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An interview with Marianne LaFrance

Anna Lena Phillips

Social psychologist Marianne LaFrance has studied smiles for more than 20 years. In her new book, Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics, she explores what our smiles mean and the role they play in social interactions—including how smiles vary across gender roles and across cultures. Associate editor Anna Lena Phillips interviewed her by phone in September 2011. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

LaFrance.jpgFirst, tell me how you began studying the psychology of smiling. What led you down that path?

I dedicated my doctoral dissertation to my mother, whose ability to know what was going on between people was the wonder of my childhood. She paid very close attention to the nonverbal, which didn’t even have a name at that point. So I grew up in that kind of climate. I did my dissertation on nonverbal disruptions in conversations between African-Americans and whites. The smiling came later, in part because of a longstanding interest in gender inequality. One finding that nobody found controversial was that women smile more than men. But there were a lot of varying interpretations, very intensely felt, by researchers about why that would be the case. For me as an experimental social psychologist, that question was ripe for investigation.

Could you talk about the different kinds of smiles?

A question that I’ve gotten a lot is, How good are people at detecting a fake from a genuine smile? I think that is in many ways the wrong question to ask. What I’m calling the social smile is deliberate—that is, it’s more often learned or it’s intentional, and it’s not necessarily associated with positive emotion. But it’s no more “fake” than saying hello when you answer the telephone. Because it’s social doesn’t mean that it’s in some sense pernicious or false. It just means that it’s not indicative of underlying positive emotion.

I think that the most representative smiles are those used to mask or cover or hide other emotional states. Say a person has competed in something, and they’ve lost by a hair, as it were. You will see the good sport in them smiling and congratulating the winner, but the human in them is cringing, because life is full of disappointments and losses, but life is also full of calls for maturity. And that’s where the smile comes in.

You also talk about cultural differences in both how people smile and how they interpret smiles. Are there hypotheses about how those particular variations develop or what significance they might have?

If you show Americans and Australians a bunch of photographs and ask them to identify who’s Australian and who’s American, both Americans and Australians are much more accurate at identifying the distinction, not when the faces had a neutral expression—then it was no better than chance—but when the face showed a smile. That suggests that there’s something unique in the smiles on American faces and on Australian faces that suggests that it’s acquired. The core hypothesis is that particular smiles are acquired by modeling and imitation. We can spot familiar facial expressions in milliseconds, and it might be evolutionarily adaptive as a strategy to know if somebody’s trying to be an impostor.

What should people do who want to have successful interactions with people who are not of their group, as their smile defines it?

When I go to France or Brazil, and I’m not a French or Portuguese speaker, I don’t assume I can understand the language. But many people assume that facial expression means the same thing everywhere. So I may see a stranger smile and conclude that this person looks completely nongenuine (which is what a lot of New Englanders think about Southerners). Up north, if I smiled that much, I would be putting it on. So in that situation I might want to remember that how people smile and how often they do it may differ in different regions and countries.

In another chapter you talk about women being asked to smile in the street by men, defining that as harassment, which I appreciated. Could you talk about your work on smiles and gender roles?

I occasionally ask groups of women whether a man unknown to them has ever said “Smile!” to them. And there’s not a woman who hasn’t had that said to them at least once, often many times. And there’s not one man who has had it said to them. So I think it says something pretty profound about our expectations not only that smiling is something that women are more likely to show than men, but that they should show more than men, which is what we call prescriptive stereotypes. So it’s not just this is what we would normally expect to see, but this is what we want to see.

Various shades of recriminations come down on women who don’t smile, or don’t smile enough. Because, and this is what most people don’t understand, smiling is done mostly for other people. It is usually assumed to reflect a positive inner state of the smiler, but in fact, smiling is socially functional. We would not survive in our day-to-day interactions if there was not a modicum level of smiling by people, and it more often falls to women to take care of that part of things.

If that’s the actuality, how would you like things to be ideally?

A student and I are doing a study where participants are told that they’re going to be seeing pictures of people, going by very fast, and their job is to hit one of two keys indicating whether the face is male or female. The only variation is the expression on the person’s face that they’re viewing: angry men, happy men, angry women, happy women. People identify angry men and happy women much more quickly than the other combinations. So we seem to have this notion that smiling and femaleness go together and anger and maleness go together. What my student Jacqueline Smith is now asking is whether we can push that a little bit. Under what circumstances might the expression of anger by a woman or delight and amusement by a man be seen as not only okay but desirable? Thus far we haven’t had a lot of success with that.

I loved all the literary references in the book. What was your thinking about using literary examples to illustrate what you were describing?

As a professor for many years, I try to present psychological issues from several different angles, on the theory you’ll catch students one way or the other. I also have always loved fiction and poetry, and I will read something and I’ll think, Oh, that’s so good. That’s just a perfect way to put it. So that’s kind of how I think about writing too. I can’t include poetry when I write scientific stuff, of course. That’s absolutely verboten. This book was really tough to write because I’ve done so much more writing that is opaque and inaccessible to the lay reader and only understandable by two or three other people who study what I study. So to try to get out of that bind took some work.

If you encountered someone who wasn’t in your course on the psychology of gender, and there was one thing that you could convey to them about how smiles work in our culture, what would it be?

Good question. One of the things that I’ve actually done in class is that I give the kids an exercise: For one day, all the women in the class must not smile. It doesn’t mean they have to be asocial or antisocial, just don’t smile when you’re around other people. And men are supposed to smile a lot—in fact, all the time—when they’re around other people. The first response, even when I’m giving the instruction, is people saying, I can’t do it, I won’t do it. There’s a real inhibition against changing the way things are usually done. Women are worried that people won’t like them; men are worried that people will think they’re homosexual. For many, these are equally devastating ideas. Those who try to do it subsequently report that they can’t do it, that they keep slipping back. Well, that’s not surprising, because these are habits, after all, and habits are unconscious. But what’s surprising is that a few men, not the majority, come back and say, by smiling more I had many more good conversations. And a few women, again, far from the majority, say, I think that some people took me more seriously. So it’s kind of trying again to push the boundaries of the normal and see what happens.

So just carrying that awareness that some things we feel to be inherent parts of ourselves are really culturally shaped.


Thanks so much for taking the time for this conversation.

It was my pleasure.

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