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I've recently become aware of this - I kinda knew I was always doing it, but just now it got me self conscious and thinking about it:

When crossing paths with a stranger, you are supposed to be friendly and smile at them, acknowledge them through a nod, and so on.

This is particularly the case in many service industries:

grocery stores - associates and customers acknowledging each other (not during checkout, but just walking around in the store)

fellow gym members as well as staff and members (again only walking around, not during particular business related interactions)

Another example might be you walk in a public bathroom and someone just comes out the door, you'll look each other briefly in the eyes, "smile", nod, acknowledge each other, and move on.

Now here's the thing I've become aware of, and mostly guys do this:

We don't actually smile.

In fact, we are kind of grumpy looking. Our mouth and eyebrows go into a frown, we press our lips together, and the only thing close to a smile that we do is to create a crease on the sides of our mouth.

Hard to explain... And hard to find actual pictures of this...


besides that he looks in the distance and he looks concerned, but imagine he looks at you and gives you a nod like that. pretty close!


he looks slightly more surprised, and worried, then what people usually look like, especially because the eyebrows are going up.


he's got too much "darnit!" on his face, and his eyes are sad looking, but again, the general idea comes across.


he has an actual upward curved smile going on, but definietly the lips pressed together like that

So again:

  • Mostly guys do it
  • it is done for acknlowledgement/politeness when you cross paths
  • it usually goes with a nod and brief eye contact, whereas the nod goes down
  • the eyebrows might seem kind of like a frown, since you're noding down, while looking upwards in the persons eyes
  • your lips are pressed together
  • often the mouth will actually go into a reverse smile curve (meaning frown)
  • the mouth gets kinda pulled to the sides, like we're making a wide mouth, just like when smiling.

First of all: Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you do it? Has it been done to you?

Does it have a proper name?

Why do we do it? Why don't we actually smile? We do we look rather grumpy when smiling like that?

I've noticed that we do a similar face in many different situations. Sometimes someone might tell you something that might make you smile or even laugh, but to them it's rather sincere, so you press your lips together, trying to make a frown, but you still can't help to smile a little. There are many expressions that this kind of face can express (as you can see in the pictures), they all have a certain subtle difference to them, and definitely very different meanings, but I feel as if the mouth pressed together and kinda mixing a grin with a frown remains constant. The particular facial expression I am talking about is also accompanied by a nod, making it distinct.

Why do we do this so often?

Are we hiding something? Is this some sort of a default expression?

share|improve this question
This is interesting. I'm familiar with the distinction between authentic smiles (so-called Duchenne smiles) and inauthentic ones, in that the muscles around the eyes are only activated in the former kind. What you are talking about, though, seems more specific than that. I'm not sure I understand exactly what the phenomenon you're looking for is, but I think you might be over-generalizing a little. – lea Jul 14 '14 at 7:31
@olli: Yes, I do it also, and then I say to myself "where did I pick this up from" ?! I started doing it when I entered "adulthood" after college when working in the corporate world. I think I just picked it up from others around me. Maybe it reflects all the stress of the modern days professional man in a complicated contradictory world? – Greg McNulty Jul 14 '14 at 20:44
Understanding why people move their body in certain controlled and uncontrolled ways formally defined as micro expressions is a worthless endeavor. For one must understand the current state of the stimulus to the brain and the internal programming which dictates how and why a person responds in such a way. Modern psychology does not answer those questions. – user3832 Jul 16 '14 at 15:06
And I thought Dr. Lightman was on to something... – olli Jul 17 '14 at 18:14

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