Smile, Dammit.

I am given to understand that a smile often entails contracting muscles at the corner of the eyes –and if they don’t, it is probably a fake smile… Well, Wikipedia gave it to me to understand, so go ahead –smile. Anyway, in a spirit of Scientific Inquiry, a la Roger Bacon, I decided to test the assertion in a mirror. Now, admittedly my eyesight is not as good as it used to be, and it was no doubt further impaired when I found I had to remove my glasses to see my eye corners, but I was nonetheless disappointed in my smile. Unless I overdid it and wrinkled my entire face with the effort, my eye-parts remained uncontracted. However, let me say in my defence, that the act of forcing one’s face close enough to a mirror to scatter the shadows and at the same time keeping it motionless while the other part is trying to smile, is incredibly challenging. Face-stuff is pretty tricky even under the best conditions.

All of which concerns me. Have I been false-smiling all these years, or does the same thing happen to a face as it does to other aging parts? Is this what Retirement has in store for me?

I had to know, so I inveigled a friend to walk with me along a usually busy trail on a sunny, spring weekend. I chose the friend because she had corner-contractions. I chose the trail thinking that anybody coming the other way would have to look at us, and we could check their eye-corners if they smiled –a prospective, randomized study to disprove the null hypothesis that all eyes contract when they are amused. In other words, that I am actually normal and not just breaking down.

My friend was reluctant at first –she thought it was a little creepy- so I compromised and promised her I wouldn’t take my camera as I had originally intended. If it was going to be a study, I had reasoned, I wanted some sort of an objective record. She pointed out that we would probably be arrested and they’d confiscate our record anyway. I suppose she had a point.

I thought another good strategy would be to alternate smiles, and record the difference -although I have to confess that I was also curious as to whether the two of us smiling in tandem might make the approachee start to sing, or maybe turn around. But, so as not to muddy the water and get bogged down in statistical trickery, I decided only to test people approaching singly and with one, randomly chosen smiler. I also thought of interspersing a grimace or two –to see what kind of a reaction that elicited- but that did not sit well with my friend. She thought it might be confused with aggression and that we might be attacked or something on the remoter sections of trail, so I dropped it from the protocol. You have to think of all this stuff if you want to do a proper study, though.

So, faces entrained, we started out with high hopes. It didn’t go as well as I had planned, however –it’s amazing how many people avoid eye-contact on a trail. It’s also amazing how many dogs are suspicious of smilers –fortunately, that day they were all small, yappy dogs and suitably restrained from biting. Fourteen people did smile, thank goodness, but except for one, we never got close enough to their faces to see whether or not there were contractions. And the one I did observe closely, snuffed her smile when I tripped and ended up bumping her cheek with my chin.

They seemed to smile more for my friend, too, which was a personal disappointment. It reminded me of those days at high school dances when my smile was not enough, either.

At any rate, after a somewhat cursory preliminary analysis of our data, I cannot say with any real confidence that I have discovered anything so far that I didn’t suspect before we began: people do smile when smiled at –with the possible exception of when I initiate it. The numbers are small, and statistically insignificant, but we observed a definite trend in that direction. My friend thinks I overdid my smiles and that it wasn’t always necessary to show both rows of teeth at the same time. She thought it looked… suspicious, but when I asked her to explain, she declined to elaborate further.

But clearly, there was a design flaw in the study: I neglected to quantify the amount of smile between our two faces –obvious fodder for a new approach. I plan to take a picture of each of our faces in full smile and Photoshop them so they match. Then, we can each carry an enlargement under our arm and show it to people we pass on the trail… randomly, of course.

Unfortunately, my friend has decided not to participate –something to do with methodology or something. There’s always something, though, isn’t there?


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