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Laughter is the best medicine. Our ancestors taught us so. Don’t laugh at people since you never know who’ll have the last laugh. Our ancestors also taught us that. A smile costs less than electricity, but gives more light. Some sage said that. Mother Theresa said: “Peace begins with a smile.” Even the notorious Al Capone had a quote about smiles: “You can go a long way with a smile. You can go a lot farther with a smile and a gun.” There are countless quotes and adages about smiles in all world cultures. The importance of a smile is undeniable; however as quoted by Santosh Kalwar, a Nepalese author, “There is a thin line between a smile and laughter”, how and when to smile are of the utmost importance.

The smiles on the faces of beauty pageant contestants or on the models of the glossy covers of fashion magazines are attractive and beautiful; otherwise they would not have been on magazine covers. The innocuous smile on a toddler’s face is undebatably angelic. How about the smiles on the faces of ordinary people who are neither an infant nor a model like you and I? Within the limit of this article, we broach only one tiny aspect of that broad topic. In everyday life, when should we smile?

“I Don’t Want to be Laughed at!”

Here is a personal story. After arriving in Canada, I applied for all kinds of job, and for a long time had not gotten a reply. Until one day, a company was “nice” enough to send me a letter, briefly reminding me that my Social Insurance Number began with the number 9, which meant I belonged to the group of people who are not allowed to work in Canada. After doing research, making many phone calls, and visiting many places to correct the situation, I finally got an appointment with Immigration. On that day, after waiting for quite a while for my number to be called, I found myself in the same room with an Immigration Officer. What are you here for, he asked. I have an appointment to find out why my SIN begins with the number 9. I replied slowly and clearly, trying to keep a smile on my face at all the time. The officer fidgeted with the pile of papers. His eyeglasses gleamed each time he raised or bent his head. His eyebrows knitted and relaxed incessantly. While waiting, I stayed quiet and kept a smile on my face the way I learned from relatives, from books, and newspapers about assimilation with the new society. No words were spoken during  that time. After comparing my IDs with those on file, the officer looked at me, “It’s done!” I asked again, repeating his phrase, “It’s done?” He nodded and all of a sudden scowled me down and said with a dry and cold voice, “I don’t want to be laughed at!” I stopped smiling immediately and tried to explain that I did not mean to “laugh at him,” and that I was only trying to be friendly.

The interview ended. I left that office, totally confounded, not knowing to which extend a smile (or the countenance of a person, to be precise) expressing friendliness can be considered as crossing the line of every day’s social exchange in this country.

“Laughing No Matter What”

When I was still in Vietnam and taking the Vietnamese literature course in high school, I had the chance to analyze the article “Laughing no matter what” by the renowned author Nguyen Van Vinh. And the phrase that I and many other students could never forget is: “Bare the teeth to laugh and everything loses its solemnity completely.” On the way home that day, I kept asking myself while sitting in front of the officer, whether or not I had “bared my teeth.” Obviously not. Why then did he warn me, “I don’t want to be laughed at?”

Rather than analyzing a “smile” either in its semantic or social form, please help me to figure out why my so innocent smile that day irked the immigration officer that much. But please keep in mind that I don’t want to be laughed at!

Smiles Categorized

Dr. Leow Chee Seng, Fellow of Human Behaviour Academy categorizes smiles into eight groups based on facial expression.

  1. The Drop-Jaw Smile: As commonly seen among public figures.
  2. The Turn-Away Smile: A hybrid expression where the smile signals welcome, whereas the motion of turning away gives the signal of avoidance.
  3. The Closed-Lip Smile: It signals that the person is hiding something.
  4. The Tight-Lipped Smile: It shows the harbouring of a secret, concealment of thoughts and the restraining of attitudes.
  5. The Lopsided Smile: One side of the mouth is slanted downwards showing a person with negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety, contrasted by the upward tilt which says that the person is neither non-threatening nor angry.
  6. The Forced Smile: Eyes are not engaged with mouth, giving the impression that we do not mean what we are saying.
  7. The Genuine Smile: Conveys an honest emotion. A true smile is a reaction to something we find funny.
  8. The Sneer Smile: Draws the lip corners sideward toward the ears, and produces a sneering dimple in the check. The expression is obvious and gives clear sarcastic signals.

The drawback of this classification is that it does not take into considerations various cultural aspects of different ethnic groups, as well as the anatomy of the facial structure of individuals. By displaying a closed-lip smile, a person should not be deemed dishonest since the things s/he hides might just be his/her ugly teeth.

No Laughing Matter

There are many reasons for one to be admonished by the other person with, “I don’t want to be laughed at!” the way I was.

First, you had the intention to laugh at the other person. In this case, there is no need for an explanation, and when the other person realizes that he or she was being laughed at by you, then your purpose has been fulfilled.

Other than that, if you had no intention to laugh at the other person, but the way you display your feeling (by facial expression) was awkward and misleading, then you might be the cause of their misunderstanding. It could also because the other person is overly sensitive (due to the lack of understanding about cross-cultural interactions), or not, but so s/he counter-attacks you as a self-defence because s/he knew they made a mistake with you and did not want to admit it. (I suspect that the Immigration officer I met with thirty years ago belongs to this group.)

Nevertheless, you should not mislead others into thinking that you are mocking them if that is not your intention, since it only causes drawbacks to you in the interaction as well as in your life. So what should we do now? After accomplishing a murder, in order not to get caught on her way out of the crime scene, the protagonist in Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s novel: 1Q84 entered the washroom, smiled to herself in the mirror multiple times using all muscles and tendons on her face to help them relax, so that she would not trigger any suspicion from the security people. Even though I think we don’t have a high-risk mission to hide, avoiding wearing a criminal facial expression at all times is always a good thing, and the smile on our face should be – like a flower – blooming according to the weather and seasons. Too much blooming and the flowers will suffocate. A smile has the same effect. Blooming at the right moment will relax tensed up nerves from the every day’s rat race.

“Live, Love, Laugh”

The famous quote: “A smile costs nothing but gives much…” may have to be changed to “A smile at the right moment costs nothing but gives much…”

There have been smiles – given at the wrong moments – that brought disasters to those who wear them on their faces. Just take a look at the crime section of any newspaper (especially those published in Vietnam) if you don’t agree with me. And recently, I am sure you must have had the chance to view the picture of the President of the Red Cross, Vietnam division, with an inappropriately bright smile in front of the devastating background of the Nepalese earthquake.

After having assimilated to North American culture for more than three decades, though no longer being admonished with I don’t want to be laughed at!, I still can not figure out the look of my the innocent smile (for I strongly believe so) that day at the immigration office. Does it look as cryptic as Mona Lisa’s smirk?