Smiling Through, June 11

Smiling Through

Dear People, for most of our history, smiling was a reward for doing something good. A parent smiles at a child’s first attempts at copying the parent’s smile, and a feedback loop of appreciation and validation begins that carries all the way through first words, first steps, first day at school and first grown up responsibilities.

But with the advent of live-to-air television there was a new, frequently present smile: the smile on the screen, rewarding and validating us for simply being there.

Presenters chosen for their attractive, non-threatening appearance smiled at TV viewers from the earliest broadcasts.

Those big, bright, rewarding, validating smiles accompanied phrases such as: Welcome back! and It’s great to be with you! And Don’t go away! We’ll be right back! all designed to suggest a “real” connection that didn’t exist.

Where for the most part we’d watched movies as spectators, looking on at the depiction of life’s comedy and drama much as audiences in ancient Greece may have done, television burned down the theatrical fourth wall. We were suddenly in the room, so to speak, and being addressed directly, by someone appearing to stare into our eyes with a radiant smile of approval.

Of course, the presenter was always staring at the lens of a camera, and not at us. The presenter was pretending. And we were pretending, going along, knowing that the presenter wasn’t actually talking to us personally.

But that’s only the rational mind speaking.

Meanwhile, the unconscious was hard at work, picking up direct and latent cues.

The mind may draw a line, but the unconscious will still make a tiny reflexive smile happen in response to a consistent smile on a television screen.

Our pupils are dilating and contracting in response to smile stimuli, whether the mind thinks it’s logical or not.

Those of us born with television are the first generations to be rewarded with smiling, remotely and constantly, for nothing at all.

Whether this has left an impression on us culturally is to be determined, but a current feature of the smile phenomenon is that it’s decreasing in presented television programs.

Today’s presenters are generally more somber in tone, frown more frequently and often relegate the smile to an uplifting end-of-segment story, accompanied by a stiff, hopeful, comradely version of a smile.

Is that having an effect on those of us who still watch any television? Is it significant that the digital interface with Netflix, Amazon and any of the other silicon data miners is a smile-free experience, when we were raised with constant, smiling attention?

Is it meaningful that an icon has replaced the real thing to such an extent that some people will not think a posted photo of a smile is genuine unless it is accompanied by the validating smile emoji? 

Time, that striding god, will tell.

A sincere smile is the way the heart offers a blessing, before the mind can summon the words.

Though many animals have their smile response – just ask any dog or cat lover – we humans definitely perfected it, and some nations, such as India and Jamaica, are such spectacular proponents of the unforced, sincere, well-intentioned smile that people visit those countries for the smiles as much as for the cultural and recreational attractions.

And now, most of us are wearing masks, concealing the most peaceful, gentle and universally understood gesture of social cohesion, the simple smile.

And weirdly, until the crisis has passed, if someone’s smile is visible because they’re not wearing a mask, we might think: Hey, that’s a lovely smile, but this is a small, enclosed space and you’re not wearing a mask, so the naked smiling is actually kinda creepy …

From the essential reward for good that links parent to child, to a reward for simply being there, to concealed from strangers by a mask, and now to being considered potentially creepy, the smile has taken a beating.

A photo of the lower half of the face on a mask can work in a hospital PPE scenario but if the photo-mouth is a constant smile, before long the creepy factor is back.

So, the eyes have it, for a while.

We all have to smile way more with our eyes until our lips can take over again.


Perhaps it was too easy for us in the pre-mask world to muster a hasty smile with everything except our eyes and pass it off as the real thing. Now, the smile is hibernating, and we have to work a little harder by getting those captivating eyes back on their A-game.

This is also the moment for eyebrows to rise, so to speak. One of the reasons why officers wear peaked caps is to hide the most expressive feature on their face – their eyebrows – which are also the expressive feature that painters discern from the greatest distance.

Eyebrows, your time has come.

Each peril fashions its own hazardous romance.

In these days when a kiss can kill, revealing the lips by lowering a mask is not just forbidden in some situations and potentially dangerous, it’s also suddenly a choice whether to reveal or not, where none existed before.

Covid-19, this taker of life and ravager of lives, has sent us all whirling in a deadly masked ball for a while, and the smile in our eyes has rarely been as enlivening, or as essential to surviving the dance.                                                       

Blessings, Love and Faith, GDR