Smile—now! And look natural!
February 27, 2012 10:01 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to smile naturally, on command? I've started a performance art and need to be able to smile on command without it looking forced. Exercises, tricks, and explanations of how to "smile with your eyes" are all welcome! (Previous questions about smiling revolve around smiling in everyday life, which isn't exactly what I need.)
posted by philosophygeek to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
To smize, think of the funniest thing you can or a private joke while trying to suppress a full-on smile.
posted by it's a long way to south america at 10:07 AM on February 27, 2012

Forget the eyes, the natural smile is all in the cheeks. In front of a mirror, just practice tensing and untensing the muscles over your cheekbones, squeezing them up under your eyes (which sounds so horribly anatomically grotesque in writing, for some reason). If you've given yourself crow's feet, you've reached sort of the maximum point before going into squintiness.
posted by mittens at 10:15 AM on February 27, 2012

This is only from working retail, but if there's a time when you turn away from the customer/audience, relax your face for a minute, and then start smiling afresh as you're turning back around. That way it doesn't look so plastered on.
posted by peagood at 10:16 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

To eye-smile, imagine you have a secret. Like, you're the only one who knows that the person in front of you has broccoli in their teeth or something, or a small child has just used a big word incorrecly and you don't want to laugh at them. Notice what it does to your eyes to have that secret, to hold it in your mind.

That's the feeling of eye-smiling, at least for me.
posted by gauche at 10:26 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just start to laugh a tiny bit.
posted by callmejay at 10:39 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your mission is to give yourself crows-feet.
posted by the jam at 10:55 AM on February 27, 2012

I learned to do this, not because I needed to perform but because while I am very cheerful most of the time, no-one would believe it because, for some reason, my natural facial expressions are always a couple of notches below how happy I'm actually feeling. Now I get compliments on how cheerful I look, and on having a nice smile.

Find something that reliably gives you a genuine, full smile. Not one that's faked or summoned, but an honest reaction to whatever it is. A happy memory, your favourite Muppet Show, the thought of your annoying neighbour suffering their hilarious comeuppance, etc.

Starting from a fairly neutral expression, remember the happy thought or hit the play button on the Muppets, and observe yourself smiling: really pay attention to what's normally a totally unconscious act. Watch yourself in a mirror, and learn which sensations (muscle movements, areas of skin stretching, etc) correlate with different aspects of how the smile look, and what order they occur in during the second or so that it takes the smile to develop from nothing. E.g. in my case, I find that my scalp and ears move back slightly; not enough to be seen, I think, but enough that I can feel changes in those muscles and in the tension of the skin around my eyes. At least in my case, that's one of the main factors that contributes to a smile reaching my eyes. You don't need an actual checklist of movements, but you need to have a rough idea of what muscle movements are involved in the emergence of your genuine smile and what they feel like.

You now have a reliable feedback mechanism: you'll be able to feel whether the motions you're making voluntarily are producing the same result as the involuntary response, and to pin down exactly what's missing when you get it wrong. Armed with this, it's time to start practising this group of movements. I found it easiest to start with a small, voluntary chuckle that transitioned into a (genuinely-felt) smile, paying attention to the physical feedback of how that transition felt. Then from feeling like I was just about to chuckle into a full smile, and now I can just summon the sequence of movements from nowhere.

Like learning and physical skill, this is going to be an iterative process, with many rounds of observing what's natural, trying to replicate it and seeing the results, and going back to remind yourself what's natural again.

From this, smiling with just your eyes is pretty easy. Just make the movements of the smile without involving your mouth and only involving the cheeks a very little. As with a full smile, practice in a mirror and pay attention to what's going on in comparison to a full smile. I found it a bit tricky at first to separate the two, but if you can learn to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time, you should have the co-ordination to do this too!
posted by metaBugs at 11:04 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a great bit with aguy named Paul Ekman in this radiolab short:
In essence, there's a hell of a lot that goes into a facial expression, and certain muscles that engage subconsciously in a genuine smile.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:02 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I spent lots of energy working on my stage presence as a dancer because it became pretty clear early on I was never going to stand out on technique alone.

What worked for me, after lots of trial and error with plastered-on smiles, was concentrating on being aware, in the moment, of the joy that practicing my performing art gave to me, of the sense of satisfaction in being able to inhabit my body and feel it growing more skillful and capable, the privilege of sharing that performance with the audience.

For me, there is a natural progression as I'm rehearsing from mastering the basic movements of the performance, to working on the nuances of meaning and performance. As it all starts to come together, I try to pull from that sense of satisfaction to think about where I really want to dazzle the audience with a big smile, versus moments that are emotionally softer, and practice finding and feeling the smiles at the points I want them to come.

Eventually, muscle memory takes over and can become a reserve to pull on when you're not necessarily feeling totally on and in the moment when you're performing. It also really helps to either find or imagine one specific face in the audience and direct your smiles there. It feels much more natural to smile at someone than smile into the void.

Also, what kind of smile are you going for? Greeting? Excitement? Amusement? Seduction? Private satisfaction? It may sound like a lot to think about, but I try to find a connection between what I'm doing at the time, and the emotion I'm trying to project so that I'm less thinking about "I should look happy here" and more feeling the happiness the work is expressing, and allowing it to reflect on my face as well.
posted by psycheslamp at 2:08 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, "eye-smiling" is definitely about cheeks and eyebrows and the corner of the lips. The only thing the actual eyes are doing is opening as widely as possible despite the raised cheeks.

You have to practice this in front of a mirror and then practice it with another person. I like psycheslamp's comment a lot, but sometimes one can't get to that place of inner happiness (or at least, I can't) and the practiced smile is a great fallback.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:18 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Forget the eyes, the natural smile is all in the cheeks

No, smile with your eyes, your cheeks will follow. If you focus on your cheeks, you can end up with a dead-eyed smile (which is just creepy.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:15 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two things to try:
1. Use your most cheerful answering-the-phone-for-a-friend voice. The voice you use when you see a name on the caller ID that you're happy to get a call from. (Could be a friend, could be your beloved Grandpa, whatever makes you sincerely happy.) Chances are, your eyes are smiling when you invoke this voice.

2. Imagine your favorite person is behind a door. There's a little window in the door, where you can lean up to the door, open the little window, and peep through. Only your eyes and some of your nose are visible to the person in the room. Imagine you're talking to the person happily - "hello! what are you getting up to in there?" Again, chances are your eyes are smiling.

Try one of these to isolate the muscles you're using - think about the muscles on the outsides of your eyes (the crow's feet area), the muscles that sort of pull your ears back a little and broaden the tops of your cheeks, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:39 PM on February 27, 2012

I am trying it right now and it is definitely easier if you waggle your eyebrows a little first. It kind of gets you in the mood.
posted by kettleoffish at 7:50 PM on February 27, 2012

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