When I first read my fortune for this week, I thought, “Great! What the heck am I supposed to do with this?” It seemed like one of those cryptic fortunes, and I could not help but feel a little gypped. Granted, it was better than not getting a fortune at all, but I still sat and stared at it with disappointment.
I pushed it aside and considered using one of the many fortunes my family gave me. I was ready to choose from my stockpile, when a memory came to me, apes. While studying Zoology at Texas A&M, I worked with a company that cared for the animals used in the labs. We cleaned cages and changed the water for rabbits, mice, guinea pigs, and even fruit bats. One facility had a group of geriatric rhesus macaques, and even though apes are very similar to humans, they were very different in how they express themselves.
When we make eye contact with someone and kindly smile, we are being polite. When apes make eye contact, they consider it a challenge. If a “smile” shows, especially with bearing of teeth, it now becomes a threat. A grin is not a good thing. While performing our duties of cleaning the rooms and changing stinky pans, we had to be very careful not to smile or yawn, even with our surgical masks over our faces. You may have heard the phrase, “smile with your eyes”, also called the “Duchenne smile”, which involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes). Those squinty eyes can be a threat display to the apes, and could easily lead to throwing of poop (Yeah, it happens and it’s not pretty).
Apes are exact with their displays; they mean it. There is no confusion in a look or glance. With humans, it’s not so simple. A look, a smile, could many things, and many an argument has arisen because of it. I recall many times my kids saying, “What was that look for?” A simple “look” is hard to quantify, which is why I am glad we have language to express ourselves.
Communication is key in a society, and using our words, to let people know what we mean, is extremely helpful. It helps translate the facial expressions we use. Furrowed eyes with a frown can show anger, but turn the frown into a slight smile, and now it shows deviousness. A little context and speech can reveal the true meaning of the expression. Your sibling got an ice cream sundae and you didn’t, but you’re going to dip your finger into the whipped cream. You say, “That’s not fair, but Mom always tells us to share.” This is much better than, “They love you more, and I am going to totally trash your room when we get home.”
Sibling rivalry aside, a smile can be more than a smile, and a big smile could mean many things. No one knows what’s going through your mind when you smile, unless it’s obvious from the situation, or you tell them. It is a moment when you enjoy a little secret from the rest of the world, and it can be very satisfying. Try it sometime while on the bus, sitting in class or at dinner with your family; smile, it makes people wonder what you’re thinking.