The smiling weapon

I don't particularly want to be able to run 100 metres in 10 seconds, or even 20; or windsurf; I don’t want to be good looking; and I’m even happy with my post-cancer croaky voice. I just wish I could smile. You know, one of those ear-to-ear face crackers on demand, as instant as the click of fingers, an expansive ever-ready grin that explodes across my face every time I make eye contact.

Heaven knows I’ve tried! The Herald photographer who is responsible for what we call the headshot here must have taken more than 100 snaps in an attempt to capture a smile, and if she did snare one it must have been too gruesome to use. It must have been gruesome indeed, given the final choice. I crave a beamer because I reckon it would be a great weapon. Someone starts poking me in the chest and my grin will fill them with abject apology; the look of suspicion that so often greets my approach will be replaced with an eagerness to tell all; and everyone will love me.

Perhaps it is because I’d smile as a weapon that I cannot smile, because I’ve noticed that hair-trigger smilers are without malice or threat or even motive, that they are warm and welcoming, genuine and generous. In short, their smile is disarming, which is why I want one.

I’ve been reminded of my yearning for a smile by a campaign by the lolly company, Allen’s, to find out what makes Australians smile. Australians, it says, can and want to smile more, and I suppose my problem is the can bit. The company found during a day of encouraging Sydney people to smile that more than half the people they encountered said they’d always smile if someone smiled at them, that smiling at or acknowledging people on the street increased smile numbers by 20 per cent, that more than half believed Australians could smile more.

I would if I could. On the rare occasion a buster splits my face my cheek muscles ache, so don’t believe the nonsense about a smile using only a fraction of the muscles required of a frown. In fact I've found that my face’s forfeit position is a frown, with the eyebrows knitting together and sending crevices out from the top of my nose like the rays of a rising sun. Beautiful.

With only rare exceptions the capacity to smile bounteously is necessary for human beauty, and when you think about the beautiful women you know you will think of their smile. The recently departed notable Novocastrian, Margaret Goumas, had a generous smile and beauty that belied her 75 years, an age that was a big surprise to many who knew her.

Women are many times more inclined to smile than men, and mere eye contact will elicit a smile from many of these delightful humans. On eye contact their male fellows will look at you questioningly or dismissively. A decade ago a professor of psychology at Yale University in the US, Marianne LaFrance, found that while women do smile more than men the difference was most evident among teenagers, that as men and women aged the difference became less marked. The greatest difference occurred when men and women knew they were being observed, which may explain women’s smile on eye contact.

According to Professor LaFrance the difference in male and female smiling rates disappears when men and women have similar roles and status, and I find that especially interesting because I suspect a smile is often an expression of subservience.

Sure, a smile can be meant to portray an absence of threat, even if people who smile are not expressly conscious of that, but it is usually only people who are subservient or subordinate who need to remove any doubt about their friendliness. Bosses smile only when they’re reduced to negotiation.

It seems to be different for many Asian and African people, whose smile seems to be a genuine expression of a joie de vivre. Perhaps they smile so freely because they’re free of white Europeans’ baggage.

Smiling does seem to free us of baggage, at least temporarily. I’ll work on mine in the mirror this week.

How important is the smile in your life as a giver or receiver? What does it convey?

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