Cristen Conger

Smile! You're a Woman.

Studies find that women smile more than men -- but why?
Studies find that women smile more than men -- but why?

When I was in college, I earned extra money on the weekends as a catering waiter. It was as service-industry-terrible as "Party Down" would have you believe, with one of the lowest points happening during a wedding reception. That night, things already weren't going well, as I accidentally burned one of the staff captains with boiling water before guests had even arrived. Toward the end of the evening, after dinner plates had been cleared, and we were busily refilling coffee -- a task that I approached with trepidation since I had already scalded someone only hours earlier -- my mounting exhaustion quickly shifted to anger when one of the male guests turned to me with a tipsy smirk and said, "C'mon honey, why don't you smile?"

I forced a closed-mouth grin and continued making my way around his table.

Then, a little while later, when I returned to the table to collect wedding cake-smeared dessert plates, the guy again prodded me to smile, only more loudly.

"Oh it can't be all that bad," he sneered, "give us a smile."

I didn't do as I was told that time.

That whole "give us a smile" nonsense is, as Katy Waldman notes over at Slate, one of the most common catcalls women receive. And its commonality aptly illustrates a major sex difference in what academics call "display signs," or the set of gendered guidelines we adopt via socialization about publicly appropriate facial expressions. Specifically, girls and women alike tend to be expected to be all smiles and giggles, whether genuine or not; boys, though not necessarily discouraged from smiling, usually aren't continually cheered on to get happy -- or at least to look like they're happy.

Yale psychologist Marianne LaFrance has studied smiling extensively, and her 2003 paper "The Contingent Smile: A Meta-Analysis of Sex Differences in Smiling" culled through 168 studies on smiling and found that, indeed, women smile more than men. Considering that women are twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression as men, not to mention the many positive and negative underlying emotions that elicit smiles, the explanation to the grinning gender gap isn't simply that ladies have sunnier dispositions (although that would definitely be something to smile about; believe me, I'm not anti-cheerfulness).

Speaking to Wired magazine in 2011, LaFrance attributes women's greater tendency toward smiling to socialization and those ladylike display signs:

Now women, even when they are not feeling much, are strongly encouraged to look and sound as though they are. Spend some time around young teenage girls and you hear a lot of, "Ooh! Oh, that's wonderful! Love it! That's fabulous! Fabulous!" Women who are not very expressive are regarded with some suspicion. They seem cold, withholding, depressed. Acquiring the rules of how expressive one should be with their face is a very socialized process.

And perhaps due to women's first-person familiarity with forcing smiles, they're more adept than men at spotting fake smiles. In fact, LaFrance said, men (and I'm guessing she's talking heterosexual men in this case?) are more likely to misinterpret a smile from a woman as her flirting. So no wonder the "give us a smile" is such a common catcaller refrain.

But women aren't smiling all the time. According to LaFrance's 2003 meta-analysis, the gender difference disappears when the subject is either alone or doesn't feel like she's being watched. On the flip side, the gender difference is widest among teenagers and when adults are being observed; when women are aware they're being watched, those display signals light up.

"People are at their gendered best when people are looking," LaFrance explained.

Take it from a former catering waiter who briefly fantasized about pouring hot coffee on a guest who was borderline begging for a girly grin, being expected to smile all the time is sometimes more like the gendered worst. Then again, I was already wearing a not-so-natty bowtie and button down, so maybe I felt more resistant to feminine display signaling since I was breaking gender norms already.

Further reading:

Slate -- The Tyranny of the Smile

HowStuffWorks -- Are men or women happier?

Wired -- The Surprising Science of Smiles