Why smiling is so important (even if you are wearing a face mask)

A smile is a powerful thing. A recent Smile survey by Specsavers found that 80 per cent of people say smiling improves their mood and 75 per cent say their mood improves when they see someone smiling at them.

The study also found that a smile can change how others perceive us, with 89 per cent of people saying they regard smiling people to be more cooperative, friendlier (82 per cent) and more attractive (69 per cent).

However, a smile is, in fact, a much more powerful tool than we realise. We smile at parties when we are happy, but we also smile at funerals when we are sad. We smile when we’re in the company of friends and also when we meet strangers in a dark alleyway.

Smiling can be used as a dialogue between two people without anyone uttering a word and we even smile at plants, pets and objects. So what exactly is a smile?

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‘The question we have to ask is, not what is a smile, but what is the purpose, or the functionality, behind that smile?’ says Dr Carlos Crivelli, a leading psychologist and expert in facial displays at De Montfort University in Leicester.

‘A smile is like a Swiss Army knife, there are lots of different ways to use it. The science of facial behaviour is fascinating because it shows the complexities behind smiling behaviour, one of the most frequent facial movements that we display when interacting with others.

‘We smile to bond, to reward others, to reciprocate, or to keep the interaction going. We use a smile in a high variety of contexts to get different outcomes. For example, I might smile at someone as an interactive strategy to get them to approach me. In another context, when I am interacting with an employer, I might smile to show compliance and perhaps appeasement.’

There are thought to be 19 different types of smile but only six are for when we’re happy (the rest happen when we are in pain, embarrassed, uncomfortable or even miserable), and yet social media is littered with wellbeing mantras like “a smile remains the most inexpensive gift I can bestow on anyone” and “a smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”’

Despite our faces being a complex network of fibres and tendons, we tend to use a smile as the most frequent way to interact with people.

Now that face coverings are mandatory and people are unable to see facial movements, is this having an effect on interaction?

‘In our heads, we have more than 100 muscles interconnected,’ says Dr Crivelli, ‘but barely more than 20 facial muscles are used when we move our faces for behaviour like wincing, frowning or smiling.

‘When you limit the opportunities to interact with others by imposing lockdowns and physical distancing restrictions, this has an impact on the tools we use to interact. As part of this social interaction toolkit, smiles play an important role. But this is not the end of the world. Humans can quickly adapt to environmental changes relying on social learning mechanisms such as imitation, emulation or social facilitation.’

The Specsavers study found that most people (80 per cent) are now relying on the upper part of the face to interact with others.

‘We have been asked to behave differently, to follow new rules of etiquette,’ states Dr Crivelli. ‘And we are quickly adapting to these new rules and constraints. For instance, if you want to interact with someone as you did before the pandemic, you will have to be innovative.

‘We cannot see the lower part of the face because we use face masks and we are limited with facial movements around the forehead and eyebrows. Moreover, thanks to the time of year with darker days, heavy coats and glasses etc, you are less likely to pick up on the smaller facial expressions. Due to all these restrictions, we need to start thinking of ways to interact with our hands and the whole body.’

We have already seen people doing the elbow handshakes to greet each other, and while this might not be the best way to interact because of social distance protocols, primitive man used cave paintings to communicate and people already talk with their hands.

Now we’re living in this ‘new normal’ it might be time to start getting creative with communication.

Body language expert Professor Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, suggests three alternative ways to communicate when wearing a face mask.

Prof Doherty-Sneddon is working with student living specialist, Scape.

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