Smiling Means Different Things in Different Cultures

Max Eastman once wrote that “a smile is the universal welcome,” but it turns out the universal welcome might not be so universal.

Although previous research has suggested that smiling can make you look more attractive, approachable and competent, these findings have mostly come from certain kinds of cultures. In particular, studies on the benefits of smiling have largely been restricted to what psychologists call Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic societies – or WEIRD societies.

That acronym isn’t just a psychology researcher’s idea of a joke. It has some literal meaning: these types of societies are weird in the sense that they’re highly unrepresentative of the world in general.

With this in mind, researchers from 38 psychology departments around the globe recently decided to undertake a less WEIRD study on the effects of smiling to determine whether a smile has the same meaning in different cultures. What they found was that smiles in fact tend to connote significantly different things to people in different types of cultures.

For example, it turns out that in cultures that place less importance on formal rules, order, organization and consistency, people who are smiling are judged as being less intelligent than people who aren’t.

The study also found that in countries where corruption is more prevalent, smiling is considered less pro-social. Specifically, people who smile are deemed less trustworthy in these countries.

In other words, the takeaway is that you should probably just play it safe and never smile again.

No, just kidding. But the results do show that even basic forms of nonverbal communication like smiling have associations that are culture-dependent. It’s also a good reminder that many psychology research results only hold for certain populations like people from a certain region or even people in a certain age bracket.

And, of course, there’s some good news for people who don’t like to smile here or who just naturally look like they’re angry all the time – move to a country that doesn’t value order, and everyone will think you’re a genius. Maybe.

What’s your take on this? Do you judge people who smile? Leave a comment!



  1. JoAna Dwyer on February 3, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    Very interesting article! I live among the Maya and they never smile for photos. I wonder if it the could be the issue of intelligence or trustworthiness????

  2. Marj Evans-de-Carpio on July 25, 2018 at 10:40 am

    I’ve always noted that White US Americans try to make sure that their driver’s license photo catches them smiling so that they look pleasant or attractive. Mexicans, for whom I have done a lot of interpreting at the motor vehicle office, try to make sure that they are not caught smiling in their driver’s license photos, in order to look serious or businesslike.

    I googled this topic because I noticed a First Nations man was smiling as he recounted extremely painful accounts of things he lived through. I was wondering what a smile means in his culture. Clearly it doesn’t mean what it means in my White US culture–that this is pleasant to me. Can anyone shed some light on this for me?