The human smile sets us at ease. People who don’t smile openly are considered unapproachable, unlikeable and even dangerous. Yet the same expression by an animal signals danger.
Why does it signal safety when we humans smile? Charles Martin DDS, of the Richmond Smile Center, decided to find out.
Smiling, as it turns out, is related to sound, according to research by John J. Ohala, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Ohala discovered that words sound better to humans when accompanied by a smile.
A smile gives the speaker’s voice a higher pitch. Humans associate lower-pitched voices – like those of larger, more threatening animals – with danger, while higher voices are typically found in smaller animals. Over time, the visual cue of a wide smile has become connected with the sound of a higher pitched voice. Therefore, a smile conveys an absence of danger.
“We see an example of this in babies,” Dr. Martin explained. “Babies respond more favorably to female voices, which are higher pitched than deeper, louder male voices. That’s why we see grown men instinctively change their voices when speaking to babies.”
Though adults don’t respond as strongly to higher voices and smiles, we do tend to gravitate toward a smile. In fact, the sound of a voice accompanied by a smile is now so firmly ingrained in the human subconscious as safe and cheerful that a smile alone can make us feel good about someone.
“Showing our teeth through smiling tells people we’re friendly and makes them comfortable being around us,” said Dr. Martin. “How does the world view us if we refuse to smile, even if that refusal is simply due to being self-conscious about a less than perfect smile? A smile, or lack thereof, sends a very distinct message to other people.”
Image by Jen Marquez, via Flickr