“A Language of Smiles”

Judson, O. (2009). “A Language of Smiles.” New York Times. Retreived on 30 June, 2010



This article explores the possibility that languages which require a speaker to move his/her mouth in particular ways predisposes the population which speaks that language to be either happy or gloomy. This article begins by explaining that the idea that physically moving the corners of one’s mouth up into a smile or down into a frown can literally altar one’s mood is not a new idea.  Literary authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and scientists such as Charles Darwin have made references to that idea in their works.  However, data (I can only assume that by “data” the author means statistical or scientific data) has been accumulated only in the last 30 years.  Why the ways in which one moves his/her mouth can affect one’s mood is not certain.  Two possible explanations are: 1) it is a matter of classical conditioning such as Pavlov’s dog (who was conditioned to salivate whenever he heard a bell ring because he was taught to associate the bell with the appearance of food), and 2) facial gestures may have an affect on the rate of blood flow to the brain.

Different languages require speakers to move their mouths in substantial (and substantially different) ways in order to achieve proper pronunciation.  Therefore, the article suggests, if the above is true then it stands to reason that languages in which the speakers’ mouths are most often contorted into something like a smile then those speakers will be in happier moods more often than in languages in which the speakers’ mouths are contorted into scowls.   The article poses the question in this way, “do some languages predispose in a subtle way their speakers to be merrier than the speakers of other languages?”

To back up this argument, the author cites some experiments meant to examine the effects of facial movements on mood.  The researchers in these experiments got the participants to smile or scowl by having they pronounce certain vowel sounds.  In this manner the participants would smile or scowl without realizing that they were doing so; as far as the participants were concerned they were simply reading passages out loud.  Results showed that participants would more likely be in a “bad mood” after reading a passage which required them to move their mouths into scowls (the article offers a German vowel sound as an example of a sound that requires a scowl) regardless of the content of the passage.

Furthermore, the article touches on the notion that the particular “music and rhythms” inherent to different languages may also affect speakers’ moods.  Moreover, “the meanings of words may influence moods more than the gestures used to make them.” The main point of the article is summed up nicely in the following quotation: “just as the words a language uses to describe colors affects how speakers of that language perceive those colors, different languages might allow speakers to process particular emotions differently; this, in turn, could feed into a culture, perhaps contributing to a general tendency towards gloom or laughter.”

While the article never attempts to prove that different languages do in fact have different affects on mood (except for the experiments cited as a basis for argument), it never intends to do so.  The author’s intention is simply to offer her opinion on the possibility.

Design Implications:

The notion that how one moves his or her mouth while pronouncing certain words can have a positive or negative affect on one’s mood is extremely important to product design.  The name a designer uses for his/her product has to do much more than be memorable or catchy, it must also—as we touched up on in class—be “fun to say,” it has to “feel good” in the speaker’s mouth.  This goes hand-in-hand with the ideas in the abovementioned article.  A product’s name, based on the vowel sounds which make it up, has the power to leave the client feeling good or bad after s/he has read the name out loud.  It would be in the designer’s best interest to force the reader (in this case, the customer or target audience) to move his/her mouth into a smile when reading the product’s name, or anything related to the product. The meanings of words must also be considered.  As the article suggested, different languages define words in unique ways which, in turn, force the speakers’ of those languages to relate differently to those words.  Therefore, the words used in product names, ads, etc. should not only force me as a reader to subconsciously smile, but they should also awake in me positive feelings and thoughts.

However, it is worth noting how a pharmaceutical company may use these notions.  A company trying to sell anti-depressants may not want to leave his target audience in a cheerful mood after watching a commercial or reading a magazine ad for the latest anti-depressant. Why would I need to buy that pill if I’m suddenly feeling somewhat better than I was a minute ago?  Therefore, pharmaceutical’s may want to sprinkle their advertisements with vowels sounds that make the reader move his/her mouth into a scowl or with  words that evoke sad feelings in the listener.  The name of the product itself may benefit from making the target audience smile so that the product is then associated with a subtle elevation in mood (even if the reader/client can’t pinpoint exactly why).  The ads/commercials would force the audience to notice a negative mood (for example, commercials that ask “have you been feeling sad lately?”) while the product name itself would offer some alleviation for this negative mood.