The Fake Smile

Alexandra, Miss Pre-Teen Michigan Galaxy 2009. Photograph by David Defoe.

Alexandra, Miss Pre-Teen Michigan Galaxy 2009. Photograph by David Defoe.

A sign of strength, or a mark of sadness? A quick check of popular quotes about fake smiles shows that opinions are divided.

Head up, stay strong
Fake a smile, move on
It’s much easier to fake a smile than to explain what you really feel inside.
Fake friends believe your fake smile
True friends see the tears you’re hiding inside

Psychologist Paul Ekman has become famous for his systematic way of analyzing micro-expressions: involuntary marks of emotions in the face that give away how a person really feels. His analysis on smiles is presented in the classic article "Smiles When Lying", co-authored with Wallace Friessen and Maureen O'Sullivan. 

Based on Ekman's work, advice on how to distinguish a real smile from a fake one is plentiful on the internet, and there's even a test you can do to check how good you are at it.

Others are more interested in how the fake smile feels inside - and what incessant fake smiling does to a person. The fake smile is an essential element of the face service workers have to put on for their customers. Arlie Hochschild in her book "The Managed Heart" argued that this can lead them to become alienated from their true feelings.

More recent psychological studies alternately recommend the fake smile as an aid to happiness or, following Hochschild, warn that it has a detrimental effect.