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Smile please

Wikimedia Commons

For a couple of weeks recently I had to give up smiling because of some dental work. It was surprisingly difficult, because smiling is such an automatic reflex, and it works. A smile almost always brings a smile in response, so it improves every encounter. This made me think about how often we smile and why.

Most people don’t smile much in everyday life, except when greeting friends or responding to a joke. Look around in any public place and you’ll see mostly serious and anxious faces. Big grins and loud laughs are even rarer than smiles, except among the young or drunk. A genuine smile is the physical signal of a happy mind, and we can’t expect to be happy all the time, unless we are very, very rich indeed.

Unfortunately, not all smiles are created equal. The false smile has become the weapon of choice for the advertising industry, so we are smiled at relentlessly from morning till night. Advertisers seem incapable of promoting any product—- from arthritis remedies to guns — without the aid of one or more actors grinning like lunatics or laughing hysterically. I don’t know about you, but I don’t smile when I get a pair of shoes or an insurance policy.

I smile at things that make me happy, like my wife, or a friendly cat, or a large refund check. Medical ads on TV are among the worst offenders. They typically show people who seem absolutely ecstatic about having some dire disease, while a message crawling across the bottom of the screen lists the dreadful side effects of the drug being promoted. The calculation is obvious: the power of smiles will cancel out the power of words, or even of common sense.

Even the airlines, which have nothing to smile about, offer us images of deliriously happy flight attendants and passengers. I have flown a lot in my life, and never yet found anything to smile about. There’s nothing funny about being suspended thirty thousand feet above the ground in a heavier-than-air machine which may or may not have been maintained properly, and I certainly don’t want to think that the pilots up front are grinning foolishly at their control panels instead of fighting the force of gravity as they are paid to do.

The habit of putting on a happy face is relatively new. Most photographs from the Victorian era show people with blank or downright miserable expressions. My guess is that smiling for the camera began in the 1920s when amateur snapshots became common. Snapshots were and are taken to preserve (or to create) happy memories, so everyone was told to “Smile please,” or “Say cheese.” It’s a kind of sympathetic magic that works in old photo albums, just as it does on TikTok today. In front of the camera, everyone seems happy.

Politicians learned to smile a few decades ago, perhaps with the coming of television and its powerful influence on voting behavior. Before that time, leaders wanted to be seen as serious and responsible people – just look at the photographs of past political leaders, pre-1950. None of them were grinning like stand-up comedians. But later they found that it brought in votes to imitate the winning formula of the advertising industry — smile, smile, smile. Modern democracy is a show, and elections are a form of advertising. Only dictators, as you may have noticed, don’t smile.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.