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The Anthropological Acoustics of Your Smiling Face

I am (shocking) reading yet another book that ties social science to marketing and brand strategy. It’s called Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation by Sally Hogshead.  http://www.betterworldbooks.com/9780061714702-id-9780061714702.aspx  I know – you are already fascinated by me so why would I want to read this book?  Spoken like a true Narcissist.  😉

There are several fascinating topics in this book, which has been hard for me to put down.  But I thought I would share about one in particular because it seems the world could use some good energy these days.  The topic in question:  Smiles!


You’ve heard to expressions about smiling:   you’re never fully dressed without one, it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown, turn that frown upside down, “the world always looks brighter from behind a smile”, etc.   We typically associate smiles with happiness, positivity, approachability, general good vibes and good intentions (or at least the pretense of such).

But how did the smile earn it’s function in our interpersonal relationships?  From whence did this semiotic cue emerge to permeate our culture and give us guidelines for human interaction and social protocol?  Why do we smile at those we want to be friendly with?  Because of the way it sounds, of course! A smile makes our vocal pitch higher which makes us sound less intimidating and more approachable.

Okay, so lets back it up because this will be important later.  I’ll share some of the facts I’ve learned from Ms. Hogshead’s book, starting with a little bit of context from the animal kingdom about why vocal pitch is important:

“Bigger animals have deeper voices, at a lower pitch and a louder sound.  Think of  a dog growl’s deep, imposing, aggressive vibration.  Among animals, a deep , low pitch is a threatening signal.  A higher voice and smaller size, conversely, is a sign of appeasement or timidity.  When a dog lowers itself downward on its front paws, in the classic “lets play!” pose, it’s making itself seem smaller and less threatening”

She goes on to get back to human context:

“We see this ‘high pitch versus low pitch’ phenomenon in the human world as well.  A higher voice is seen as more polite and deferential.  When we coo to babies in baby talk, we raise our voices and our eyebrows.  But can you imagine using this same voice with our boss or employees?  When we want to appear authoritative or dominant, we change both our voices and our faces, lowering our voices and eyebrows.  A lower voice equals dominance.  When a boy goes through the puberty 101, grow in size and testosterone, his voice lowers.”

Interesting stuff from an anthropological perspective and a topic that got the attention of Dr. John J. Ohala, a UC Berkley Linguistics (one of the four sub-fields of anthropology) professor.  In 1980 he shared a paper at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America about the origin of the smile – debunking the commonly held belief that it started as a visual cue.  As quoted in the same chapter of Fascinate:

” ‘High vocal tract resonances may also enhance the infantile character of the vocalization by seeming to originate from a shorter vocal tract.  higher resonances can be achieved by a trumpet like flaring of the tract and / or by retracting the corners of the mouth’.  In other words:  when we smile, we pull the cheek flesh back against our teeth and make our mouth cavity smaller.  A smiling mouth raises the pitch of our voice, which is instinctively perceived as less dominant, more approachable.  Not a visual cue but an aural cue.

So, basically, smiles communicate friendly intentions and  a desire to bond and comes from an instinctual place rooted in sound, not sight.  It’s why when you are on the phone with someone you can “hear” them smiling if they are being polite – like when you get a call from someone trying to get a donation out of you or you finally get through to customer service after waiting on the line for 20 minutes.  It’s also why you see so many educational toys with anthropomorphic (human-like) faces – because a smiling face invites kids to play and play is a form or learning – so might as well encourage the to learn any way you can.

I guess that a smile is really worth it’s weight in words.  So go make a statement today.  The world could use some approachability.

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Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Linguistics, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Anthropological Acoustics of Your Smiling Face

  1. This makes sense now: In HS choir, Ms. Charleston always told us to smile when we were singing flat. Pulling the corners of the mouth up raises the pitch. PS: Love the Annie reference you snuck in there.

  2. Pingback: Flirtation In The Age Of Social Media « The Narcissistic Anthropologist

  3. Pingback: You’re not alone–in work or in life | Unveil Your Brilliance

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