How can I learn to smile?
August 5, 2007 11:52 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to smile?

Grade school was the first time I learned that my teeth were objects of ridicule. I had seven extra teeth, which forced a number of my teeth to grow at unsightly angles. In response, I learned to cover up my teeth with a closed mouth pseudo grin, which has since become my natural response to whatever causes me to want to smile. Despite having had braces and a lot of dental work, I "don't ever smile," according to others.

Though you may not see anything particularly painful when you look at either my youthful smile or my contemporary smile, it's been a lifelong struggle I'd finally like to conquer. I've scheduled a consultation for porcelain veneers. As the final act, I'd like to learn to smile. There's only one problem: I have no idea how to do this. That's where I hope you can help. How can I learn to smile?
posted by sequential to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Your photo shows that you do smile. You just don't grin. Nothing wrong with that at all IMO (but then I had dental issues of my own during formative years).

Besides, I honestly believe that proper smiles are in the eyes rather than the mouth.
posted by Lionel d'Lion at 12:04 PM on August 5, 2007

You are a good looking guy!

I think a good place to start would be practicing in the mirror. Try to look at yourself as if the image in the mirror were a picture of someone else. Try different ways of baring your teeth and curving your lips up. You'll be able to see which poses look warm and happy, which look maniacal, etc.

This will help get the muscle memory going so that when you are in a situation where you want to smile, the good looking one is natural.

I think this will be especially effective after you have the veneers done. If you try too much with the old teeth, it might be hard to see past your perceived inadequacies in the tooth department (i.e even if the smile was really great looking to the rest of us, it might look terrible to you.)
posted by paddingtonb at 12:05 PM on August 5, 2007

I think the youthful smile, showing your teeth, is a great one. And that is particularly because your eyes are twinkling. I had to really look at your teeth, because to me, they weren't eye grabbing (so not how you see them). I think learning to smile now, is going to be more of pyschological thing. You'll have to get over the self consciouness of how they look and let your 10 year old smile take over. If you feel funny now that you've been smiling for a long time with your mouth closed, try practicing in the mirror.
posted by sulaine at 12:06 PM on August 5, 2007

I've been told I don't "smile" too. Also dental issues growing up, but even today I'm just not a "smiley" person (though a friendly one).

When I have to pose for photos, say, I'll kind of fake laugh and then let it settle down into a smile for the picture. Seems to work pretty well.

(BTW: I have friends outside of N. America who think we look like mental patients walking around smiling all the time. That gives me some comfort when I'm in my natural, non-smiling state.)
posted by Kloryne at 12:19 PM on August 5, 2007

Oh you look so much like I did when I was a child (at least your teeth)! I had a lot of extra teeth too. Up until about 4th grade I'm smiling a big, goofy grin in my pictures. Then some kid called me "buck teeth" whenever he saw me, and I think the next time I really smiled was after I got my braces off at sixteen. I haven't stopped smiling since (well, except for my goth period - oh, and the period before my doc got my meds right).

I don't think you should worry about this until after you get your veneers done. I bet after that it will come naturally, just like it did for me.

In the meantime, you're a cute guy, and your smile makes you look a little mysterious. Chicks dig that.
posted by Evangeline at 12:21 PM on August 5, 2007

Before my most recent round of braces (plus jaw surgery to fix my bite), I was self-conscious about my smile/appearance too -- not to the extent that I never showed my teeth when I smiled, but I certainly had developed a certain "set" to my mouth and face to try to hide my perceived imperfections.

What I realized was that I had basically been clenching my teeth and jaw/facial muscles for years, and that it was both mentally and physically hard to "let go" of the old way of setting my face. So for me, conciously letting my jaw/face/neck relax (especially while doing yoga) helped me a lot to unlearn my old clenchy/lip-pressed/teeth-gritting habits.

Of course, you don't need to practice yoga to relax your facial muscles. You can just let your jaw drop open, gently roll your neck, and breathe deeply. Also, pressing your tongue to the top front of the roof of your mouth is useful for helping yourself let go of the tension in the jaw. Finally, when your mouth is closed (just as you're going about your regular daily business), try to make sure that you're not clenching your teeth at the same time. Ideally, in fact, your teeth should be slightly open, even as your lips touch. All of that might go some way to allowing you (both physically and mentally) to smile more openly and naturally.

And yeah, you're one handsome guy!
posted by scody at 12:27 PM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maybe try one of these!
posted by cilantro at 12:29 PM on August 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

You are handsome, which does not answer the question but is part of an answer because a lot of why people smile is to communicate with other people. People who are less conventionally attractive, I find, sometimes have to try harder in whatever way (makeup, facial expression, haircut, body language, who knows) sometimes to appear engaged and you don't have that problem.

I am a person that many people who don't know me well sometimes say "you don't smile" My resting face is ever so slightly frowny. I don't like to smile in pictures because I think my grin looks weird a lot of times, especially if I freeze it while someone screws with their camera. When I'm trying to make a pleasant face -- which is super-important working in a public service profession where having an open and welcoming face is really necessary to do it well -- I concentrate on other parts of my face and let the smile come from that. Slightly raised eyebrows, eyes open, chin slightly up, eye contact, push out upper jaw just a little (or tuck in lower jaw), mouth not pursed shut, open body language, shoulders down, head possibly slightly tilted in that "I'm listening" way, etc.

I find that if I do all those things I look open and inviting and if I'm not smiling mouth-corners-up per se, it doesn't really matter because I look like I'm trying to communicate the same thing which is "I see you and am engaging with you" which, unless someone is jamming a camera in my face, is usually most of what smiling is doing anyhow.
posted by jessamyn at 12:45 PM on August 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I had a similar dental situation (your childhood pic reminded me a lot of my own teeth ... mine might've been a bit worse, but I could be biased), and got veneers on the visible ones just a few years ago. I love 'em.

Keep in mind that the dentist may change the position of your gum (moving it up or down) so the veneers' added width doesn't look odd, and that your veneers may be longer than your teeth are right now. It takes some getting used to in terms of eating and talking and so on. So any 'practicing' you do probably should wait until you have the veneers. YMMV, of course.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:48 PM on August 5, 2007

You might want to get those muscles used to smiling. That way, when you do smile, it doesn't feel as foreign. You can do this by holding a pencil or chopstick between your teeth.
posted by spec80 at 1:00 PM on August 5, 2007

I used to do the same thing. I got braces when I was in the third grade. This is going to sound like simple advice, but... force it. Force yourself to smile full mouthed in every encounter you have with anyone from now on.
posted by walla at 1:30 PM on August 5, 2007

Look at photos of friends and family and people in magazines whose smile you want to emulate. Stare at the photo and try to make your mouth make the same smile. Hold it for a while and then move on to the next photo. Repeat. Like spec80 said, you want to build a smile "memory."

When you're talking to people, try to recreate the smile. You'll notice the person you're talking to will also smile which will encourage you to maintain it. It's a well-researched phenomena that 2 people in conversation will naturally approximate each other's expressions.
posted by junesix at 2:52 PM on August 5, 2007

My wife never smiled until after she'd gotten braces and miscellaneous other work done in her 30s. Along the way she also developed a rather obsessive dental hygiene ritual that resulted in her dentist and hygienist repeatedly telling her how beautiful her teeth are. Now she fairly beams.

Based on her experience, I'm willing to wager that once you're confident that your teeth are attractive, smiling will just happen. I guess the question is: what will it take for you to gain that confidence? If you think the veneers are necessary, and the cost isn't a burden, then by all means get them. And who knows, but maybe a little extra flossing and brushing time would contribute, as well -- sort of like the way exercise helps one gain confidence with one's body.
posted by sgass at 3:45 PM on August 5, 2007

You might want to consider smirking instead of smiling. Raise one cheek slightly and soften (squintify) the eye above the raised cheek. You can also soften the other eye as well. Think about something good, like being in love or some shit, if you tend to get obsessed with the mechanics of it.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:45 PM on August 5, 2007

How about when you really laugh? It might be interesting to try to get a picture of yourself really laughing (maybe have some friends over with a camera then watch the funniest movie or stand-up comic you know). You cold then use that picture for mirror practice or just mental practice. Or just look up some nice smiles you like on flickr and practice with them. Disclaimer: I don't smile easily either, though for other reasons, and I'd never do either of these things. But this is all I've got...
posted by DarkForest at 3:54 PM on August 5, 2007

(Well, I knew you in high school, and I'm sure you used to smile, but - ) I also believe smiles are in the eyes more than anything. A mouth-smile with dead eyes is evil, and it doesn't matter what the mouth's doing if the warmth is somehow showing through the rest of the face. I feel it in the muscles around my eyes and cheeks and really the warmth that comes up through my whole face when I really smile. What happens when you laugh out loud? A smile is just the precursor to that, really.

I realize I have a somewhat unnecessarily expressive face sometimes. Still, in general the human face is a fascinatingly complex series of muscles that usually conveys a lot of information, without direct intention. In other words, you should be able to learn to smile just by feeling emotions and not intervening to restrict your face from expressing them.
posted by mdn at 4:43 PM on August 5, 2007

I just want to second DarkForest's advice. Next time you really crack up laughing (assuming you do that from time to time, hopefully you do), take a second and think about how your face looks while you're laughing and right afterwards. That's probably when your face will be most relaxed and naturally happy looking. Looking in a mirror or taking a picture will probably help as well.
posted by MadamM at 5:01 PM on August 5, 2007

I learned from glorious personal experience that good veneers can make a beautiful smile come out of hiding.

I had terrible looking teeth for most of my life due to a bike accident. From 3rd grade until the year after I graduated from college, I had temporary half-teeth on the bottom of my 3 front teeth that broke off in the accident. I pretty much always felt self conscious about those temporaries, esepcially as the years discolored them, and I learned to cover my smile a bit. However, as soon as I got the veneers done, you can't get me to stop smiling! It's a wonderfully uplifting and emotional experience - seeing, for the first time, those perfect news-caster teeth. It may just make you want to show them to everyone!

Also want to second the advice of thinking about what your face does when you're in the midst of a good laugh. Keep a mirror near by, just in case someone says something funny and watch how you react.
posted by at 5:20 PM on August 5, 2007

Nthing that you're a really good looking guy.

People ALWAYS tell me to smile-- total strangers walking down the street stop me to find out why I'm not smiling. I guess I've just got a sad face. I find it extremely annoying and intrusive.

I think you probably smile more than you think you do, and if you feel good, if you feel "smiley" then it's really not other people's problem, and it's just insensitive of them to make you self-conscious about it. We should all follow our grannie's old advice-- never make a personal comment about someone, whether complimentary or not.

But that doesn't answer your question. So I'd say, yeah, get someone to photograph you laughing. And mainly-- same expression as the one you posted, but with your mouth open. Although I don't think that will be nearly as sexy.
posted by nax at 7:00 PM on August 5, 2007

I had pretty intensive jaw/bite surgery when i was a teenager, 4 years of braces, a year of headgear (in school. yes. I was THAT kid) and came out of it at the age of 18 feeling VERY ugly, self conscious, and hating everyone around me for ridiculing me constantly. I did NOT smile.

I learnt to smile again the self-enforcement way. Whenever I was in an elevator, a picture glass, a reflective window, a mirror of any sort, I would smile. At myself. Seductively, prettily, happily, whatever it took. I found that when it developed to a stage where I could just turn it on, just TADA and the smile was there, staring at myself in the face, it became harder and harder to keep my mouth closed in front of people. Someone would smile at me, and before I even had time to think about it, it was plastered all over my own face too.

For a long time, it took poring over photos of me smiling, grimacing at most of them, smiling at myself in a mirror and then ducking my face in overwhelming embarrassment, and then suddenly it started feeling more natural. The muscles in my face loosened up, it became contagious to smile back when someone did it to me, and Voila, here I am.

A couple of years later I started doing a lot of performance work, where I was required to smile the WHOLE time I was on stage. Not easy for the recalcitrant grinner, by any means. My warm ups comprised of hamstring stretches, back stretches, and face stretches, where I contorted my face into odd gumby like poses and imitated gnashing movements for a full 5 or 10 minutes. After this, the muscles in my face would be stretched and loose, and it was much easier to pull a smile easily, and sustain it.

Funny you posted this - I was actually talking about this to some recently met friends last week and they were shocked. They told me I was the smiliest person they had ever known, that they actually though I didn't HAVE any other facial state, and I was flabbergasted - I guess all the repetitive action and re-enforcing worked after all these years.
posted by miz brown at 8:08 PM on August 5, 2007

Spend a minute a day pulling the goofiest faces you can muster in the bathroom mirror. This will loosen up your face. One day you will crack yourself up with your sheer goofiness and your smile will start working again.
posted by flabdablet at 4:41 AM on August 6, 2007

Lemme just say, I was in much the same position as yours a few years back. My teeth weren't fucked up because of bad luck, but because I just .. didn't brush enough. And I drank a LOT of soda.

Here's why I didn't ever smile.

It took a few months to notice that, when I accidentally smiled (like from a good joke), no one stared at me and cringed. And, in fact, would say "hey - NICE teeth". Complete strangers, even.

This was the best shot I could get at the time, mere hours after the dental work, while I was barely able to stand up (much less open my mouth after 14 shots of novocaine started wearing off).

But you can see the difference.

The point is that now, some years later, I have no trouble smiling and it doesn't feel forced or fake. Instead of learning how to smile, I learned how to not stifle a smile.

My money's on you figuring out the same thing. It's going to be a weird, but ultimately wonderful, transition. Congratulations, btw. Take care o' them teefers.
posted by revmitcz at 7:01 PM on August 6, 2007

Nintendo to the rescue:

Nintendo DS players in Japan can now exercise their facial muscles to have nicer smiles and livelier expressions.

A digital camera that comes with the new Face Training game fits into the dual-screen, handheld machine to show live video of the player's own face on the right screen while an animation of a woman's face illustrates exercises on the left screen.

The 16 types of exercises called "facening", designed by beauty expert Fumiko Inudo, take about two to 10 minutes each to complete.

Nintendo, the Kyoto-based maker of Pokemon and Super Mario games, recommends playing Face Training no longer than 15 minutes at a time to avoid over exerting face muscles or getting them "out of balance".

Besides the animation that serves as a model for players, an electronic voice resembling an aerobics instructor guides you to twist your mouth, drop your jaw, wink, glare at the ceiling and perform other moves to tighten flabby cheeks and develop that bright-eyed look.

In The Age today.
posted by ponystyle at 3:28 PM on August 9, 2007

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