The universality of smile and laughter

Some years ago, I was hitchhiking with friends in rural Serbia and we were a little lost. I approached an elderly man sitting on his porch, just off the road, to ask for directions. He did not seem happy about it, but I did not have a choice:

‘Excuse me sir, do you speak English?’ Slowly but decisively, he turned his head side to side and uttered a short ‘no.’ I tried Spanish: ‘¿Habla usted Español?’ Same answer, this time entirely muted. I kept on going, naming every language one of my friends or I knew: ‘Govorish po-ruski?’, ‘Deutsch?’, ‘Italliano?’, ‘Polski?’ Nothing, nada, Nichst… Despite my polyglottic show-off, we were unable to communicate.

‘Parlez-vous français?’ he shouted out suddenly. I had listed almost all main European languages before him, but none in our group knew French! The punchline was obvious and we began to smile, chuckle, then we all burst out laughing. The old man raised himself slowly and went to his house to get a notepad to draw us a map…

Despite not one common language between us, we could communicate that we both saw how absurd and comic the situation was and we had friendly intentions towards each other. All by the means of smile and laughter.


Paul Ekman in New Guinea in 1960'. Read more about his work at

Paul Ekman in New Guinea in 1960′. Read more about his work at

Smiling and laughter cross the greatest cultural barriers. Paul Ekman, an American psychologist who pioneered research of facial expressions and their relation to emotions, went much farther then Serbia to collect evidence for universality of smiling and laughter. In a study conducted on New Guinea, in 1969, he discovered that smiling and laughter not only existed among the indigenous tribes of this remote and isolated island, but also that they were related to similar emotions, social situations and communication patterns as in the Western societies.

But, why is it so that people around the world can convey: ‘it’s OK, it’s safe, I trust you, I don’t want to hurt you, I want to connect with you,’ with a single smile despite cultural differences? Let me answer that question with another: Is it really only people who use smile in this way?

Animals (at least mammals) have an equivalent of human smile and laughter when it comes to facial expression and non-verbal communication. It is often referred to as “play face” and is marked by silent bared-teeth display and relaxed open-mouth (van Hoof, 1972). Like with those two:

Now, tell my that you're not struggling not to smile when watching these two...

Now, tell my that just looking at those two doesn’t put you in playful mood… (“Dogs playing” by E. Sonstroem, 2015, CC BY-NC 2.0)


One truly extraordinary case of cross-species communication involving the “play face” was documented by a photographer Norbert Rosling and explained in terms of “serious play” by Dr. Stuart Brown (2008). In it, a famished male polar bear approached a husky tied to a pole. Instead of ending up being attacked and – presumably – eaten, the dog managed to seduce the predator to play, literally by making a “play face.”

This facial expression is, not surprisingly, even more recognizable and similar to human smiling in our closest cousins: primates. Especially chimpanzees have similar “smiling” patterns as humans and even accompany them with a certain panting vocalization – most likely a precursor of human laughter (Gervais & Wilson, 2005). Therefore, some scientists think that laughter is “an ancient mode of prelinguistic communication” (Provine, 2004) and has been universally used to convey a playful state of mind characterized by positive emotions (van Hooff, 1972).

Both, the cross-cultural universality, as well as the presence of forms of smile and laughter in other animals, point to the evolutionary roots of this form of communication. It means that regardless of the country of origin, we are all born with the capacity to communicate with smile and laughter friendly intentions, positive emotions, and invitation to play and connect. And, although various cultures put smiling and laughter into slightly different contexts and may disagree about what is and what is not funny, smiling and laughter themselves are so pervasive and universal, that everybody understands the message they convey: let’s relax, be friends and have fun!

(I was invited to write this article by Association for Applied and Therapuetic Humor and it was originally published in the international edition of their newsletter, the Voice in September 2016.)


Brown, S. (2008, May). Play is more than just fun. Retrieved from TED Ideas worth spreading:

Ekman, P., Sorenson, E. R., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Pan-Cultural Elements in Facial Displays of Emotion. Science, 164(3875), 86-88.

Gervais, M., & Wilson, D. S. (2005). The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: A synthetic approach. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 80(4), 395-430.

Provine, R. R. (2004). Laughing, Tickling, and the Evolution of Speech and Self. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(6), 215-218.

van Hooff, J. A. (1972). A comparative approach to the phylogeny of laughter and smiling. In R. A. Hinde (Ed.), Non-verbal communication. England: Cambridge University Press.

Categories: Cross-cultural and Evolutionary.