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What lies behind a smile? It’s not always happiness

"Smile," my mother used to say when I was little.

And, of course, I would smile. (Well, most of the time.) She'd issue the instruction when we were off to see a grandmother, say, or to attend some special gathering. It was my childhood duty to smile, to please her – all mothers want their children to be happy, and even if I wasn't, I understood the importance of social graces. It was my learned little-girl accoutrement, part of what it meant to be feminine and well behaved.

I was thinking about smiles, and my childhood repertoire of them, as I watched the taped video of Colonel Russell Williams in the police interrogation room. The convicted murderer was all blustery confidence at that point, unaware that the damning evidence of his boot imprint, along with the tire track from his Nissan Pathfinder, would soon give him little choice but to confess his sex crimes. When told he was being videotaped, the former colonel looked up at the camera and flashed a big, quick grin. "No problem," that smile said. "I'm a good, law-abiding guy."

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He is a psychopath, after all. Smiles are in his arsenal. All of us are less than genuine in our expressions from time to time, psychopathy aside. Happiness or kindness is not the cause of all smiles, even though many assume that it is.

Decode our smiley-faced-media-saturated culture and you'll see a variety of meanings behind the grin. There's Stephen Harper's Prime Ministerial close-lipped smile, the default expression of any politician who wants to convey calm confidence even when he or she doesn't feel it. There's the red-carpet grin of celebrities, part of their image craft to convey the utter marvellousness of their closely surveyed lives. And who believes the smile of the loser on a reality show is about happiness. It's polite (and hopefully gracious) in defeat.

Long ago in our evolution, humans developed "the voluntary as well as involuntary smile," explains Marianne LaFrance, social psychologist at Yale University and author of Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex and Politics, to be published next spring.

Babies smile at five or six weeks of age, not out of pleasure, but to seduce their caregivers into staying close. As adults, we have other survival ruses. "The theory is that we acquired this capacity to smile intentionally and unintentionally so that we wouldn't be an open book, that if everything I felt was immediately available to you by looking at me, you might take advantage of me, you might otherwise do me harm. But if I can fake you out, then my chances of survival go up," Dr. LaFrance says.

The intentional smile arises from a different part of the brain than the unintentional or genuine one does, she says. And there are ways to identify them.

A few clues:

* Trust the crow's feet. A genuine smile involves the eyes.

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* Beware the lopsided grin. Consider the sneer: It's an expression of disbelief or cynicism.

* Dismiss the snap-on smile. It's the grin of the maitre d': It pops on the face when you arrive and pops off as soon as you leave.

The genuine smile slips on slowly and doesn't last long, Dr. LaFrance says. It's the one we should treasure because it suggests what the Dalai Lama calls "fresh happiness" – an unexpected and honest emotion that springs from the better part of our humanity. It's not put on, not rehearsed, not learned for manners or for survival. It's rare, in other words.

Which brings me to my subway smile. And no, I don't mean the expression on the platform that we all know well, the "Yes, I'm human. And I know are you are too. Hello. Now get out of my way."

It was morning when I saw it. Rush hour. An eyes-cast-down sort of journey. At a station stop a few after mine, a woman stumbled onto the train. She had thick glasses and a collapsible white cane tucked under one arm. She hovered, trying to find a place to sit. There was. She sat down across from me, next to a young woman, who was wearing jeans, combat boots and a T-shirt.

The blind woman moved close to her. "Do you have a dog?" she asked suddenly.

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Ms. Dreadlocks pulled out her ear buds. "Yeah," she responded briskly. She looked away.


Ms. Dreadlocks looked askance at the woman who was now leaning in. "No, female," she said, clearly hoping this was the end of the inquiry.

"What colour?" The blind woman couldn't see the young woman's look of cool disaffection.


"Oh." Another pause. She then said she has a dog, a brown one too, male.

"That's nice," Ms. Dreadlocks offered lamely.

"What's her name?"

"My dog?"

The blind woman nodded.



"And yours?" Ms. Dreadlocks was warming up now.


"Nice," she replied sweetly.

Ms. Dreadlocks could see that I had been observing their stilted interaction. A slow, sweet smile crept onto her face and I smiled back at her, a look of acknowledgment, I suppose, that here was a random, beautiful thing, poking out of the oppressive anonymity of an unfeeling city.

As I stood up to get off, Ms. Dreadlocks' scarf shifted a bit. I could read the tattoo on her alabaster-white skin, strung like a low necklace across her upper chest.

"To Hell With All That," the fancy, black script read.

Oh, how perfect life can be: unexpected and lovely. I smiled again as I exited the train, a smile to myself, really, and one that likely no one would have understood if they'd seen it.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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