Americans are very worried about the way their teeth look. In fact, a study reveals that one in five affluent Americans avoid showing their teeth because of self consciousness. According to an AACD survey, 99.7% of adults believe a healthy smile makes an important social difference. This is not exactly surprising so much as it is revealing of our predominant way of thinking.
In some ways, the high standard for dental health in the United States is a good thing. Even if the reasons are thinly veiled vanity, taking care of your teeth is certainly important. but this obsession with perfect teeth, and indeed smiling as a whole, is very much an American phenomenon. Why?
The Cultural Significance of a Smile
It’s not as if people without a perfect bite and pearly white shine are ostracized. In fact, roughly 20% of the population don’t have an ideal bite, but most of them likely lead fairly normal lives. A smile, then, isn’t the be all end all of social wellness, but it is one of many small factors. To understand this a bit better, let’s look outward.
There are many studies that address the American smile, why it happens seemingly all the time, and why we smile so wide. As it turns out, the frequency of Americans smiling could very well be related to our heritage as immigrants. A 2015 study showed that the more diverse a given country, the more likely people will smile as a form of welcoming communication. The operative theory is that American ancestors might have had a hard time communicating with people who spoke other languages, so they needed to resort to smiling as a form of positive communication.
Another study showed that political leaders’ facial expressions had a high correlation to the desired emotional equivalent of their constituents, regardless of which emotion. For Americans, that emotion was happiness or excitement.
Perhaps it’s because of the not so fully forgotten ‘American Dream,’ the can-do attitude of an entire nation, that we desire such unbridled optimism and excitement. This is speculative, of course, but as Americans, we feel fairly indestructible and very capable, even when we fail. And all of this reflects in our body language. Here’s a telling story.
You know the door greeters at WalMart? The ones who welcome you in with a smile, then tell you to have a good day with another on your way out? When the chain tried cracking the German market, the policy was ended, because it caused the German shoppers to feel uncomfortable.
The point of it all is this: we Americans have optimism baked into our culture. Whether things are good or bad, or simply ‘meh’, a smile tells people you’re trying your best, and most of all, you’re happy to see them. Therein lies the social importance. We smile to validate others. So, the rest of the world, next time you have an American tourist in your town grinning like a lunatic, don’t worry, they’re just being nice.