Bulgarians seem to have a particular interest in the American smile. We have seen advertising here touting the “American Smile” as a desirable and attractive thing. Friends of ours from Bulgaria have also commented on how often Americans seem to be smiling and how they like American smiles. And indeed, Neda and I have noticed that walking on the street we unconsciously flash a lot of smiles at folks that are not reciprocated.
Smiling at the Danceclub
This past 5 days our friend from Austin, Ryan Tietz, visited Bulgaria during a 4 month romp through Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Thailand. He was acutely aware of less smiling in Europe in general, but thought it got even more noticeable as he moved further east into former Yugoslavian countries and then Bulgaria. He was on a mission to get more people to smile during his visit - a mission that usually grew more urgent as we had more beers :-).
Maybe Ryan had a point with his attempted smile invasion. Research has shown that smiling has numerous benefits. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates the part of the brain associated with positive affect. It makes others find you more attractive, makes you 3x more likely to be remembered, and makes people more likely to see you as confident and successful.
But most of these studies were done in America - what about cultural bias? Psychologists have noted a variety of cultural differences in smiling. In Russia, smiling in public is considered inappropriate (i.e. there is a stronger public/private division), while in Southeast Asia, smiling is often used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment. Perhaps the key to unlocking the nuances of smiling lie in the difference between a “Duchenne” smile, or authentic smile, and a contrived one. In a contrived smile, your lips turn upward, but little happens around your eyes. When you form an authentic smile, your lips turn upward AND your eyes crinkle around the outside as a muscle called the orbicularis oculi is activated. The interesting thing is that the orbicularis oculi is an involuntary muscle - in other words, you can’t fake an authentic smile.
Julia Roberts demonstrates the differences between a forced smile and a Duchenne smile
Some cultures have embedded this wisdom into their social mores. The Japanese, for example, have been found to rate a smile's trustworthiness by looking at the eyes unlike Americans, who look mainly at the mouth. Duchenne smiles are correlated with living longer, higher marital satisfaction, faster recover from grief-inducing events, and with making people more likely to want to cooperate with you compared to “fake” smiles.
So maybe it's alright for Bulgarians to look up to the American smile, but hopefully it is the authentic smiles that will catch on rather than the superficial smiles we might find ourselves assuming on a daily basis. But I have to say that in their homes and with their friends, I have seen many wonderful “Bulgarian smiles” - making me wonder how different we really are when you throw away the superficial stuff...…
I'll put my Aunt Slavka's smile on par with an American smile anyday!
Roman Forum - Plovdiv
In the end, there is no doubt that lots of genuine smiles were flying around during Ryan's visit. We took a wonderful trip to Plovdiv together and explored the city’s ancient ruins. We toured the Zagorka Brewery and sampled their live, unpasteurized beer right from the tap. They enjoyed our smiles so much that they let us stay in the tasting room an extra hour and a half - resulting in a very happy tour indeed! We took Ryan to the ancient city of Nessebar on the Black Sea Coast and introduced him to our hospitable family in the port town of Burgas (see picture above of Ryan with Aunt Slavka). Ryan was a wonderful guest - trying all the different foods we offered him while giving us great tips on his travels around Europe. He heads off to Istanbul next and we wish him much luck!
To see some highlights of our time with Ryan (along with captions), click the thumbnails below or click here
to view all the photos on snapfish. Notes that you can only view the slideshow on our website (www.fieldsofindulgence.com) - it probably won't show up if you received this post by e-mail.