When do people smile
World Smile Day: Why do Germans smile so seldom?
Positive psychology is all the rage. It says that thoughts determine a person's reality. Put simply: whoever finds their life terrible will have a terrible life. If you want to be happy, you should stick to the phrase "My life is great" and will appreciate everything that is beautiful around you, as if by magic. That’s the theory.
It's a nice theory, hundreds of experts have looked at it, but I am and will remain skeptical. To think that my life is great - and I'm really fine - while the rest of the world is what it is, I find a little naive.
After more than a decade in Germany, I would say that I am well integrated: I have actually lost a bit of my enthusiasm, i.e. the ability to find everything and everyone incredibly great. This phenomenon is also described by the American comedian John Doyle, who lives in Germany, in his book "Don't Worry, Be German".
Americans love superlatives
Unlike Germans, Americans are enthusiastic about just about anything. "It's the best pizza I've ever eaten," they rave, while a German would probably say, "The pizza wasn't that bad."
For Ivanka Trump everything was "amazing" during her visit to Siemens
Ivanka Trump recently visited a dual training program at Siemens - and found every little thing "amazing", which a reporter for the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" found astonishing. As an American, I can only say that for a woman under 40, "amazing" is the most neutral compliment there is. The New Yorkers' favorite adjective, so to speak.
The ability to be enthusiastic about everything and nothing is not only expressed in words, but also in gestures. My work as a lecturer at the university made this painfully clear to me. In America, my students smiled and nodded, so I could tell immediately when they were inattentive. In Germany, students stared at me week after week during my hour-long lecture.
In Germany, smiling can also be viewed negatively
I paused once and asked if they could follow me. One of the students asserted that the lack of a smile was a sign of respect. In Germany, smiling could also be seen as an affront and question my authority as a lecturer.
A smile would certainly have been out of place if I had been talking about a serious topic at the time. But I taught North American culture - an exciting subject that, from my point of view, could have made you smile. Telling stories from my homeland to this apparently unresponsive audience was just plain strange.
Courtney Tenz kept her smile
I longed for positive feedback. Studies show that smiling, unlike other gestures, triggers the strongest emotions. This is what the American brain researcher Andrew Newberg found out. I wanted my students to finally smile at me to show me that they could do something with my presentation. Instead, by listening carefully, they showed me how seriously they took my stories.
It was the same at concerts: the audience stood rigid as dancers and guitarists whirled across the stage and the dark room was brightly lit by pyrotechnics. Germans are very good at listening respectfully, even in the midst of deafening music. They don't like smiling at strangers.
"Nobody smiles here"
Over the years I have found that the smile is distributed sparingly. It is reserved for certain occasions and people and is not intended for strangers. It really stands for enthusiasm and is not turned on lightly.
It's not just me who experience it that way. When my parents visited Germany for the very first time, they asked me independently of one another whether the Germans were an unhappy people. "Nobody smiles here," they wondered.
I reminded them that we weren't in Kansas and explained that people in big cities like Cologne or Chicago wouldn't grin at any stranger. I realized how this must affect people who were used to being greeted with grins everywhere. When waiters in the restaurant don't look happy to see you, do you feel welcome?
Smiling is healthy
It is a real shame that people in Germany are not used to smiling. Because a smile is contagious. You can see that in babies: if you smile at them, they smile back.
Studies have found that children smile an average of 400 times a day, while adults only smile 20 times. Another study found that men only smile eight times a day, compared to 62 times for women. However, no distinction was made between different cultures. Which makes the evaluation difficult, because a smile is interpreted differently all over the world.
An irresistible smile
During Angela Merkel's recent visit to the USA, Americans attempted to interpret the serious expression on the face of the German Chancellor via Twitter. They suspected that she was probably dissatisfied. I've been living in Germany long enough to be able to say: Angela Merkel listened carefully. When she smiles, I think she shows real enthusiasm. I can't say that about Americans.
Since I've lived in Germany, I've sometimes wondered whether Americans are really that excited to see me and whether their smile is an invitation to chat. I don't smile as much myself as I used to, neither with strangers nor with acquaintances. I don't want to be approached by total strangers on the street just because I look happy. I also don't want to be perceived as condescending or blasé, because that's how a smile can also be perceived.
If I believed in positive psychology, I would know that it would not do me good to smile less. Ron Gutman writes in his book "Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act" that smiling releases as much dopamine as consuming 20,000 chocolate bars. So if I want to be completely happy, I should trade in chocolate and smile more again.
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