Superficially this question might seem redundant. While body language is a social phenomenon, theory suggests that at least certain elements are biologically hardwired. Indeed, we know that as a species we share six basic facial configurations that are universal [1]. These articulations convey disgust, fear, joy, surprise, sadness and anger.

Among these, the universal expression of joy is most commonly understood as being the Duchenne smile (a broad open smile which includes a wrinkling around the eyes), which also happens to be the one most favoured by advertisers.

There are, however, many other more socially contingent smiles out there, which are most certainly subject to the vagaries of local cultures.

Regional conundrum

For researchers, understanding the local market nuances around ‘smiles’ (or indeed any other form of body language) represents a double-edged problem.

Firstly, how does one access the cultural aspects of indirect communication and body language, phenomena that are, by their nature, unspoken? Secondly, assuming that one is able to access any kind of meaning at all, how does one represent those unspoken nuances back to the client?

This is the challenge the BAMM field team set ourselves during a field trip to Malaysia. With some time to spare in between assignments we decided to seek out what smiles there were to be found in Kuala Lumpur.

With BAMM being closely aligned to photography, we felt that this certainly offered a solution to the second part of the puzzle. We felt confident that once we had an understanding of the different meanings that smiles were being used to convey we could then present precisely those smiles back to the client, a catalogue of tangible ‘real life’ examples that they could draw upon. However, going out and capturing those smiles remained a more thorny issue.

The link with photography

Like smiling and advertising, smiling and photography go hand-in-hand. Ever since the early 1900s when people stopped saying ‘prunes’ [2] and started saying ‘cheese’ [3] a smile is expected when a camera is produced.

Yet there is a danger that by following this route what one ends up with is a spool of ‘camera smiles’, images of people reacting in abeyance to the conventions of photography. Interesting in its own right perhaps, but a very limited angle with which to explore the broader culture of smiling.

This is particularly the case in Malaysia where direct contact of any kind is rather bad form. The firm handshake and steady gaze of the Westerner is regarded as leaving little room for ambiguity or manoeuvre, whereas a light touch and general avoidance of eye contact provides space for critical remarks while avoiding embarrassment [4].

In this context a broad smile can be regarded as impolite or even threatening. Grinning at a stranger is not so much a gesture of friendliness as it is of mockery or insolence. Expecting someone to smile for the camera is a not such a simple thing as one might think.

Limits of photography

Returning to our initial problem it’s clear that simply photographing people not only offers nothing by way of an understanding of cultural context of the particular smile being presented, it also actually distorts and misrepresents by eliciting smiles that otherwise would not occur.

Rather than relying on individual people to demonstrate smiles for us we turned to the streets of the city itself. There is a rich visual language in the material culture of placehood, the ‘stuff’ through which a culture literally presents and represents itself back to itself.

While the smiles that can be found will likely be no more ‘genuine’ than the smiles we ourselves could capture (most of them will be photographs of people smiling after all) what we gain is a sense of the context in which it is appropriate for those smiles to appear.

Photojournalism adds context

Through a more ‘photojournalistic’ approach we were able to use photography to ask where smiles appear on the streets in advertising/billboards/ posters/objects? Within what context do they appear and what messages are they being used to convey?

This gave us the freedom to rove through the city at speed, exploring different districts and visiting particular sites where we thought smiles might emerge as well as enabling us to pursue particular lines of enquiry.

Over the course of a relatively short study we were able to capture hundreds of smiles (both real and represented), in a wide variety of different contexts, giving us a visual dataset that came directly ‘from the streets’ that we could then subject to analysis.

Among other things this approach led to some really interesting ideas around the gender of smiles in Malaysia. We found that while men have open permission to give a broad open smile in any context (usually to convey success in some form or another), women’s smiles are only represented in the same way when they are clearly in a maternal role. The smiles of younger women are more strictly regulated and a more modest ‘tight lipped’ smile is common.

Smiles can be ambiguous

For brands wishing to use smiles this has clear implications in how they choose to present them. A smile may seem to be the least offensive expression one could possibly portray, but the reality could not be more different. What our Malaysian experience tells us is that a smile is indeed ‘the chosen vehicle of all ambiguity’. If one does not wish to offend or threaten, then demonstrating proper context is as important as the smile itself.

There is also a point to be made here from a methodological perspective. While it may be our instinct as qualitative researchers to home in on what is said as our primary source of data, when it comes to smiles, meaning clearly resides elsewhere. Photojournalism offers an interesting approach to tackling this challenge but it is by no means exhaustive. The challenge of the unspoken remains, but it is one that as researchers we should be embracing.


1 Dalgleish, T. and Power, M. J. (eds) (1999) Front Matter, in Handbook of Cognition and Emotion, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester

2 The word ‘prunes’ helps tighten the lips for the more formal portraits taken in early British photography studios when postures had to be held for up to 15 minutes per exposure

3 A turn of phrase first recorded in 1943, and attributed to a ‘very great diplomat’ assumed by many to be Franklin D. Roosevelt

4 Hendry, J & Watson, W (eds) (2001) ‘An Anthropology of Indirect Communication’, Routledge