AMUSEMENT SMILE An amusement smile shows trust. It may look like a powerful felt smile — as the lip corners pull up and the eyes contract, the jaw loosens or drops open — but it’s a more primal gesture that probably developed early in human evolution. When you smile with a loose jaw, you let down your defenses; someone could theoretically knock you out with your mouth open.
Counterintuitively, amusement smiles often appear in political debates. In the 2008 primaries, Mike Huckabee and John McCain often displayed them, as did Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. This probably indicates that, though they were competing for the same job and might have disagreed, the candidates liked each other. Their amusement smiles said, “We’re jousting — this isn’t a fight to the death.”
Since then, things have changed. Neither Romney nor Obama displayed an amusement smile during his convention speech. This fits into the conventional narrative about the past four years — partisanship is on the rise, the country is deeply divided, and stakes are high — although it might reflect the context of both politicians preaching to the choir at their conventions.
Romney and Obama did display amusement smiles away from the podium. Romney smiled and laughed when joined by Ryan on the dais; Obama smiled and laughed when his family came on stage. For both men, amusement smiles may be limited to interactions with the people with whom they are most comfortable, whether running mates or family members.
A fleeting smile is more private — a “smile to yourself.” It may be any one of the smile types already discussed, but it isn’t necessarily a response to audience applause, laughter, chants or booing. Because these smiles don’t appear to be a reaction, they may offer a window into a politician’s inner life — although they are tougher to detect because they are subtle.
ROMNEY: One fleeting smile occurred when the candidate reminisced about his youth and how his “friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.” Another came six minutes later when he spoke about a call from a child who was deciding whether to take a job close to home. It’s not surprising that Romney loves his children, but a fleeting smile when discussing religion is telling, especially since his Mormonism was played down in Tampa. It could suggest that religion is more than part of his brand; that, as a member of a minority faith, he cares about religious freedom.
OBAMA: One of the president’s fleeting smiles came after he made a humorous comment attacking his opponent’s lack of foreign policy experience. Another appeared when he said that a young homeless woman who won national recognition for her science project gave him hope. Though these smiles came during laughter and applause, their subtlety suggests deeper emotion. Perhaps “No Drama” Obama, after four years as commander in chief, takes Romney’s assertion that he would do a better job more personally than some commentators think. And perhaps the homeless young scientist is more than just another line on the teleprompter.
Patrick A. Stewart, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas,
has written extensively on facial displays by politicians. He is the author of “Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign.”