If you do much traveling abroad, you probably know how quickly natives of those countries can pick out Americans. You may even have picked up on one of the reasons why: Americans smile an awful lot.
In a country full of dour faces, American smiles stand out. You might think that this is because Americans are just naturally happier than other people, but the truth is that the US is just the 14th happiest country in the world, although many of the happier countries don’t smile as much as we do.
So if it’s not happiness that makes us smile, what is it?
Of course, part of the reason we smile so much is the unique nature of American capitalism. In our model of capitalism, consumption is a goal. Everyone wants to get stuff because stuff makes us happy.
Or, at least, that’s what advertisers wanted us to think. In the burgeoning field of advertising around the turn of the 20th century, advertisers were looking for a way to convince us that products would make us happy, so they latched onto the simplest, most economical, and most identifiable marker of happiness: the smile.
Now, this may seem obvious, but it’s actually radical. Before the late 19th century and early 20th century, it was an artistic convention that people smiling in pictures were either drunk or insane. And nobody wanted their products associated with that kind of image, especially with waves of the Temperance Movement washing across the country.
If there was one product that helped usher in the American smile more than any other, it was the Kodak camera. The camera had a powerful motive for using smiles in its advertising: it helped differentiate this new device from the older daguerreotype, which was associated in most people’s minds with dour people in formal sittings. Kodak wanted to show that people could take candid pictures with the new camera, so their advertisements showed people taking candid pictures outdoors–and smiling.
Although Kodak spearheaded this initiative, there were many other products that were working along the same lines, but it was a tentative process. The trend typically started with smiling children, then moved on to smiling women, and, sometimes years later, smiling men, too. By 1901, even President Theodore Roosevelt could smile in public and not be thought a madman (except by Democrats). .
A Nation of Immigrants
But there’s also another reason why Americans are more likely to smile than people from other countries. New research suggests that being a nation of immigrants makes us more likely to smile.
The reason is actually very simple. When you’re having to regularly mix with people who don’t share your language, you have to rely on nonverbal communication. Paradoxically, in countries with a uniform cultural background, nonverbal communication systems tend to get very complicated. But when people come from many different cultural backgrounds, many nonverbal cues just don’t translate. But there’s one nonverbal cue that crosses more borders than any other: the smile.
So when Americans found themselves mingling with people from many different cultures–especially during the great waves of immigration from 1880 to 1914 when 24% of American workers were foreign-born–smiling became the lingua Americana, and we just haven’t stopped.
Your Smile Is Critical
Because of the special role smiling plays in American history and culture, the appearance of your smile matters more here than anywhere else in the world. Not having an attractive smile that you feel confident in sharing is a major personal and professional detriment.
Fortunately, we are also nothing if not ingenious, and we’ve developed some of the best cosmetic dentistry technologies and techniques in the world to help Americans achieve and maintain a beautiful smile.