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What the smiles of political figures communicate

Posted on: April 24th, 2016 in Communication, Mental Health No Comments


Research on how leaders smile reveals there is more to those ear-to-ear grins than vote pandering. Politicians and leaders smile (or don’t) for a variety of reasons. Some are cultural (big smiles are big in the West; not so in the East). Others are used to deflect, to palliate and to disarm. As this article will show, there’s a lot going on behind a happy, smiling face.

Grin and share it

According to an article in the journal Emotion, American leaders typically like to convey warm, welcoming grins because these embody the American sense of vitality and confidence. Take these photos of Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders:

Both appear confident, avuncular (or, in Clinton’s case, materteral), even approachable. Clinton’s smile is expansive; Sanders’ is that of a man relishing an anecdote. What could possibly be amiss with these two confident individuals? Possibly nothing; possibly, quite a lot.

Content, discontent and contempt

Smiles can be deceiving and used for deception. So says Arkansas psychologist Patrick Stewart. Stewart and colleagues combed through videos taken at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). They found nary a sincere smile in the bunch. As a result, Stewart and colleagues came up with five classifications of (mostly) political/public smirks, smiles, grins and spins (as in just putting a happy face on everything).

  1. 1. Posed – the corners of the lips are pulled up at an angle. A posed smile is enigmatic. The wearer can mask, to an extent, uncertainty with overconfidence. Here is Vladimir Putin. Not known for his natural ebullience, the Russian potentate appears both amused and put off by whatever is transpiring off camera. It could be he has just been asked whether his shirtless photos were photoshopped.


  1. 2. Controlled – resembles posed but with contracted eyes, lip corners tight but pulled down a bit to rein in the grin. Controlled can give way to constrained or to contemptuous, depending on the situation. Below, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks for all the world like a man caught twixt mirth and machination and struggling to keep the former in check.


  1. 3. Amusement – the research published in Emotion finds that Asian leaders are more reserved when it comes to public displays of emotion. The reason is rooted in the Asian belief in humility. To beam is to be arrogant. Never one to conform to the status quo, North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un is often snapped smiling like a man who just extorted money from the West.


  1. 4. Enjoyment – the true smile. This expression develops organically. The lip corners come up and the eyes contract. Nothing about this display is contrived. As described below, a true smile conveys much more than just joy.


  1. 5. Contempt – One lip corner pulled up and at an angle, tight smile, grin or smirk. It is truly the gifted individual who can convey contempt through a smile. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is often parodied for his manner of speaking, his grumpy frown and his unruly hair. But Trump is man of myriad expressions. There is something in Trump’s slightly tight-lipped grin and convex chin that betrays his seeming serenity. It cries out, “I am suffering an idiot.”

Queen Elizabeth II recently celebrated her 90th birthday. She has endured a lot during her time on the throne. She provides us with a perfectly level smile. But being the epitome of British reserve, it is nearly impossible to discern what she discerns in this photograph. Perhaps she is girding herself for an impending embrace from the late Rob Ford. Whatever the occasion, the Queen never lets down her guard

Lastly, Sarah Palin. The former Alaskan governor shows blossoming contempt in this shot. Notice the right corner of her mouth is creeping upwards. She also carries a look of incredulity, as if someone just questioned her assertion she can see the Kremlin from the roof of her car.

A true smile is balm for the soul

Paul Ekman is considered the world’s foremost expert on the science of facial expressions. The Fox television series “Lie to Me” was based on Ekman’s research, and he was the consultant on the Pixar film, “Inside Out.” Many of Ekman’s smile classifications mirror what are listed above. But one, the felt smile, should provide incentive for anyone except a true curmudgeon to muster up more sincere smiles. Like the enjoyment smile, the felt smile conveys pure joy. More, it’s indicative of complete contentment. And a true smile can improve physical and mental health.

Felt and enjoyment smiles make one think of Byron when he wrote

  • The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
  • But tell of days in goodness spent,
  • A mind at peace with all below,
  • A heart whose love is innocent!

Sovereign Health Group is an industry leader in behavioral health treatment. We specialize in mood disorders, substance abuse and co-occurring conditions. Our mental health program takes a multi-dimensional approach to treating the condition and the underlying causes fueling it. Contact our helpline for more information about our programs, staff and locations.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

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