Why is a smile a good thing?

I was doing a job that involved asking people for identificartion and of course most people are smiling on their drivers license photos. It got me thinking about the smile. Correct me if I am wrong but I was nunder the impression that for many animals, the baring of teeth is a sign of aggression and could very well lead to a skirmish. Yet humans use it as a way of communicating that we are friendly and mean no harm. At least, us humans in Western Civilization - I am assuming that there are not cultures for which a smile is actually a bad thing; am I mistaken? And for the folks I know about, why is a smile not a threatening gesture?

The showing of teeth is one of a number of gestures that, as a package, convey hostility, submission or friendliness. In monkeys and their ilk look to the eyes for clarification. Raise your eyebrows at a baboon and the reaction will be more swift and violent than simply baring your teeth/yawning. Lock eyes with any primate for very long and pissing contest will ensue.

I could bare my teeth at you and successfully convey agression.

The image comes to mind from the movie “Fight Club” when Edward Norton flashes his teeth to a co-worker and shows that he has a mouthful of blood. That ruled. And, he did successfully convey agression.

Seems to me that any generalities here would be pretty general. Humans can be pretty subtle sometimes, pretty blockheaded other times.

I can picture a smile on the face of a villian - or a heroine/hero - that would be the warning to run away very fast.

I am aware that smiles are not always indicative of good vibes. However, I was under the impression that in other species, the bearing of ones teeth to a new acquaintence was almost NEVER a good thing.

Not really. In chimps for example the teeth are bared as a sign of aggression, but they are also bared as a sign of nervousness. In that case it is the equivalent of a dog growling with its tail between its legs. It’s a mixed signal intended to show that the individual isn’t actively hostile and isn’t intending to challenge or invade but is also not going to allow itself to be hurt.

Chimps will often greet new chimps with a very brief smile, but at the same time adopting a submissive posture. It’s almost a way of saying “I acknowledge you could potentially cause me a lot of trouble, I acknoweldge I’m on your turf, I’m certainly not stupid enough to initiate a fight, but I’m also not going to be run off. Can’t we just get along?”
When you look at it that way you can see how a smile could become a greeting amongst humans. It’s a sign of insecurity and an plea for freindship, not an overtly agressive act on its own. And that’s precisely how humans often use a smile, as a sign of pacification or insecurity.

Baring one’s teeth is also a display of anger and agression amongst humans, but it’s very different from a smile ( jaws are placed so that the superior incisors are just above the lower incisors instead of partially covering them as it’s normally the case, lips are widely open, so as to display as large a surface of teeth as possible).

I have a friend born and raised in The Democratic Republic of Congo (well, that’s it’s name now - not when she was born there) and her father never smiles. Never. It’s considered unseemly or unmanly or some such thing. I was so certain he hated me, because no matter how charming I thought I was being, he never cracked a smile. I was a nervous wreck. Later, she told me how much he liked me, and I was so confused. Even his own daughter has never seen him smile, even when he’s having a wonderful time.

So, yes, there are some cultures where, for at least some of the members, a smile is a bad thing.

And there are certainly cultures where they smile a lot less than we Americans do - I was told before I went to France the last time that as a young lady I should never smile at a man, or even really make eye contact, unless I was coming on to him. Here, particularly in the South, we smile at people we walk past on the sidewalk, often.

Often mentionned by American travellers. Generally speaking, in France, an eye contact along with a smile normally conveys a message. Between strangers, it might be “did you too notice this fun thing that just happened in front of us?”, “I intend to ask you some money/sell you a vacuum cleaner”, “I find you attractive” and plenty of other things (including “we just had a unintended, random eye contact and I aknowledge your presence”).

But deliberatly making an eye contact and smile to a stranger without any purpose is usually not done, at least in cities (as opposed to a small village) and people might indeed wonder “what’s wrong with her?” or “Is she coming on to me?”.

I did notice that on the whole, French people seemed to smile less over all than Americans, not just for different reasons. It’s easy to think everybody’s kind of sour, except that the people were generally very nice - only in a much more reserved way. I’ve noticed it all across Europe, so I guess Americans must just be grinning fools. (Although I kind of see New York the same way - full of people who aren’t smiling. What’s wrong with them? Do their feet hurt? Why are they so assiduously avoiding eye contact? Do I look crazy?)