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Smiling Will Get You Everywhere

Andre Silva
Creative Commons

On the series "NewsRadio," the character played by Phil Hartman once said, "Experience once taught me that behind every toothy grin lies a second row of teeth."

Smiling is a universal way to show happiness. But not all smiles are happy. In reality, we smile less for happiness than for social reasons that have nothing to do with happiness. 

That said,  few things are more ingratiating and calming as another person's genuinely warm smile. But, maybe it's because a genuine smile is such a great thing that we're always looking for the false one. 

But we shouldn't assume that a smile that reflects something other than unadulterated joy is always a bad thing. Smiling has an evolutionary function, helping to ensure our survival after birth. Babies first smile while still in the womb and deliberately smile at us shortly thereafter less because they're thrilled to have us as parents and more to keep us happy with them. There's a reason for this. Smiling has high social benefits -- those who smile are considered more social, more accessible, more helpful, and more attractive. 

But, what happens when you can't smile? The absence of a smile is life-changing, yet until we lose it, we take it for granted. There are many illnesses that make it difficult to smile including Parkinson's Disease, Bell's Palsy, and Moebius Syndrome, a particularly devastating illness that afflicts babies. Today, we talk to Jonathan Kalb, a professor of Theatre at Hunter College who spent three years recovering his smile after developing what he thought was a temporary bout of Bell's Palsy. He wrote this thoughtful essay on his experience for The New Yorker.

Beyond the inability to smile, what happens you just don't want to smile? The social customs for smiling vary between countries, with many countries feeling we Americans simply smile too much. Partly, it depends on whether you're a woman. In 2013, Slate contributor Taylor Orsi made a tribute to all the women accused of "bitchy resting face." As a result, women may smile more, even when they don't want to. 

Leave your comments below, email us at colin@wnpr.org, or tweet us @wnprcolin.

Chion Wolf was the technical producer for today's show, which originally aired on March 31, 2015.


  • Jonathan Kalb is a professor of Theatre at Hunter College CUNY and is the author of 5 books on theatre and currently writing a series of articles on smiling
  • Marianne LaFrance is a professor of Psychology and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale and the author of “Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions”
  • Margaret Livingstone is the author of a professor of Neurobiology at Harvard University

Colin McEnroe is a radio host, newspaper columnist, magazine writer, author, playwright, lecturer, moderator, college instructor and occasional singer.
Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.
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