Smiling is not interpreted positively in all cultures alike
WARSAW, Poland: Straight, white teeth are a universal sign of health and youth. However, smiling may be perceived either as intelligent and trustworthy or as dumb and dishonest, depending on the country one is in, a new international study has found. In times of globalisation, knowing whether a smile is regarded positively or negatively can be crucial, for example in business relations or for international job applicants.
In investigating social perceptions of smiling, the researchers asked 4,519 participants from 44 cultures across six continents to rate photographs of smiling and non-smiling individuals on traits assessing honesty and intelligence. For each participant, the international research team, led by Polish researcher Dr Kuba Krys, calculated the average ratings given by the participants.
They found that smiling was not consistently perceived as a signal of intelligence across all cultures. In six cultures, namely Japan, the Kerala district of India, Iran, South Korea, Russia and France individuals were perceived as significantly less intelligent when smiling. On the contrary, in Germany, Switzerland, Malaysia, China and Austria smiling was regarded as indicating higher intelligence. However, there was no significant difference in the intelligence ratings of smiling versus non-smiling individuals in 20 other cultures, including Hong Kong, Norway and Indonesia.
Regarding honesty, the findings indicated that, although smiling individuals were perceived as more honest than non-smiling individuals in almost all cultures (37 out of 44), there was cultural variability in the size of the effect. Overall, the positive effect of smiling was weaker in countries with a high corruption index, such as Zimbabwe, the Maldives and Argentina. In this regard, the researchers concluded that corruption at societal level may weaken the meaning of an evolutionarily important signal such as smiling and undermine its trustworthiness.
According to the researchers, their findings on the surprising nuances of smile perception could hold important practical implications in the context of globalisation, for example. Therefore, knowledge about whether a smile is interpreted positively, as a sign of competence and trustworthiness, or if it signals the opposite could be crucial for international applicants, the researchers concluded.
The results of the study were published in the June issue of the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior in an article titled “Be careful where you smile: Culture shapes judgments of intelligence and honesty of smiling individuals”.