Why do Americans smile so much?
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In 2016, my colleague Olga Khazan saw a cultural difference playing out on the faces of those around her. “Here’s something that has always puzzled me, growing up in the U.S. as a child of Russian parents,” she wrote. “Whenever I or my friends were having our photos taken, we were told to say ‘cheese’ and smile. But if my parents also happened to be in the photo, they were stone-faced. So were my Russian relatives, in their vacation photos. My parents’ high-school graduation pictures show them frolicking about in bellbottoms with their young classmates, looking absolutely crestfallen.”
Were her Russian relatives simply less happy than her American friends? Not necessarily, it turns out: Research suggests that some societies view casual smiling as a sign of warmth or respect, but others are more inclined to see it as a sign of trickery.
Olga’s reporting on smiling has stuck with me since I first read it—because it’s fascinating, but also because understanding the human face is becoming more and more important in our AI era, when much of our technology purports to recognize, and even improve upon, our faces and their expressions. Today’s newsletter brings you stories about the human face and the emotions it can reveal.
Why Americans Smile So Much
How immigration and cultural values affect what people do with their faces
Artificial Intelligence Is Misreading Human Emotion
There is no good evidence that facial expressions reveal a person’s feelings. But big tech companies want you to believe otherwise.
The Introverted Face
People put serious weight on judgments of character based on facial structure alone. (From 2014)
Naomi Sharp’s 2016 piece found that computers may have a leg up on humans when it comes to recognizing facial expressions: In one study, “when people watched silent videos of the same person experiencing pain and faking pain, they couldn’t tell which was which. A computer was correct 85 percent of the time,” Sharp wrote.