When we see someone smiling, we reflexively assume a state of happiness. However, of the 19 smiles humans make, only six of them indicate joy.
This was confirmed in a 1924 experiment by graduate student Carney Landis at the University of Minnesota who brought a group of people together and put them through a series of less than enjoyable experiences, from having fireworks go off under their seats to having their hands electrocuted to forcing them to cut the heads off live rats.
“So far as this experiment goes,” he wrote in his report, “I have found no expression other than a smile, which was present enough to be considered as typical of any situation.”
Let’s look at some of the “unhappy smiles” Landis and subsequent researchers have identified.
The Fear Smile
This is a holdover from our chimpanzee relatives. “When bonobo chimpanzees are afraid they’ll expose their teeth and draw their lips back so that their gums are exposed,” says Zanna Clay, a primatologist at the Durham University. “It’s a gesture of submission, used by low-status individuals to appease more dominant members of the group.”
Clay cites a popular video of a chimp stealing a rock. “She snuck off with it and then broke out into this big, cheeky grin. It looks like she’s laughing, but she’s probably nervous,” says Clay.
We see this smile a lot in people watching horror movies. It differs from the smile you’d have in a comedy because it only affects the mouth, whereas a joyful smiling consumes the whole face, especially the eyes.
The Miserable Smile
This is the easiest smile to identify as “not happy” because it is incongruous with the eyes, which show sadness. It’s more of a stoic grin and it is usually asymmetrical because it’s being unconsciously forced. We see this a lot at the Oscars and the Emmys in the nominees who don’t win.
The Embarrassed Smile
This is most seen in children who know they’ve made a mistake. It comes with flushed cheeks resulting from the rise in body temperature due to stress, and a moving of the head down and to the left.
The Qualifier Smile
Otherwise known as the “polite smile,” this is the one people make when they’re delivering bad news. If you’ve ever been fired or dumped, and your friend is smiling and saying , “Don’t worry, everything’ll be okay”, that’s the qualifier smile. It’s often misinterpreted as schadenfreude, which can lead to fights.
The Contempt Smile
This is the one you make when you can’t believe how incredibly rude or insensitive or ridiculous someone is being. It’s similar to a smile of true delight, except for either tight corners of the lips or a wide open mouth.
The Contempt Smile is common in East Asian culture. There, anger is not considered socially acceptable so people tend to smile a lot when they’re angry.
And finally… Flirtatious Smiling
This is the only one on the list that isn’t natural. The Flirtatious Smile comes from a conscious attempt to create a response in someone else. It’s coy in the mouth and far off in the eyes because there’s an agenda behind it. The most famous flirtatious smile in history belongs to the Mona Lisa.
Be comfortable flashing whatever smile you want
That starts with healthy teeth, which come from regular oral care.
Brush, floss, rinse and visit the dentist twice a year.