skin and bones

skin and bones medical diagram skeleton

I fully realize that, upon initial consideration, you may think that something is very wrong with me; but I realized something tonight in a new way. I realized that I enjoy seeing skin stretched and creased. What’s more (and please don’t judge), I actually get even a little more pleasure from seeing skin folds pulled back and separated to reveal the bone underneath.

The really weird thing is … you probably do, as well.

I mean, think about it.  Isn’t that all a smile really is: flaps of skin being pulled away to show underlying bone? C’mon, work with me. Don’t you find it kind of bizarre, when described physiologically, that such a process could signify – and invoke – joy? It’s a curiosity, for certain; but it’s the most wonderful of mysteries, if you ask me.

Last night, I ventured out for dinner alone, following the siren song of sushi.  As is the case with many such authentic Thai restaurants, the tables were placed mere inches apart. After I was seated and had ordered my meal, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the little girl seated to my left, no more than seven, was staring at me wide-eyed and smiling a too-big smile (with the obligatory missing teeth). I turned to look at her and couldn’t help smiling back myself. “Hello!” she chimed. “Hello!” I echoed back cheerily.

Her father placed his hand correctively on her shoulder: “Honey, don’t bother that man. He’s trying to eat.”

I found this odd, since my food hadn’t even arrived yet, and no more than a glass of ice water adorned the table. It made me a little sad, to tell you the truth. It wasn’t so long ago that children were actually instructed as part of standard etiquette to greet others with a pleasant smile and cordial “hello.” What happened, to have left these former markers of civility and proper upbringing the cause for mild chastisement, or being seen as a “bother”?

I cautiously assured the man that I was not bothered in the least, but that his daughter had brightened my evening. I expressed how amazed I was that our culture doesn’t do more of what his daughter seemed to understand so readily. We’ve become experts at ignoring the people we rub elbows with on the daily commute, in the airplane row beside us, or just waiting in the checkout line. But why?

When I give voice lessons, I instruct students about how to use their mouths to achieve better pitch and tone. When going for Pop or Gospel sounds, or in reaching for those higher notes, I always tell them “Smile! Show those upper teeth!” This is real technique.

Actually, if you’re up for experimenting with me (whether you consider yourself a singer or not), you can even prove this to yourself right now. Form a round mouth, like the letter “O,” trying not to show any teeth – then sing a note and hold it.  Listen to what you hear. Now, open your mouth in a smile that reveals your upper teeth clearly.  Sing and hold the same note (or one close to it, if you aren’t sure).  Do you hear the difference?  Try morphing your mouth from the “O” to the smile mid-note: you should definitely hear the change! (Don’t worry: today’s voice lesson is on the house.)

What I’m saying is that there is real acoustic science to it. Smiling subtly changes not only the shape of the space inside our mouth, but the tension on the back and sides of the tongue, as well as of the soft palate (i.e., the back of the roof of your mouth). So when we smile, not only do we elevate our own mood and the mood of others around us, we actually alter the sound of our voice, from sounding thick and somber to sounding clear and warm. And this is perceived by others as part of the mood we convey. A neutral or down-turned mouth makes us sound sullen, melancholy and disinterested; while a smile actually causes our voice to be perceived as light, confident and inviting.

While we’re reducing smiles to skin and bones, and discussing the science behind them, here are a couple more fascinating facts.

Studies have long shown that the very act of smiling, whether we initially “feel happy” or not, produces positive personal gains at clinically significant levels.

In one study, participants were asked to hold a pen in their mouths. Group One held the pen tip between their lips (causing a physiological “pout”); Group Two held the pen lengthwise between their teeth (causing a physiological “smile”); and a third control group held no pen in their mouths. Each participant was then asked to view some of Gary Larsen’s Far Side cartoons and rate how funny they thought they were. Can you guess which group rated the cartoons as funnier? (If you picked Group Two, you are brilliant – and correct.)

In another study, participants in three groups were asked to hold a pair of chopsticks in their mouths, paralleling the pen experiment outlined above. They then had one hand completely submerged in ice water for a minute. Physical distress was measured, as well as information gathered as to recovery time before people felt “back to normal” afterward. Again, can you guess which group fared the best in terms of stress management?

In short, science has proven that smiling works wonders.

Smiling works wonders.

That little girl and I at the Thai restaurant didn’t happen to be holding our chopsticks between our teeth (though check back with me after a future visit, and that might change). But we were still putting good science, good etiquette – and just plain old good vibrations – into play.

I hope you found today’s post informative and entertaining. But my bigger hope is that it’s given you a few more convincing reasons … to SMILE.

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