As we know from our everyday lives, a smile can indicate many things (amusement, irony and agreement, to name a few). However, Timo Kaukomaa, Anssi Peräkylä and Johanna Ruusuvuori were interested in researching smile production at a specific point in conversation – the smiles we make in a silence or a break in an interaction. They note that the silent moments between two spoken utterances are ‘transitional spaces’, and that a smile produced by a speaker in one of these spaces can be seen as a ‘turn-opening smile’. These turn-opening smiles, Kaukomaa et al. explain, project the onset of talk and can be analysed (along with other facial expressions) from two different perspectives:
1) facial expressions as an indication of inner emotional states and processes (such as a smile to show happiness)
2) facial expressions as a means of serving particular functions in interpersonal communication (such as a smile to show affiliation or solidarity).
The approach they adopt is the second of these, as they believe that turn-opening smiles, which were consistently backed up by prosodic and lexical features, perform a particular function in conversation. In order to analyse the role that turn-opening smiles play, they video recorded five conversations in Finland between two people as they ate lunch and chatted with each other.
Following the analysis of the thirty turn-opening smiles which were present in the data, two main observations were made: a) each turn-opening smile seemed to initiate a shift in the conversation from a neutral/ serious tone to a more positive humorous tone and, b) all of the smiles were reciprocated by the recipient.
The first observation highlights how a speaker is able to ‘make light’ of the topic that is being discussed or has previously been discussed. One example Kaukomaa et al. use to illustrate this is an interaction between two female speakers discussing the possibility that a boy that one of girls is interested in may have lied about his age. The discussion in the initial stages of description is quite delicate. However, there is then a silence in which the speaker, who has shown an interest in the boy, smiles. She follows this with a comment relating to how, after you reach a certain age, you are more likely to lie about your age. In this exchange, the smile represents the turning point between a serious or frank tone of discussion to a lighter, more humorous tone, where the girls make light of the boy’s potential dishonesty.
The other point of note in this exchange, as well as all the others identified by the researchers, is that the recipient of the smile always joins in and smiles back. However, Kaukomaa et al note that there is a continuum of response times between an immediate reciprocation (i.e. before the speaker has followed up the smile with an utterance) and reciprocation once the speaker has validated the new humorous tone through the content of what they go on to say. These two extremes have implications for the relationship between the speakers as well as the speakers’ relationship to the content of the interaction. For example, an immediately reciprocated smile may indicate that the recipient of the smile trusts that the speaker is going to establish a more humorous stance or say something with which they are likely to agree. On the other hand, a delayed return of a smile may show that the recipient is unsure of the speaker’s intentions, or is waiting to be ‘let in on the joke’ if a story is being introduced with which they are not familiar.
In conclusion, Kaukomaa et al. suggest that turn-opening smiles are unlike those facial expressions which are labelled ‘emotional contagions’. These are, for example, smiles which are copied or mimicked automatically. Instead, they perform an important role in the organisation of conversation and emotional projection across subsequent discourse.
Kaukomaa, T., Peräkylä, A. and Ruusuvuori, J. (2013) Turn-opening smiles: Facial expression constructing emotional transition in conversation. Journal of Pragmatics 55:21 - 42
This summary was written by Jenny Amos