What are you smiling for? :)

The following post was written by our fellow AFSer, Suyin Chia. Find out who she is and enjoy her post:

I am the current ICL Responsible and Training Coordinator for AFS Malaysia who is happily tucked away in her mini cubicle dreaming up methods for social change and increased cultural awareness within the AFS network. I have been involved with AFS for 9 years now since my student exchange year to Japan. I am also an Intercultural Link Learning Program International Qualified Trainer candidate. Nothing delights me more than the sight of tail wagging puppies, a good read, the sound of ocean waves and interesting conversations. I believe that we need to learn to cut the cake differently.

When meeting a new person, often my first instinct is to show them a smile. It comes naturally to me, as I believe myself to be a friendly person, hence I smile to indicate that I am approachable and sincere. It tends to be difficult to hold back at least a meek smile even when I walk past strangers on the street. I obsessively end my text messages with a smiling emoticon to ensure the end receiver knows I am being cordial. During AFS orientations, I smile at my nervous participants to show them that I am not a threat but someone you can look to as a friend imparting survival knowledge from experience.

Coming back recently from the US to Malaysia, and being thoroughly exposed to the cheerful and friendly smiles of Americans with their pleasant “how are you?” for 3 weeks really did a number on me at home.  Firstly, I noticed that for every smile I receive back from passersby on the streets of Kuala Lumpur after myself breaking into one, there are three who remain stiff lipped and nonchalantly ignore me. Some even stare at me to determine If I am crazy! Initially I was really surprised. How did I not notice this “unfriendliness” before? I have lived here all my life! I would brush one or two off as uptight or plain unfriendly, but now I am beginning to understand that while smiling is universal, the intentions or motivations to smile may not be.



So naturally I put on my intercultural curious cap, and researched online smiles in cross cultural communication. Smiling is after all a facial expression, a non-verbal communication – now that I think about it. This is what I found.

While smiling is perceived as a positive emotion most of the time, such as in American culture where a smile is seen as a sign of trust, genuineness and determining expression of happiness, there are many cultures that perceive smiling as a less positive expression and consider it unwelcoming and foolish.

For example in Russia, it is generally considered poor taste to smile without a reason, and to smile at strangers in public is both unusual and suspicious. Meanwhile in Korea there is a saying that goes, “He who smiles a lot is not a real man.” To Koreans smiling is perceived as a frivolous act. Likewise, if I were in the streets of Germany today smiling at a German for no particular reason, people would quietly assume that I must be a little simple minded or have lost my marbles. Not that I mind of course. I still really want to go to Germany :) For many Scandinavians a smile or any facial expression used to convey emotions is atypical as it is generally considered a vulnerability to show emotions. In such cultures, smiling is mostly reserved for close friends and family members.

The degree of facial expressiveness – such as smiling – one exhibits varies among individuals and cultures. The fact that members of one culture do not express their emotions as openly as members of another does not mean that they do not experience emotions. Rather, there are cultural restraints on the amount of nonverbal expressiveness permitted. As a result, some Russians believe that Americans smile in the wrong places, while Americans believe that Russians don’t smile enough, still others think that the Dutch are virtually expressionless. At the same time smiling in official photographs and documentation, such as in driving licenses and passports, is a big no-no in Malaysia.

In other parts of the world such as China, Thailand or Vietnam, smiles may yet indicate other emotions such as feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment. Smiling is akin to a vehicle of ambiguities, as not all smiles are genuine expressions of happiness. People are able to still smile when they are horrified, sad, frightened or in emotional pain. People also smile when they are lying, as famously marveled by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

Furthermore, the degree or frequency of smiling diverges along gender lines. Women on average tend to naturally smile more. One of the main moderators for this seem to be gender norms nurtured from a very young age – boys are encouraged not to smile very much as expressiveness is taken by some cultures to be a sign of femininity. On the other hand, as the more social and softer gender, women are encouraged to always sound and look expressive (with a smile) even when they are not feeling much inclined. Women who are not very expressive are regarded by others with caution, as they may seem to be cold or withholding.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that while our cultural background plays a significant role in influencing our views of culturally acceptable decorum, culture does not always determine the message of non-verbal communication. The individual’s personality, the context, and the relationship also influence its meaning. So now I know that it is crucial to have an awareness of what a smile may mean in different cultures, or simply the fact that smiles may be interpreted differently from our norms. Still I believe the best way to elicit a genuine smile from anybody is to go out and be somebody’s friend. Get to know somebody today, talk to them and be invested in their lives, ask questions, listen to their story – just be real. I promise you will eventually be rewarded with a real smile.


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