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What AI reveals about the “American smile” — a custom you won’t find in most other cultures…

How AI misrepresents culture through a facial expression.

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In 2015 Kuba Krys, a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences, studied the reactions of more than 5,000 people from 44 cultures to a series of photographs of smiling and unsmiling men and women of different races. He and his colleagues found that subjects who were socialized in cultures with low levels of “uncertainty avoidance” — which refers to the level at which someone engages with norms, traditions, and bureaucracy to avoid ambiguity — were more likely to believe that smiling faces looked unintelligent. These subjects considered the future to be uncertain, and smiling — a behavior associated with confidence — to be inadvisable. Russian culture ranks very low on uncertainty avoidance, and Russians rate the intelligence of a smiling face significantly lower than other cultures.

Krys’s team also found that people from countries with high levels of government corruption were more likely to rate a smiling face as dishonest. Russians — whose culture ranked 135 out of 180 in a recent worldwide survey of corruption levels — rated smiling faces as honest with less frequency than 35 of the 44 cultures studied. Corruption corrupts smiling, too.

Russians interpret the expressions of their officials and leaders differently from Americans. Americans expect public figures to smile at them as a means of emphasizing social order and calm. Russians, on the other hand, find it appropriate for public officials to maintain a solemn expression in public, as their behavior is expected to mirror the serious nature of their work. A toothy “dominance smile” from an important American public figure inspires feelings of confidence and promise in Americans. Russians expect, instead, a stern look from their leaders meant to demonstrate “serious intentions, validity, and reliability.”

Native American chiefs, 1865
Group of Apache Men, with Chief Al-Che-Zay (Middle Row, Dark Vest)
(University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)


Prior to this shift, [Kotchemidova] believes, the American emotional landscape revolved around negative emotions like sadness and melancholy, which were seen as indicative of compassion and nobleness. Informed by ideas from pre- and early Reformation European Christianity, both Americans and Europeans saw earthly suffering as noble and necessary for a happy afterlife. Literature, visual art, and theater in this period aimed to provoke sadness, and crying in public was commonplace in Europe. Diderot and Voltaire, Kotchemidova writes, were seen crying repeatedly.

The Age of Enlightenment pushed the culture in a different direction. As thinkers and artists embraced reason, they also began to believe that happiness was permissible during our earthly life as well as the afterlife. The culture of sadness began to be supplanted by one of cheerfulness, which in turn influenced a changing class structure. The emerging middle class took the ability to manage emotions as key to its identity. Business failures and sickness were linked to failures of emotional control, and cheerfulness to prosperity. Eventually, cheerfulness became a prerequisite for employment.

Most scientific research on emotion is conducted in English, using American concepts and American emotion words (and their translations). According to noted linguist Anna Wierzbicka, English has been a conceptual prison for the science of emotion. “English terms of emotion constitute a folk taxonomy, not an objective, culture-free analytic framework, so obviously we cannot assume that English words such as disgust, fear, or shame are clues to universal human concepts, or to basic psychological realities.” To make matters even more imperialistic, these emotion words are from twentieth-century English, and there’s evidence that some are fairly modern. The concept of “Emotion” itself is an invention of the seventeenth century. Before that, scholars wrote about passions, sentiments, and other concepts that had somewhat different meanings.

Different languages describe diverse human experience in different ways — emotions and other mental events, colors, body parts, direction, time, spatial relations, and causality. The diversity from language to language is astonishing…. Not all cultures understand emotions as mental states. The Ifaluk of Micronesia consider emotions transactions between people. To them, anger is not a feeling of rage, a scowl, a pounding fist, or a loud yelling voice, all within the skin of one person, but a situation in which two people are engaged in a script — a dance, if you will — around a common goal. In the Ifaluk view, anger does not “live” inside either participant.

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The author and her father having a photo taken in the Soviet Union

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