Featured on a recent episode of the podcast Invisibilia, an unforeseen difficulty arose in 1990 when McDonald’s first established itself in the Soviet Union: the workers wouldn’t smile. Famous for its “service with a smile” business model, the chain found itself up against cultural norms it had not expected.
Anyone who has traveled abroad will tell you, Americans smile more than many other countries. It takes a story like this to remind us that, with smiling, anyway, we’re the outlier.
So the question becomes, why do we do it?
America the Melting Pot
One assumption might be that Americans are simply happier than other countries, which is false. According to a recent poll, America ranks only as the fourteenth happiest nation in the world. Instead, our unique compunction to smile may be related to our history.
As a nation founded by immigrants, it’s possible we relied heavily on nonverbal communication tactics such as smiling in order to mitigate language barriers. A recent 2015 study polled people from 32 countries to put this hypothesis to the test, and found that emotional expressiveness was indeed linked to a country’s diversity.
Another interesting finding was that people in different countries seem to smile for different reasons. In more diverse areas, a smile related specifically to the intention of forming a lasting social bond. In less diverse populations, it was related to the desire for close friendship or romantic intent.
The Role of Advertising
Another possibility could be related to advertising efforts. As a way to convince their audience a specific product would make them happy, advertisers began marketing the smile in the 20th century. While now this seems obvious, before the late 19th century and early 20th century, it was convention to avoid smiling in photographs or early video.
One product in particular that pushed this campaign was the Kodak camera. With the proliferation of consumer cameras, Kodak had to differentiate itself from the older models, which were associated with more formal social situations. The idea was that these new cameras could be used to capture more personal family moments.
That American Smile
American smiles are not only known for being frequent, but also for being white and straight. As a nation of smiling citizens, maintaining those pearly whites becomes more critical. Not having an attractive smile could make you feel less confident, which could become both a social and professional detriment.