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Why don't Germans smile more?

Courtney Tenz
October 5, 2018

For World Smile Day, American Courtney Tenz explores how years of living in Germany — where people seem to frown more than in the US — has changed her attitude towards the contagious expression.

Angela Merkel  smiling
Image: Reuters/D. Zammit-Lupi

Positive psychology is all the rage nowadays. The general idea behind the trend is that your thoughts create your reality: if you think, "my life stinks," then surely it will. To get happier, you just have to start thinking more along the lines of, "my life is amazing"; you'll subsequently be more appreciative of all the loveliness around you every day, the thought goes. Like magic.

It's a nice theory — one that hundreds of experts have spent a lot of time and energy researching. I remain skeptical. Thinking my life is amazing — and I do have a good life — while the state of the world remains what it is feels a bit naïve. Pollyanna-ish.

In that way, I guess you could say I've integrated. After over a decade of living in Germany, I now lack "Begeisterungsfähigkeit" — the ability to get excited, as the Germany-based American writer John Doyle calls it in his book, Don't Worry, Be German.

Read more: The best unpronounceable German words

Amazing gestures

Whereas Americans are apt to be enthusiastic about nearly everything — "This is the best pizza I have ever eaten!" — Germans are more apt to say the pizza is "gar nicht so schlecht" — not that bad.

When Ivanka Trump visited a vocational training program at Siemens inn 2017 and found even the slightest things "amazing," a German journalist writing in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung balked at her constant descriptor. Yet, as an American, I know that amazing is the most neutral of all compliments a woman under 40 can issue. A New Yorker's favorite adjective. 

Deutschland Siemens in Berlin | Wanka & Kaeser & Trump
The Süddeutsche Zeitung felt Ivanka Trump was a bit too enthusiastic about Siemens' machinesImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Read more: America's 'First Daughter' visits Germany

This ability to get excited over nothing comes across not only in the words we choose but also in gestures. I learned this the hard way: by teaching at university. Whereas my students in the US would smile and nod as I lectured, giving me a visual gauge to follow so I would know when I lost them, in Germany, week after week, my students stared at me stone-faced through an hour-long lecture.

When I finally stopped to ask if they were having trouble following, one of the students assured me their collective lack of smile was a gesture of respect. Smiling would have been an affront to my authority as their teacher.

Courtney Tenz
DW's Courtney Tenz hasn't forgotten how to smile yetImage: A. Berry

Admittedly, I would have found it odd to have been met with a smile if I were discussing serious topics. But I taught North American culture — a subject I found quite exciting. It felt odd to be sharing stories of my homeland to a seemingly unreceptive audience.

I was looking for positive feedback. The smile is, according to scientist Andrew Newberg, the gesture that has been rated in studies as having the highest positive emotional content. I wanted my students to smile as proof that they were connecting with my material. Yet the students felt they were showing just how seriously they were taking these stories by listening intently.

It was the same at concerts, where the crowd stood stock still while dancers and guitarists strutted around on stage, pyrotechnics meant to impress alighting the darkened hall. Paying close, respectful attention is something Germans are very good at, even as deafening music surrounds them. Smiling among strangers less so.

Read more: 10 traditional types of German jokes

Show some respect, this is a Rammstein concertImage: picture-alliance/abaca/R. Julien

'No one smiles here'

Over the years, I've found that a smile in Germany is a rare form of currency, one that's used to make connections and not necessarily reserved for strangers. It's a symbol of real enthusiasm and one that is not tossed around lightly. I'm not the only one to have noticed this.

On my parents' first transatlantic visit, they both separately asked me if Germans were a miserable people. "No one smiles here," they remarked. After reminding her that we were not in Kansas anymore, that in a big city like Cologne or Chicago, people do not run around grinning like a Cheshire cat at complete strangers, I realized how this dearth of smiling must look to people accustomed to being greeted with a grin wherever they go. When waiters in restaurants do not look happy to see you, do you feel like your business is wanted?

Read more: KINO favorites: Top 10 German comedies

The health benefits of a grin

It's a shame that people in Germany aren't more accustomed to smiling. After all, a smile is contagious. You can see this whenever smiling at a baby — they smile back.

A smiling baby
Image: Maksim Bukovski - Fotolia.com

While mimicking doesn't reflect a person's internal dialogue so we don't know if these babies are truly happy beneath that grin, children have been found to smile an average of 400 times per day.

Adults, on the other hand, much less frequently. One study said they smile just 20 times each day. Another said that men smile just eight times every day, compared to a woman's 62 smiles. Though there was no distinction made between cultures — do Americans really smile more than Germans? — there are cultural differences as to how people interpret a smile.

Read more: Emojis make it onto the big screen

On a recent visit to the US, Angela Merkel's non-smiling face was interpreted by Americans on Twitter as showing dissatisfaction, her appearance non-plussed. After a dozen years in Germany, I saw a woman listening closely. That's maybe why, when I have seen her smile, I feel like she is truly feeling enthusiastic about what she's saying. I'm not sure I could say the same about my fellow Americans.

In Germany, I find myself wondering if people really are as excited to see me as they appear. If that smile is an invitation to small talk. At the same time, I've learned to turn down the frequency with which I grin at people, both random strangers and acquaintances. I don't really want to invite conversation with passersby just by looking happy. Nor do I want to appear condescending or smug, as smiles can sometimes be incorrectly interpreted by those not sharing the gesture.

Yet if I were to believe positive psychology, I would know this lack of smiling isn't very healthy for me. According to Ron Gutman in his book, Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, a smile releases dopamine that can be as powerful as eating 20,000 chocolate bars.Maybe if I truly want to be happy, I should trade in the chocolate bars and start smiling more.