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The Meaning Of A Smile In Different Cultures

We know languages and general means of communicating with one another vary across culture to culture.

However, many of us assume smiling means the same thing in all cultures.

This, though, is not the case. In fact, for one, different cultures smile more or less than one another. Some cultures even have different intents for smiling and different times that are appropriate for such.

What does a smile mean in different cultures?


In America, a smile is common and generally accepted. Americans are fairly open with their emotions, and thus, with their facial expressions. Smiling is applicable in America in both casual and formal situations to express happiness or respect. It is not uncommon for strangers to smile at one another for no apparent reason.


Unlike America, the Japanese culture is not as open to emotions. Therefore, smiling is not as accepted, at least not in abundance. However, Japanese folks still do smile and even may be better at identifying a true versus a fake smile. This is true because the Japanese focus more on the way in the eyes look rather than focusing on the smile. This is also why Japanese emoticons used in texting and chatting on the Internet are often mostly expressed with the eyes than the mouth. You’ll see an example of this below.

  • ^_^  This is a Japanese emoticon to express happiness. Notice the eyes versus the mouth; the eyes are the main focus in understanding what the emotion truly is.
  • 🙂  This is an American emoticon also to express happiness. The smile itself is the main focus in this emoticon, a much different approach from the Japanese version.


As a culture with some of the happiest people in the world, Swiss folks do not smile as much as, say, Americans do. It’s quite surprising. However, smiling in Switzerland as a way to express respect during a conversation more so than it is to outwardly express one’s internal emotions.


Like many other cultures, Germany is yet another country that considers Americans to smile too often. A casual smile to a stranger on the streets will not receive a smile in return. Germans are very conservative when it comes to outwardly showing expressions of happiness, especially via smiling.


On the flip side, those in Thailand smile often, more so than many cultures, in fact. A smile is appropriate in a variety of different situations and circumstances, including when one is happy, embarrassed, or even fearful.


Even more different when it comes to the meaning of a smile is in Russia, where smiling is very rare and is only done when there is a very good reason to do so. In fact, if you smile at a Russian too long, they may think you are suspicious. In Russia, smiling is typically done towards people they are close with, being affectionate with, or showing that they admire someone. Smiling can also be done to express high levels of happiness but is not presented randomly on the streets like in America.

Disclaimer: The oral health information published on this web page is solely intended for educational purposes. Hawaii Family Dental strongly recommends to always consult licensed dentists or other qualified health care professionals for any questions concerning your oral health.


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