“I never smile if I can help it,” Dunder Mifflin Assistant (to the) Regional Manager Dwight Schrute tells the camera in an episode of The Office. “Showing one’s teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life.”
But there’s a large body of research that says otherwise — or at least that there are multiple messages that can be conveyed through a smile. In fact, a 2017 study grouped human smiles into three broad categories, and submission isn’t one of them. Dominance, however, is. But how, exactly, does one smile dominantly? Here’s what you need to know.
Why do humans smile?
Understanding why humans smile has long been the subject of behavioural research, and for good reason: Though we most closely associate smiling with happiness or enjoyment, that’s only the beginning. The facial expression communicates a wide range of other functions, including embarrassment, discomfort, and politeness.
In fact, the human smile is so versatile that researchers have grouped its use into three categories: Reward smiles, affiliation smiles and dominance smiles. Reward smiles are exactly what they sound like: A clear message to someone (or something) that we are happy, enjoying, or pleased with the thing they just did. Affiliation smiles are similar, but the person smiling isn’t reacting to something in particular. And finally, dominance smiles are used to signal to someone else that we’re in control and have power (or at least want to project that image).
But Dwight wasn’t wrong — at least according to Frank McAndrew, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Knox College who has done extensive research on facial expressions. “In primates, showing the teeth, especially teeth held together, is almost always a sign of submission,” he told Scientific American in 1999. “The human smile probably has evolved from that.”
How to smile dominantly
If you’re unsure what a dominant smile should look like, Adrienne Wood, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has published research on smiling, broke it down for us in a recent interview with the New York Times.
First and foremost, a dominant smile is asymmetrical (i.e. crooked). “You need a little bit of a sneer in there,” she told the Times. To accomplish this, move one side of your mouth back towards your closest ear, lifting your upper lip.
But there’s more. “To be convincing, you want to involve every part of your body,” Wood noted. This includes scrunching your nose a bit, leaning back, and lifting your chin so that you’re literally looking down at the other person. Showing teeth is optional.