Smile at the world and the world will smile back at you. Or will it? – guest post by Kuba Kryś

An experiment that was carried out in cooperation of researchers in forty two different cultures, on six continents, revealed that smiling people are not as popular everywhere, as one might think. This research is not yet published, but Kuba Kryś* – a member of the Polish team leading the project – agreed to share some of the results and preliminary findings of this incredible and mighty complex (in terms of data collection) study with the Psychology of Humor blog.
– Piotr Pluta


On the one hand, the studies on social perception suggest that smiling people are perceived more positively in comparison to non-smiling individuals in many ways (Miles, 2009). On the other hand, tourists visiting Poland are warned by the Lonely Planet Guidebook that smiling to strangers is perceived as a sign of stupidity there. Furthermore, an official booklet of one of the Norwegian labour market agencies informs that in Norway it is common that when a stranger on the street smiles at a Norwegian, he or she can assume that this stranger is a drunk, or insane, or American, or… all of the above mentioned. Another well-known Russian proverb says: ‘Улыбка, без причины – признак дурачины’ – smiling with no reason is a sign of stupidity. Simple as that.

Stimuly - cross cultural study of smileAn international team of researchers, inspired by scientists from the Polish Academy of Sciences, conducted a series of experiments in which they asked participants to assess photographs of smiling and non-smiling individuals in terms of how intelligent they look to be; and compared ratings between different cultures.. The results showed that the smiling people in almost half of the analysed cultures were seen as more intelligent, in another nineteen cultures there was no such a difference, and in five cultures smiling individuals were perceived as less intelligent than the (same) people without a smile (e.g. in South Korea or in Iran).

Researchers suggest that the explanation may be delivered by a concept describing cultural differences named the “uncertainty avoidance” (UA)  and described by House et al. within the GLOBE project (2004). The societies ranked high on the GLOBE’s UA dimension alleviate the unexpectedness – they value structure and clear rules (e.g., in these societies, orderliness and consistency are stressed, even at the expense of experimentation and innovation). On the other hand, in cultures ranked low on the UA, the future is relatively less predictable, and there are fewer societal requirements and instructions on how to behave.

Researchers from Poland hypothesized that in the cultures low on the UA dimension, i.e. where the social conditions are somewhat uncertain, expressing certainty by smiling may be puzzling for the people around and perceived as a sign of  inconsistency. Therefore, people exhibiting self-confidence by smiling in such societies, may be perceived as personally incoherent, which is evaluated negatively as sing of unintelligent behavior.

Cultures, in which we were born, shape us. Although the situation influences our perception, the cultural factors constitute yet a broader frame for the perception processes. Social encounters in the globalizing world may be less problematic if we better understand the relationship between culture and social perception. This is especially important for the processes that are fast, automatic, and not fully conscious, such as impression formation.

We are working on research papers, in which we will present the complete results. By now, we have prepared two brief reports in which we describe the data collected in the first seven cultures. Should you be interested in reading them, write to me:


This research was supported by the Polish National Science Centre Grant 2011/03/N/ HS6/05112

* Kuba Kryś is an Assistant Professor in the Cultural-Cultural Psychology Lab in the Institute of Psychology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.


Image credit: Minear & Park, 2004; more at:



House, R., Hanges, P., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P., & Gupta, V. (Eds.). (2004). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Miles, L. (2009). Who Is Approachable? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 262–266.

Minear, M., & Park, D. (2004). A lifespan database of adult facial stimuli. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 36, 630–633.


Categories: Cross-cultural and Evolutionary.


  1. Ana

    This was really interesting to read. I would have to say I have mixed feelings about this because I like when people smile for no reason, but at the same time, I don’t like when people smile ALL the time. I honestly find it creepy.

    • Interesting! Well, there certainly is a magnitude of other factors that influence one’s perceptions, that the present study did not take into account: e.g. context and interpersonal differences (however to attenuate for the latter is always the aim of studies involving a larger group of participants and hence seeking to look at more aggravated, or averaged tendencies).