Smiles: The Soul Undressed
Ten Smiles that are Windows to Your Personality


A personal essay by Paul H. Belz

Every person has different smiles for specific occasions but there is always one predominant or signature smile which is used most often that captures the essence of the individual’s personality. This essay will delineate ten distinct smiles which qualify as signature smiles.

It’s the smile people unconsciously display for general occasions such as meeting a new acquaintance. I believe a smile is not only a portrait of an individual’s personality but it’s a secret window to the soul.

As words are the clothes that thoughts wear, smiles are the soul undressed. When studied in concert with the eyes and taken in a context including clothing and body language, a smile virtually broadcasts a person’s biographical sketch.

Whether at the beach, church or the mall, people-watching is one of my favorite pastimes. Most of humanity are walking billboards for their occupations, recreational pastimes, sexual preferences, intellectual prowess or lack thereof, strength of family ties, vulnerability to peer pressure, financial well-being, political allegiances, and degree of sociability. An enormous amount of information can be gleaned about an individual simply through observation in lieu of conversation.

Clothing or the lack thereof is the introductory barometer for many of the aforementioned categories and constitutes the top layer of the so called “personal billboard.” It’s the easiest signpost to interpret. This is so because through clothing—which I broaden to include jewelry, make-up and hairstyle—people take great pains to display attributes about themselves which they want others to see. Assuming that people are what they mimic isn’t discriminatory profiling, it’s the judgment they’re soliciting. If one dresses like a gang member, the burden of proof that he or she isn’t one falls to the dresser, not the viewer.

General body language, such as leg positions, hand movements, posture and stride, goes beyond the superficial, speaking more to physical and emotional health, including sociability. General body language constitutes the second layer of the “personal billboard.” The messages are often but not always intentional. Frequently, unconscious actions such as crossing legs, pursing lips, tugging ears, tightly folding arms, or clenching fists are inadvertent signs of positive or negative emotions.

What peels back the second layer of the “billboard” and reveals a person’s true essence is the smile or lack thereof. The smile as defined here includes the entire facial expression encompassing the mouth, eyes, brow and facial muscles. Analyzing smiles is a subtle and challenging technique for learning about people. The reward is the ability to know volumes about people before they have said hello to you.

Through people-watching at the mall, I have developed into an aficionado of analyzing persons through their signature or baseline smiles. It’s a fun exercise and one which far surpasses clothing and body language in revealing things that people may not want others to see. Smiles, like fingerprints and voice prints, don’t often mislead.

While acknowledging that categorizing signature smiles is an arbitrary exercise, for presentation purposes I utilize a top ten list, describing the smiles, how to recognize them, and what they usually convey to me. There are no weighty scientific tomes championing this list; merely the observations of a student of life possessed with an unlimited sense of wonder about this funny species with the Latin label homo sapiens.

The first smile is the “I’ve known you all my life” smile. It’s worn by my favorite type of person; so labeled because they are the easiest to be with. This smile belongs to someone confident enough that a new acquaintance is never perceived as a threat of any kind.

It’s a warm, sincere smile where the facial muscles and the mouth work in concert with the eyes to give you that person’s undivided attention. The eyes are not wandering, the facial muscles are relaxed and it’s as though you are the only other person in the universe while the conversation unfolds.

A complete stranger can be introduced to this person, begin a conversation and instantly feel immersed in the company of an intimate friend.

The smile masks no hidden agenda. Whether you are a street beggar or a president, this person is genuinely interested in you as an individual. He or she won’t be judgmental, sell you a product or focus on the benefits to be derived from spending time with you.

I’m adept at recognizing these smiles now, and they’re almost always an accurate barometer of the individual’s personality.

The second smile is the “cover your back” smile. Superficially it is similar to the “I’ve known you all my life smile,” and that’s the kind of smile these people wish to portray. Therein lies the problem.

It is not a natural smile, it’s a contrived and practiced one. It’s the smile found permanently adorning the faces of many politicians (and copied onto some Halloween masks), salespeople, television news anchors and sundry public figures whose careers rest on the bedrock of projecting warmth. Effecting virtual adoption into a family of viewers or a voter’s heart requires persevering with this practiced smile when in public view, and that inevitably leads to cracks in the facade.

A practiced smile is always discernible because imperceptibly, the eyes will wander the room sizing-up opportunities more beneficial or interesting than you represent.

These smiles appear too facilely and are a tad too exaggerated to convey sincerity to the practiced observer. It is an attractive smile that works well with most crowds. After all, it’s the “crown jewel” in this person’s professional wardrobe.

When it narrows its focus to embrace you as an individual, however, it can’t quite convey genuine, unvarnished sincerity. The mouth spews endearment but the eyes seem somehow faraway and the cheek muscles slightly tensed as the person conjures up a segue for a seamless exit strategy. It’s a profound contrast to the purveyors of smile number one who harbor no goal other than sincerely learning something about you as an individual.

The third smile is the “mother taught me never to completely trust strangers” smile. It’s a close approximation of the “I’ve known you all my life smile” but it differs in that the eyes are not conveying the same sparkle of trust that whatever you say will be interesting and non-threatening. The eyes reveal a likeable, humble person but they don’t convey the self-confidence that the person won’t be offended if he or she doesn’t agree with what you say.

For me this has the unsettling effect of triggering the internal debate over whether to allow frankness or diplomacy to rule during the upcoming conversation. The individual’s eyes don’t focus on you long enough to embrace you or convey sincere warmth. Facial muscles are not totally relaxed. The person may steal quick, furtive glances at you.

This person has been betrayed by people (an experience shared by most of humanity) and has come out on the short end of conflicts during his or her lifetime. Consequently individuals exhibiting this smile may trust you 75% of the way but are silently steeling themselves for the worst.

If you turn out to be nice they still will treat you in a slightly guarded fashion for quite some time. Once you finally earn their complete trust, they will then favor you with the “I’ve known you all my life” smile. You can accelerate that evolution by a few random and sincere acts of kindness if you are fond of the person. But this individual’s baseline or signature smile is nevertheless the “mother taught me never to completely trust strangers” smile. If you persevere, members of this group will be as endearing as owners of the “I’ve known you all my life” smile.

The fourth smile is the “I love myself immensely, don’t you love me too?” smile. Arrogance and narcissism are usually spread like an open book upon this person’s face.

The movie star and the athlete are stereotypical examples. These performers have been fawned over for most of their years by an adoring public. When they make contact with an individual, the smile and the eyes try to dominate or condescend to the new acquaintance.

This person’s smile is usually not accompanied by eye contact with you. The self-absorbed intent is to look pretty and broadcast superiority. For this reason they smile easily and frequently. Members of this group can’t endure the bother of communicating with you on an equal basis.

Plato said much of humanity likes and needs to be led. Tolstoy pointed out mankind’s unfortunate proclivity to equate beauty with goodness. If one merges the two premises, Plato and Tolstoy’s observations can shed light on why humanity seems determined to choose heroes whose primary attributes are beauty and mastery of some superficial endeavor producing ephemeral benefits for society.

These heroes and their wannabees in gyms, on playing fields, and on stages everywhere wear the psychic bounty of this irrational idolatry on their faces and broadcast their arrogance and superciliousness through their smiles.

The fifth smile is the “life is a bowl of cherries & there is no evil in the world” smile. This smile is similar to the “I love myself immensely, don’t you love me too?” smile in that its purveyors smile easily and frequently.

The underlying motivation, however is not narcissism or self-absorption but simply joy with life. They are fun to be around. The stereotypical individual is the overweight, roly-poly person with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Santa Claus is the stereotype and while comedian Jerry Lewis was not roly-poly he exemplified this smile.

Their signature smile does not embrace you or focus on you specifically as does the “I’ve known you all my life” smile but is instead a rainbow of cheer overarching and permeating whatever environment they’re immersed in.

They have no hidden agendas and the operative cliché for them is “what you see is what you get.”

This smile is not the smile of a simple-minded or naive individual. They understand the world has many problems but believe that approaching those problems with good humor is the most effective antidote to despair. Their smile makes them easily approachable and fun to be with but they won’t make as endearing a soulmate as those with the “I’ve known you all my life” smile.

The sixth smile is the “I have no self-confidence & a hair trigger is ready to turn my smile to a frown” smile. This individual is the easiest to spot because the smile flickers like a dying neon light.

The mouth forms a smile but the eyes are wandering everywhere. They focus on you for an instant and then glance away. The cheeks alternately tense and relax and the smile goes on and off like a light switch, particularly with the highly energetic, type-A personalities.

These folks put me on guard to be very tactful and careful when I speak because they will be easily offended (even if they don’t show it) and will take any opportunity to frown. The irony is that I often offend them anyway because I forget details of prior conversations with them. This occurs because I need to carefully weigh what I’m going to say and in doing so I dilute my concentration on what they are saying.

Much of America suffers from depression to the extent that regular medication is required to control the affliction. The clinically depressed are those most likely to wear this “I have no self-confidence” smile as their signature smile.

The seventh smile is the “incredible inner bliss” smile. It’s easy to spot but rare to find. This is the smile that convinces you that there is a heaven after all.

Mother Teresa was an apropos example of this smile, which is unambiguously loving, relaxed, and non-threatening. It’s a smile that can convince lepers in the streets of India that they’re the most important human beings on earth. Every facial muscle is completely relaxed with this smile and that can only happen when the person possesses an inner peace derivative of the belief that nothing on earth can diminish his or her source of strength and joy.

The eighth smile is the “I don’t have a clue & don’t give a damn anyway” smile. Little children at play and men in bars enjoying football on big screen TV best exemplify this smile.

It is not directed at or focused on anyone but is a carefree, non-threatening, non-arrogant smile. But it’s also an “I’m not interested in people smile.”

Not too many individuals have this as their signature or baseline smile but when they do, it’s easily noticeable. They are always smiling and are fun to be around. This smile differs from the “life is a bowl of cherries smile” in that it graces most children and some adults who are uneducated to or choose to be oblivious to the serious issues in the world, like paying the mortgage.

Adults with this signature smile may truly be simple-minded and naive. The “life is a bowl of cherries” smile evidences wisdom and a sense of responsibility while those qualities are bereft in the “I don’t have a clue & don’t give a damn anyway” smile.

The ninth smile is the “can go either way,” “equivocation,” or “you have to earn it” smile. One must double check to make certain these people are really smiling.

This is often the smile of a “mover & shaker” in society, such as a CEO or a surgeon. When people’s lives are permanently changed by your everyday actions, you tend to take life and smiling a little more seriously. On meeting someone new, this smile is one of equivocation, a pleasant expression but a guarded one which says “make me smile more broadly if you can.”

When there is genuine humor in a conversation, this individual will exhibit a winsome, charming smile. But the signature smile “sits on the fence” and “can go either way.”

This person’s smile may exhibit traits similar to the “I have no confidence” smile except in this instance those traits stem from stressful work rather than lack of self-esteem.

The tenth smile is the “come hither” or “perpetually flirtatious” smile. The obvious stereotype associated with this smile is the prostitute.

This is the closed lip smile accompanied by rapid eye blinks, a tilt of the head, perhaps a flip of the hair and a laser focus on your eyes. A sultry look. Accompanying body language and dress usually make this smile’s message pretty clear. It is not a common signature smile—outside of a “red-light district”—but I have found it at the mall and the owners were not “ladies of the evening.”

Being a good listener demands that one listens not only to what an individual is communicating verbally but also that one develops the ability to read non-verbal forms of communication.

My use of the ten smile categories listed here has been effective in allowing me to predict how a conversation will evolve before it begins and indeed before I’m introduced to the person wearing the signature smile.

One cautionary admonition is apropos. Placing labels on people, making pre-judgments about them and generalizing based on surface evidence is never a scientific or fair way to judge individuals. Consequently, I am careful never to act on a “smile pre-judgment” of anyone, even when their reputation precedes them.

As long as you’re diligent regarding this caveat, however, it is fun and surprisingly accurate to utilize the “smile analysis method” of “listening” to people before being introduced to them.


Ten Smiles that Reveal Your Soul

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