Don't be deceived by the title. Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex and Politics is not about the benefits of positive thinking on the idea of “smile and the world smiles with you.” Yale social-psychologist Marianne LaFrance gathers the latest research from psychology, brain science, biology and even computer science to explain the complex nature of something so seemingly simple as a smile. In our review, we praised the author for providing “surprising insights into culture and psychology,” including the startling information that during the last two months of development, babies in the womb practice smiling.

Read more new and notable nonfiction for August.

Why are psychologists observing a baby's expressions before birth? Are they trying to determine their emotional development?

Absolutely not. Doctors and parents observed baby smiles when new three-dimensional ultrasound technology was developed. The examinations were to check for physical problems. We see no indication that these smiles have anything to do with emotions. Just as babies practice blinking their eyes when they are in the womb, they practice smiling. They are simply are developing muscles that they will need after birth.

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Smiles don't play a function before birth, but afterward they have tremendous survival value. A weak vulnerable infant needs to seduce potential caretakers, and nothing is more seductive than holding a smiling infant who looks at you and smiles.

You describe how smiles are culturally determined, but if babies already smile before they are born doesn't this make it a natural response? 

Babies are born with the capacity to smile. Parents respond to their smiles and this is important in bonding. A baby's first smiles may be involuntarily but when their parents smile back communication begins. A baby models his mother or father's smile, the parent responds and so on. 

In different cultures people smile for different reasons. We tend to put our emotions up front but in the Japanese culture people are trained to show a pleasant smile as a way of making others feel comfortable. Some commentators thought that Japanese people showed little emotion after the Tsunami. We were astonished to see them smiling, but this was a reflection of a cultural not an emotional difference. They were upset but they tried not to show it.

Something similar is true within our culture. Women in general smile more than men.

Does this indicate an innate gender difference? Is it because mothers need to be more empathetic than men? 

I don't think so. Stay-at-home dads are proving to be just as nurturing in meeting an infant's needs, and they smile just as frequently.

Smiling has been shown to be more of a status thing. For example, people who perceive themselves as having a higher status smile less than those in service industries.

You suggest in your book that women having cosmetic surgery or using Botox to rid themselves of wrinkles may be making a serious mistake.

When people smile spontaneously we expect to see it in their eyes as well as their mouths. This is the kind of smile that attracts a warm response. A facelift or Botox injections in the forehead can give prevent the necessary muscle response.

So they may look younger, but if they have a frozen expression they look less attractive. You write that this can have negative psychological repercussions.

Certainly if our smiles don't get engender the warm response we expect this can be upsetting and have an effect on our sense of identity, but there are also more subtle repercussions.

We respond to other people by subliminally modeling their expressions, the way we learned to do as babies, but we also check out our own moods by sensing our expressions.

You mean there is some truth in the cliché that smiling makes you happier.

Yes, and nonverbal communication is very important in interpersonal relations. We signal how we are feeling. For instance if I make a teasing remark and you are hurt by it, if we are face-to-face, ordinarily I can recognize this by your expression and make amends. It's intuitive. But if I can't read your expression because your face is frozen, the process doesn't work right. 

Or if we are communicating by text messaging.

Yes, face-reading skills are also important for successful business negotiations as well as in interpersonal relations. There is there is a great deal of interest in this area from business and the military schools and even the intelligence services. 

So smiling is not such a simple activity, even when smiles seem spontaneous.

Absolutely. In our culture we value openness but we can also use smiles deliberately to mask our feelings, to make amends, or for a less positive reason to con people or as a put down. Smiles may be the most complicated facial expression that people have.