Friday, November 6, 2009

A Language of Smiles

Say “eeee.” Say it again. Go on: “eeee.”

Maybe I’m easy to please, but doing this a few times makes me giggle. “Eeee.”

Actually, I suspect it’s not just me. Saying “eeee” pulls up the corners of the mouth and makes you start to smile. That’s why we say “cheese” to the camera, not “choose” or “chose.” And, I think, it’s why I don’t get the giggles from “aaaa” or “oooo.”

The mere act of smiling is often enough to lift your mood; conversely, the act of frowning can lower it; scowling can make you feel fed up. In other words, the gestures you make with your face can — at least to some extent — influence your emotional state.

(The notion that facial expressions affect mood isn’t new. Edgar Allan Poe used it in his story “The Purloined Letter”: one character reports that when he wishes to know someone’s mind, he attempts to compose his face to mimic the expression of that someone — then waits to see which emotions arise. And the idea was developed, in different ways, by both Charles Darwin and William James. But telling stories and developing arguments is one thing. Showing, experimentally, that making a face can make a mood is harder; it’s only in the past 30 years or so that data have started to accumulate.)

Exactly how frowns and smiles influence mood is a matter of debate. One possibility is classical conditioning. Just as Ivan Pavlov conditioned a dog to associate the sound of a bell with the expectation of food, the argument goes, so humans quickly come to associate smiling with feeling happy. Once the association has been established, smiling is, by itself, enough to generate happy feelings. Another possibility is that different facial gestures have intrinsic properties that make them more or less pleasant, perhaps by altering the way that blood flows to the brain.

But here’s what interests me. As anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language will know, different languages make you move your face in different ways. For instance, some languages contain many sounds that are forward in the mouth; others take place more in the throat. What’s more, the effects that different languages have on the movements of the face are substantial. Babies can tell the difference among languages based on the speaker’s mouth movements alone. So can computers.

Which made me wonder: do some languages contain an intrinsic bias towards pulling happy faces? In other words, do some languages predispose — in a subtle way — their speakers to be merrier than the speakers of other languages?

As far as I can tell, no one has looked at this. (It doesn’t mean no one has; it just means I haven’t been able to find it.) But I did find a smidgen of evidence to suggest the idea’s not crazy. A set of experiments investigating the effects of facial movements on mood used different vowel sounds as a stealthy way to get people to pull different faces. (The idea was to avoid people realizing they were being made to scowl or smile.) The results showed that if you read aloud a passage full of vowels that make you scowl — the German vowel sound ü, for example — you’re likely to find yourself in a worse mood than if you read a story similar in content but without any instances of ü. Similarly, saying ü over and over again generates more feelings of ill will than repeating a or o.

Of course, facial gestures aren’t the whole story of emotions; moreover, languages can potentially influence emotions in many other ways. Different languages have different music — sounds and rhythms — that could also have an emotional impact. The meanings of words may influence moods more than the gestures used to make them. And just as the words a language uses to describe colors affects how speakers of that language perceive those colors, different languages might allow speakers to process particular emotions differently; this, in turn, could feed into a culture, perhaps contributing to a general tendency towards gloom or laughter.

Separating these various factors will be difficult, and the overall impact on mood through the facial gestures of a language may well be small, if indeed it exists at all. Nevertheless, I’d love to know whether some languages, by the contortions they give the mouth, really do have an impact on their speakers’ happiness. If it turns out that there is a language of smiles, I’d like to learn it. In the meantime: have a giggle with “meeeeeee.”


For a fascinating overview of experiments on frowning, smiling and mood, see McIntosh, D. N. 1996. “Facial feedback hypotheses: evidence, implications, and directions.” Motivation and Emotion 20: 121-147. This paper also discusses possible ways that facial expressions can influence emotions including both the conditioning idea and the blood flow idea. Further experimental results can be found in, for example, Kleinke, C. L., Peterson, T. R., and Rutledge, T. R. 1998, “Effects of self-generated facial expressions on mood,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 272-279; see also Schnall, S. and Laird, J. D., “Keep smiling: Enduring effects of facial expressions and postures on emotional experience and memory,” Cognition and Emotion 17: 787-797; Flack, W. F. 2006, “Peripheral feedback effects of facial expressions, bodily postures, and vocal expressions on emotional feelings,” Cognition and Emotion 20: 177-195; and Duclos, S. E. and Laird, J. D. 2001, “The deliberate control of emotional experience through control of expressions,” Cognition and Emotion 15: 27-56.

Poe’s purloined letter can be read here. Darwin’s arguments about emotions can be found in his book, first published in 1872, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”; James’s arguments are described in his book, first published in 1890, “The Principles of Psychology.”

For evidence that facial movements can affect the way blood flows to the brain, see McIntosh, D. N. et al. 1997, “Facial movement, breathing, temperature, and affect: Implications of the vascular theory of emotional efference,” Cognition and Emotion 11: 171-195.

For babies telling the difference among languages based on lip movements, see Weikum, W. M. et al. 2007, “Visual language discrimination in infancy,” Science 316: 1159. For computers being able to do this, see Newman, J. L. and Cox. S. J. 2009. “Automatic visual-only language identification: a preliminary study,” IEEE Proceedings of the International Conference on Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing vols 1-8: 4345-4348. A less technical account of the results are given here.

For my smidgen of evidence that the faces you pull when speaking a language can affect your mood, see Zajonc, R. B., Murphy, S. T. and Inglehart, M. 1989, “Feeling and facial efference: implications of the vascular theory of emotion,” Psychological Review 96: 395-416. This paper describes what happens if you read stories full of the “ü” sound, or are made to repeat it over and over again.

The idea that the words in a language can affect the thought processes of the speakers is often attributed to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf; it has been controversial. However, some recent experimental evidence supports it, at least when it comes to processing colors. See, for example, Winawer, J. et al. 2007. “Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 7780-7785 and Regier, T. and Kay, P. 2009, “Language, thought, and color: Whorf was half right,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13: 439-446. The idea that emotions might be similarly affected has been discussed by Perlovsky, L. 2009, “Language and emotions: Emotional Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” Neural Networks 22: 518-526.

This piece grew out of a conversation with Ismael Ludman about the different muscles used for speaking Spanish and German: many thanks. Many thanks also to Dan Haydon and Gideon Lichfield for insights, comments and suggestions.

Judson, Olivia. 2009."A Language of Smiles". New York Times. Posted: October 27, 2009. Available online:

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