Ask The Dentist: Smile and the world smiles with you

This week, Lucy Stock at Gentle Dental Care in Belfast on why it's important that we maintain our smile so that we can communicate properly with others

Robert Redford turns on Jay Gatsby's 'rare smile' in The Great Gatsby (1974)
Robert Redford turns on Jay Gatsby's 'rare smile' in The Great Gatsby (1974) Robert Redford turns on Jay Gatsby's 'rare smile' in The Great Gatsby (1974)

“HE SMILED understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal re-assurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.

"It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey."

This excerpt from F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway's character describes Jay Gatsby's smile, is what Princess Eugenie asked her sister to read at her wedding last week.

Gatsby may have been a rogue, however the beautifully written passage highlights the power and emotions that a smile can convey. So, how do we distinguish between a genuine smile and one that is being manipulatively used for underhand dealings?

It turns out our brain is a master at sorting out the real from the fake. In fact, emotions researcher Dr Paula Niedenthal puts forward three ideas of how our brain sorts the numerous different types of smile.

Our brain is constantly comparing the geometry of a person’s face to a standard smile and then it assimilates the findings. Then our brain puts the smile into context of what is happening at that moment: is the smile what is expected?

Most interestingly, we automatically mimic the other persons smile, to feel ourselves whether it is fake or real. If it is real, our brain will activate the same areas from the smiler and we then identify it as a real one.

In their new paper, Dr Niedenthal and her colleagues point to a number of studies indicating that this imitation activates many of the same regions of the brain that are active in the smiler.

So, the next time you lock eyes with another person, they really are reading your mind. That’s why it’s so important to be confident with your smile to allow your true feelings to be shown to the receiver.

On the downside, if you feel you need to hide your teeth by lip holding or hand covering, these become barriers to effective communication and incorrect inferences can be drawn.

There is such a lot that dentistry can do nowadays to help people smile properly again and communicate positively.