From Dominance To Duchenne, Here Are 3 Kinds Of Smiles & What Each Means

mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
Expert review by Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP
Board-certified Clinical Psychologist
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP is a board-certified clinical psychologist, Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in Graduate Psychology. She has a private practice in Suffield, Connecticut.
Image of a smiling young woman.

As the adage goes, you're never fully dressed without a smile—but which type? As you've likely noticed throughout your own interactions with people, smiles can convey many emotions in many instances. (In fact, nowadays, perhaps you've noticed the impact masks have on our ability to gauge someone's expression.)

While the combinations of emotions and facial muscles can create infinite expressions and smiles, today most smiles can be broken down into three main categories: smiles of true enjoyment, social smiles, and dominance smiles. Here's what they each mean:

1. The Duchenne smile

A Duchenne smile, also called a reward smile in one study, is a smile of true enjoyment. It's a truly genuine smile, identified by the way it reaches a person's eyes.

"Smiles of true enjoyment are the ones that have the smiling muscle that brings the lip corners up but also the muscle around the eye is activated," explains David Matsumoto, Ph.D., body language expert and founder of Humintell. "What the muscle around the eye does is brings the cheeks up, makes a shiny appearance of the cheeks, gives some people crow's feet wrinkles, and thins out the eyelids and eye cover fold."

These smiles are all about expressing positive emotions like elation, excitement, and amusement.


2. Social smiles

Social smiles can also be called non-enjoyment smiles or affiliative smiles.

"On the broadest level, you've got smiles that are of true enjoyment and then you have smiles of non-enjoyment," Matsumoto notes. "Social smiles, or non-enjoyment smiles, don't have the eye muscles activated."

Think of these smiles as the somewhat strained, usually no-tooth smile you give a person you pass on the street or make eye contact with. While they're not necessarily the most genuine, Matsumoto notes they play an important role as a common courtesy, displaying openness to those around you and general friendliness.

3. Dominance smiles

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And lastly, in the aforementioned research by the University of Wisconsin and Queen's University Belfast in Ireland, the third classification of smiles is known as dominance smiles, and they're used to manage social hierarchies and status.

In this type of smile, your eyebrows and cheeks are lifted, similar to the Duchenne smile, but the smile itself loses its symmetry and looks more like a smirk or sneer. Where Duchenne smiles and even social smiles are considered a sign of pleasantry and positivity, dominance smiles definitely are not. They're associated with superiority, condescension, confidence, and boasting.


The health benefits of smiling.

If you've ever been told to smile to yourself, or at yourself in the mirror, to boost your mood—it's actually sound advice, according to research. One study found that participants who smiled during a stressful task had lower heart rates during stress recovery than those who didn't smile—and the smiles of true enjoyment, or Duchenne smiles, displayed the best coping response to the stress of participants.

Additional research has pointed to an interesting explanation for this: Intentionally smiling causes the same brain activity as an involuntary or natural smile. In this sense, you really can fake it till you make it.

And those feel-good emotions that can be elicited by a smile can also, in turn, help your immune system, bringing your body into a state of greater balance, which encourages proper immune function. All that is to say: smiling, intentional or not, is great for your physical and mental health.

The bottom line.

"The truth is," Matsumoto notes, "smiles can combine with almost anything else the face does to create hundreds of combinations of expressions. The affiliation and dominance depend on the combination."

Once we become aware of the types of smiles, we can better read, understand, and communicate with people. (Though direct, honest communication never hurts!) We may not be able to see people's full faces when we're out and about these days, but now when you see someone's eyes light up behind their mask, you'll know they're smiling.

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