Last week, certain circles of the internet had a heyday with an almost cartoonishly ridiculous image of President Trump meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. In the photo, Trump wears a broad, beaming smile, while the Pope stands beside him with a dour expression and a comical side-eye. Naturally, people flocked to use the image to mock Trump for appearing to irritate the Pope.
But when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met Pope Francis a week later, it became clear that the facial expression dubbed “miserable” and “sullen” the previous week may actually be the Pope’s normal expression. He bears the exact same grimace and sideways glance in the photo with Trudeau as in the photo with Trump, prompting some to jokingly dub the expression “Resting Pope Face.”
This is just one example of how much smiles (or lack thereof) can influence our political beliefs and perceptions. On its own, many interpreted the first photo as evidence of Pope Francis’ disapproval of Trump, when in reality the expression was most likely accidental. So why do we place so much weight on smiles in politics?
The Types of Political Smiles
Studies have shown that smiling can positively affect election outcomes for politicians. Data from both Australia and Japan has indicated that even after controlling for other factors, the presence of a smile in campaign images had a significant positive effect on the votes the candidate received.
But simply plastering a smile onto their face isn’t quite enough to put a politician in the lead — at least, not unless it’s the right kind of smile.
Professor Patrick A. Stewart at the University of Arkansas studies the intersection of politics and human behavior. His studies have made him an expert of the Facial Action Coding System, which is a system that uses subtle cues in the mouth and eyes to classify facial expressions, including smiles. According to Stewart, smiles can indicate contempt, control, or genuine enjoyment. And of course, he can recognize when a smile is posed, or “fake.”
You don’t need to be a smile scientist to be able to interpret the smiles of those around you. That’s the whole point of Stewart’s research: While we may not be able to put names to what we’re seeing the way that trained researchers can, average people can tell what a smile is saying. While a political smile that’s perceived as genuine can have positive results, if a politician’s smile appears forced or contemptuous, it could backfire.
Smiles and Your Personal Politics
Of course, while most of us aren’t politicians, we still deal with the day-to-day personal politics of all of our relationships, from friends and family to coworkers to the cashier at the grocery store. Smiling can make you more memorable, help you communicate more effectively with others, and even put you one step closer to professional success.
If you aren’t happy with your smile, you may be less likely to show it off. Cosmetic dentistry can give you a smile you’ll be proud to share with the people around you. And while a beautiful smile may not be winning you any elections, it could certainly help win over the people around you!