Masks Are Causing Our Smiles to Evolve

A man smiling while wearing a protective face mask.
Photo: kyonntra/E+/Getty Images

All smiles are not created equal: We have different smiles for different situations. There are spontaneous smiles that indicate true joy. And then there are “social smiles,” the ones people use to communicate — like the no-you-go-first smile at the grocery line, the hello-neighbor smile when you pass someone you recognize on a hiking path, the hey-good-lookin’ smile when you spot someone attractive you’d like to know better, and the sorry-not-sorry smile when you one-up a rival.

Most of those don’t have much to do with happiness. People smile to communicate social acceptance, to set others at ease, or even to express dominance. But it’s impossible to pull off any of these social smiles when you’re wearing a mask over your mouth and nose to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19.

Walking around in a mask and sunglasses makes many people feel invisible. “There’s a large experience of deindividuation.”

So given the need to mask up, we have to adjust our facial expressions. One of the ways many people are doing this? Meet the Duchenne smile, named after French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne. A photographer and scientist, Duchenne did pioneering research on facial expressions in the mid 1800s, using electrical current to stimulate different parts of the face. He discovered a special smile that both lifted the corners of the mouth and crinkled the corners of the eyes. Duchenne believed that since the muscle around the eyes, the orbicularis oculi, can’t be moved voluntarily, this was the queen of smiles: one that signaled true joy.

But Msr. Duchenne never met Tyra Banks. Today, we know the Duchenne smile as the “smize,” Banks’ term for smiling with your eyes. It was one of the skills contestants had to master on the supermodel’s show America’s Next Top Model. “It conveys your energy, your inner confidence, and your aura,” says Andi Parsons, a veteran fashion model who walked the runway for Oscar de la Renta, Tom Ford, and Carolina Herrera. “That was an ingenious term. It actually works. I train new models as well so I always give Tyra her credit for smizing.”

But if the “queen of smiles” is now being used for all kinds of purposes (other than true joy and, well, selling expensive clothing), how do you know which smizes are real? And does it even matter?

The power of the smile

Researchers have suspected for several years that the Duchenne smile’s 100% authentic-joy rep was too good to be true. “It is harder to deliberately conjure the orbicularis oculi muscle for a lot of people, but it is far from impossible to do,” says Marianne LaFrance, PhD, a professor of psychology at Yale University. “Good actors, good models, and good charlatans — and con people — know how to do that.”

A deliberate smize joins the ranks of these other hardworking social smiles. And we need it more than ever right now.

So do smile researchers. “I’m pretty good at manufacturing a Duchenne smile. I’ve done it for years,” says LaFrance. She learned while studying the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) developed by Paul Ekman, PhD, the foremost researcher in non-verbal communication for decades. The FACS details all the muscle contraction combinations that create different expressions. A normal smile is a unit 12, a contemptuous smile is a unit 10, while a smize is a unit 6 combined with a unit 12, as this subject from LaFrance’s research lab demonstrates in the example photos below.

Source: Marianne LaFrance

Indeed, a 2019 study found that a Duchenne smile indicates the bearer is flexing their smile muscles really hard, but that doesn’t tell you what they’re feeling.

Even if you’re smizing on purpose, that doesn’t mean it’s a fake smile, says Paula Niedenthal, PhD, a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her research shows smiles are social tools that we all use to get people to do what we’d like. The three main socially useful smiles are the reward, affiliation, and dominance smiles. They have nothing to do with happiness, but they’re still real.

“I think of the three smiles that I describe as all genuine smiles in the sense of being relatively consensual, we’ve found evidence of them in other countries and they solve basic social tasks,” Niedenthal says. For example, there’s the quick little affiliation smile, which signals that you’re not a threat and you have good intentions, and the more generous reward smile we bestow when someone does something nice for us. The dominance smile, sometimes accompanied by a raised eyebrow, lets the other person know who’s the boss.

In that way, Niedenthal believes a deliberate smize joins the ranks of these other hardworking social smiles. And we need it more than ever right now.

Smize like you mean it

Smiling is part of the invisible glue that holds society together. Smile at people and they’re more likely than not to smile back. But right now, people are smiling less. “We see and experience less reciprocal smiles because we can’t tell for sure if people are smiling because of the mask,” says LaFrance. “A lot of smiling is designed to bond with other people and confirm that one is on good footing with someone else.”

Walking around in a mask and sunglasses makes many people feel invisible. “There’s a large experience of deindividuation,” says Niedenthal, describing a phenomenon where people feel like they’re part of a mass of humanity, rather than a distinct person. She said it can bring out more aggressive behaviors, similar to what happens with online communities, where people can be anonymous.

The antidotes to this deindividuation? They include hand gestures, body language, and, though they aren’t perfect, clear masks for some folks. It also involves adjusting your tone of voice, just like you do with a baby. A person’s tone is more important than the words: Babies as young as five months old smile when they hear a positive tone of voice.

And do work on your smize. It can let people around you know that you see them and you appreciate them.

Niedenthal says language shifts over time, and so does non-verbal communication. “Humans are flexible and we’re trying to signal the best way we can. It’s possible that smizing can be a new non-verbal cue. This might be a case of non-verbal language drift,” says Niedenthal. “It might go away when masks are gone. As long as we agree on it and it works, we’re going to call it authentic.”

And that also means that crow’s feet, which can indicate that someone smiles often, are in. Niedenthal has one piece of advice if you want your smize to work for you: Lay off on the Botox, especially around the eyes.

Maria Hunt of MH Media is a journalist and content strategist on wellness, design, wine + food. She wrote a champagne cocktail book for Random House.

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