Wait a second. Freaking babies smile. Other primates smile; we've seen the pictures. This has to be an inborn trait. There's no way we're going to find out that some cultures scowl when they're happy, or that smiling at strangers is a way to pick a fight with them.
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"The fuck is your problem?!"
To start, let's clarify why our primate cousins are smiling. In their world, baring your teeth is the prelude to an ass-kicking, smile or not. Displaying the teeth held together with relaxed lips -- aka the least appealing way smiling has ever been described -- is a sign of submission. So secretly, every modern smile exchange is a silent self-deprecation contest.
In Asia, smiling and other public displays of emotion are unconsidered uncouth. Even so, a smile may signify different things in the East, including sadness or anger. The Koreans even employ a proverb for the overly jovial: "He who smiles a lot is not a real man." In Vietnam, smiling can be used as an admission of guilt or a sign of submission and apology when being scolded or yelled at. In Germany or Scandinavia, smiling at random people on the street is considered something only simpleminded people do.
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Like this dumbass.
In Japan, emotional cues are mainly transmitted through the eyes. When assessing the states of others, Americans look at the mouth, because that's where smiles live. The Japanese, however, focus on the eyes, because smiles can be faked. (Seriously, try faking the eye part of a smile. You don't even need a mirror to know you're blowing it.) Furthermore, Westerners overemphasize the importance of individual features, while East Asians concentrate on the interplay of facial features.
The difference even extends to emoticons. In Western cultures, the emotion of an emoticon is conveyed by the mouth, whereas Eastern cultures put all the emotion into the eyes:
"Yeah, Stonehenge totally makes me ... sad ... too."
Unfortunately, smile-shy countries are less popular with American tourists, who believe that people who don't smile are unfriendly and sad, because Americans just assume that their culture and customs are the baseline for the entire world. Some countries have tried to rectify the problem to hilarious effect. In 2009, the perennially gloomy citizens of Paris were advised by the government to smile more, in an attempt to boost the City of Light's global appeal. National agencies even hired "smile ambassadors" to stand at hot spots and grin at tourists. And as a prelude the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China's Changping Vocational School relentlessly drilled 380 hostesses on Western ingratiating techniques, which included smile lessons.
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"That's right, nice and natural. NOW TELL ME WHAT SOUND A DOG MAKES."
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