Saturday, November 21, 2009

Smile, a-hole

As far back as I can remember, I've been accused of being dour. I could be living a comfortable retirement in Spain were it not for the fact that no one was obliged to give me a nickel every time they told me to plaster a goofy grin across my sour puss. I used to just hate these comments because I (probably rightfully) resented the implicit (explicit, even?) paternalism in the sentiment. "Who are you to tell me to smile, jerkwad?", I'd think to myself, seldom voicing my ire due to the undeniable awkwardness in telling a cheerier-than-thou person to kindly STFU. Later, I began to bristle at the untoward monotony of hearing the same crap over and over again. Yes, jerkface, I know I'm a miserable cur. Now please zip thy lip and let me stew in my wretchedness in blessed peace.

These days, I've been getting the exhortation to grin a lot less often. I'd reckon it's either because I actually do smile more often or that people are less inclined to tell a grown-ass man to grin like an idiot when there's nothing around to smile at. I'd hope it's the former, because I really do like to think I'm happier with the choices I've made. I'm in exactly the place I want to be and I'm surrounded by precisely the sorts of people I want to be surrounded by. Dang, I've just ended two sentences with a preposition in one paragraph. Take that, Mrs. Underwood and fourth grade English. I'm a bit more worried that it might be the latter. In that case, it means that the signal has stopped being "we want to feel more comfortable around you, so please look happy for our sake" to "you're a lost cause, old man [I'm not old; there's only one or two of my professors who might be younger than me] so go ahead and be as gloomy as you want. We'll just make fun of your peculiar grooming habits and your malapropisms".

Robin Hanson today weighs in on the signalling of smiling, and it's funny that he of all people does so. Funny in the genuinely cheerful sort of funny, because Robin is among probably the top five happiest people I've ever met. He's unfailingly engaging and just plain cheerful. It's hard for me to picture what he looks like without a smile on his face. It kind of leads me to wonder about cultural development of signal control. Eastern cultures tend to value signal control much more highly than in the West, but what were the incentives that led to this sort of development? The Jared Diamond story of geography doesn't seem to fit, and there doesn't appear to be much reason to suspect an analog of cultural evolution at play. It has to be a Schelling point, but why select one particular equilibrium on one side of the Gobi and the other on the other?

Honest nonverbal communication is important under the condition that there is no common tongue. If I'm French and I meet a Romanian hunter in the woods, we might expect more honest outcomes if, in the absence of a common language, I were able to accurately read the other guy's intentions. In a homogeneous culture, say, the Imperial Court, I might obtain better breeding rights if I were able to snooker my peers and make them think I'm more temperate than I actually am.

Well, golly Wally. Maybe it is more of a Diamond story than I thought. The same rivers and mountains that made sure Europe would be fragmented linguistically and politically are those that gave rise to honesty in facial expressions and the wide-open plains in Central and Northern Asia that gave rise to vasty empires also spurred the closed face.

So don't tell me to smile. I'm practicing for my trip back in time to visit the Son of Heaven. Now if I could only remember where Rufus left that phone booth.

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