If people in the far future were to unearth troves of 20th and 21st-century photographs, the first thing they might ask is “Why are they always smiling?” It would look as though something happened around 1920 that made people perpetually giddy, or even loopy.
On closer inspection, though, the researchers would realize that most of those smiles weren’t genuine, and perhaps were the product of some kind of oppressive force in 20th century society. Maybe an eccentric monarch demanded everyone appear elated all the time, not unlike how North Koreans were clearly afraid to be seen not crying at Kim Jong-Il’s funeral.
Our compulsively smiley photo culture isn’t quite as totalitarian as North Korea, but if you ever assert your right not to smile in a group photo you will definitely be viewed as a subvert. The camera operator, and maybe your fellow subjects, will scold you for trying to ruin the photo by letting it capture your actual face.
My mother is always telling me to replace my unsmiling social media photos with smiling ones. It is a permanent point of contention between us. I’ve been told I look “psychotic” when I’m not smiling, but that’s just my everyday face, and I have faith that future archaeologists studying those photos will recognize me as the sane one.
I understand why people like smiles. I like them too. They’re pleasant, reassuring, and attractive. Smiling people are more approachable. Smiles have genuine social value.
And that’s exactly why I don’t like this custom of mandatory smiling: because I love smiles, and I love that they have meaning. A human smile is one of the most beautiful sights in nature.
Their naturalness is what makes them special, and natural smiles—real smiles—are fleeting. They’re a momentary, involuntary broadcast of intense joy, goodwill or gratitude. How great they are when they’re real. Read More