If you’ve seen the advertisement that often appears in this newspaper to promote Mint’s bloggers you may have noticed this. There are 18 bloggers. Out of 11 women, six are grinning (more than 50%). None of the seven men are grinning. A grin, according to the dictionary, is a smile with teeth showing. Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a curious thing. Women grin. Men smile. Not all the time and not necessarily in real life, but in published photographs.
All smiles: Is this viewed more positively? Pawan Kuman / Reuters
If you don’t believe me, just flip the page. I would wager that most of the men whose photographs appear in publications are not smiling. In contrast, the women are.
We women smile more than men anyway. According to an article by Lee Ellis, professor of sociology at the Minot State University, published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, several studies have found that testosterone and other male sex hormones tend to “alter brain functioning in ways that inhibit male smiling, especially during the most reproductively active years”.
Stands to reason. Look at it from an evolutionary point of view. In most species, we females choose our mates. Men have to compete with other men to win our attention. Smiling, as the article succinctly puts it, “interferes with their (men’s) ability to successfully intimidate rivals”. Ergo, men don’t smile.
Like all generalizations, this, too, is not entirely true. Men do smile. A lot. They just don’t want to be perceived as being “smilers”. There are several factors that contribute to gender differences in smiling. In a paper, Julie Woodzicka of Washington and Lee University and Marianne LaFrance of Yale University argue that men and women smile in comparable amounts when they believe they are not being observed. Once they know that they are being evaluated, women smile more than men. In other words, we women smile for effect because we intuit that smiling women are viewed more positively than non-smiling women. Men don’t smile for the same reason: because they intuit that grinning or even smiling may portray them as wimps. Although it irks my feminist principles, I have to agree with the biology of it: Women smile to attract mates; men don’t so they can intimidate rivals.
To dig deeper, smiling, like orgasm, can be faked. The scientific term for this is the Duchenne smile because it was discovered by a French neurologist named Guillaume Duchenne. A Duchenne smile is the real thing because it involves the contraction of two muscles: the zygomatic major muscle that raises the corners of the mouth and the orbicularis oculi muscle that raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes. Most people cannot contract the orbicularis oculi voluntarily. In other words, you can raise the corner of your mouth into a smile but you cannot fake crow’s feet. Non-Duchenne or fake smiles are rampant—watch television announcers. But most of us can tell the real from the fake. We know when a guest at our party is listening to our joke and doing the zygomatic muscle thing and when he actually thinks our words are rip-roaringly funny.
Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
So a smile, dear reader, isn’t a simple thing. We smile to be polite, to defuse situations, to make a point, to appear cool or menacing, or out of pleasure. The question is: Why do newspapers put more images of grinning (teeth-showing) women and unsmiling men? Is it a biological thing or an editorial preference? Let me explain.
The photo that appears alongside this column shows me grinning. But its history offers options. Mint sent a photographer who clicked a hundred photographs of me—there was the serious Shoba, the impish, the shy, the grinning and the benevolent dictator Shoba. Say, the 100 got whittled to a dozen images of me. And yet, the photo editor chose the grinning image. In contrast, most of the male columnists and bloggers who write for this paper are not grinning. Using the same logic, there were probably a dozen images of these men in various stages of smile and grin, yet the ones that were chosen for publication were the non-smiling ones. So is it the photo editor’s fault that women grin and men smile (or not)?
I sent an email to the Lounge editor—who, incidentally, grins in her image. Change my photo into a non-Duchenne-smile one, I implored. I want to appear serious. Notice that I didn’t say that I want to be serious. “Will change if you insist but like your current image,” she replied. Of course. She is the grinning one.
So why do women grin and men don’t? Is it because photo editors naturally gravitate towards choosing images of smiling women and unsmiling men? Is it a biological reality that men simply smile less? Or is it simply that men don’t smile in the presence of photographers? L.K. Advani never grins in his photographs. Neither does Manmohan Singh. Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, shows teeth. I think I know the answer. I think we all do. Grinning appears inviting and playful. It makes a person appear approachable. But it lacks gravitas. Even male comics who want to be perceived as funny don’t smile. Have you noticed?
Shoba Narayan’s orbicularis oculi muscle is out of control, causing her to grin all the time. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org