In our culture, the act of smiling has not always had a very positive image. Among great paintings, I can think of only one that would qualify. It’s called “The Laughing Cavalier” by Frans Hals (1624), but he is only smiling, not laughing.
By the time of World War I, however, it was a different story. One of the most popular soldier’s songs counselled:
“Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and SMILE, SMILE, SMILE!”
(Unfortunately, the same song also celebrated smoking: “While you’ve a Lucifer to light your fag, smile, boys, that’s the style!” I often wonder how many of those boys who survived the war had their lives shortened by those fags. Of course, it was the same, or even worse, in World War II. Cigarettes were considered an essential part of any soldier’s outfit.)
You may also have encountered the debate about whether smiling or frowning uses more muscles.
But, whatever the answer, I now have a terrible confession to make: For most of my life, I did not smile. It’s not that I couldn’t or wouldn’t – I just didn’t.
This is all the more reprehensible when I acknowledge that one of my favorite books, which I first discovered as a teenager, has always been Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. And he has a whole chapter whose entire message can be summed up in one word: “SMILE.” It’s actually the second chapter, and the second rule, in the book. (The first rule is “Become genuinely interested in other people.”)
So, how do I account for this shortcoming? The only explanation I can offer – and admittedly, it’s a lame one – is that, shortly after first reading the book, I was trying to put this lesson into practice, starting naturally, (without any warning announcement) with my family, at home. This brought forth from my father some remark to the effect of, “Look, he’s smiling!” In my sensitive adolescent mind, that was enough to terminate the whole experiment.
In any case, and whatever the reason, I was a person who didn’t generally smile. When it came to being photographed, I could put on some kind of fake grin for the occasion. But that, of course, was an artificial situation.
When I started writing epigrams, some of them were about smiling – but not always in a positive light:
“I’ll be glad when it’s all over, and I can take my smile off.”
“I seem to have accidentally got seated in the ‘NO SMILING’ section.”
There was, however, a very popular one, which I wrote having my wife Dorothy in mind: “Your smile is one of the great sights of the world.” (It was illustrated with someone taking a picture of a smiling pyramid.)
Throughout our marriage, many people would comment on Dorothy’s beautiful smile, and when they noticed the absence of mine, she would say protectively, “Ashleigh smiles with his eyes.”
But I’m now in my eighties, and it was only recently that, for some reason, I began to analyze this problem. It occurred to me that, when I do what other people call “smiling,” it feels to me that I am baring my teeth in a hostile expression. But of course, only animals generally do that. People have refined it into a message of friendship and happiness. So, even though it somehow doesn’t feel right from my side, it looks good on the outside.
I wonder if anybody else has had a problem like this. I’ve certainly never heard it discussed. I do know that Charles Darwin, besides his monumental work on The Origin of Species, also did studies of the facial expression of human emotions.
In any case, my late-in-life detection of my ability to smile has led to an even more startling discovery: More often than not, when you smile at a stranger you meet on the street, he or she will smile back at you!
Sometimes it’s a little awkward. They’re not expecting a smile at that moment – but you can see that they almost feel obliged to respond in kind. Sometimes they actually one-up you, by not just smiling back, but saying something friendly, like “good morning,” or even “How’re you doing?”
Which reminds me that, when the Hallmark Company was one of my licensees, one of the very few of my thousands of epigrams which they chose to put on their cards was #1465, which says “HOW ARE YOU DOING? – AND WITH WHOM ARE YOU DOING IT?”