the Atlantic explains:

People in the more diverse countries also smiled for a different reason than the people in the more homogeneous nations. In the countries with more immigrants, people smiled in order to bond socially. Compared to the less-diverse nations, they were more likely to say smiles were a sign someone ‘wants to be a close friend of yours.’ But in the countries that are more uniform, people were more likely to smile to show they were superior to one another. That might be, the authors speculate, because countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures. 

As to why Americans smile with such enthusiasm, the answer could be because Americans value “high-energy, happy feelings” more than some other countries. In a study published last year, researchers compared official photos of American and Chinese business and government leaders, and found that American leaders both smiled more and had more “excited” smiles than the Chinese leaders. They also surveyed college students from ten different countries on “how often they would ideally like to experience certain emotions—from happiness to calmness to hostility—in a given week.” Then they looked at photos of legislators from those ten countries and found that if a country’s college students valued happy, high-energy emotions—including excitement and enthusiasm—that would correlate to more excited-looking government officials in their photos. This was true even if people in those countries weren’t actually happier—they just valued the appearance of it in their political leaders. 

The reason for why Americans smile so much may partly explain why it can be hard for certain American companies to expand overseas and export these American traits in the overseas workplaces. A recent episode of Invisibilia examined McDonald’s foray into Russia in the 1990s when they had to coach their Russian employees on how to smile, make eye contract, and greet customers in a society where making eye contact and smiling at strangers is not common. When Wal-Mart opened stores in Germany, the company also had to adapt their traditional friendly ways to fit more somber German customs. The company stopped requiring sales clerks to smile at customers since some male shoppers interpreted it as flirting. They also abandoned the morning Wal-Mart chant by staff members. “People found these things strange; Germans just don’t behave that way,” Hans-Martin Poschmann, the secretary of the Verdi union, told the New York Times.

While some express annoyance at the stereotypical over-friendly and smiling American, British author Geoff Dyer welcomes it. “Like many Europeans, I always feel good about myself in America; I feel appreciated, liked,” he writes. “It took a while to realize that this had nothing to do with me. It was about the people who made me feel this way: it was about charm. Yes, this is the bright secret of life in the United States: Americans are not just friendly and polite—they are also charming.”