‘Phenomenology’ of a smile


Can someone do a sociological study on something as abstract as an absent smile?  Not really, if one were to go by Weber’s description of social action as “any type of human conduct that is meaningfully oriented to the past, present or expected future behavior of others.[1]” Considering that an ‘absent’ smile has not even manifested itself, and hence does not even merit the description of an ‘action,’ how can it be read, understood, analysed, and further, meaningfully interpreted?  Perhaps, I can turn to philosophy for help: my attempt to analyse the ‘absent smile’ could be described as an effort to probe beneath the ‘being,’ to ‘uncover,’ ‘reveal,’ ‘disclose,’ in a Heideggerian sense, and to understand the message that is contained in the smile that failed to register its presence.

I got interested in observing the ‘absent’ smile when I smiled at a class IV employee in the institute and got a mélange of an expression in reciprocation – but no smile.  Some time mid-afternoon, our paths crossed – he had just kept aside his broom and bucket, and I was on my way to my room.  There was no one else in the vicinity.  I smiled and he did not smile back.  But his expression stayed with me and I began asking: Why was he startled, surprised, nervous, a trifle eager, but so much more doubtful?  I have, since, begun observing ‘smiles’ both present and absent, and found much to ponder about.  Like Bernard Cohn’s observations on the symbolism of the Indian gestures of greetings, which he argues is predicated on the status of the person being greeted,  smiles too seem to acquire meanings depending on the persons with whom the smile is, or is not, being exchanged.

Hierarchy seems to be a major determinant of who may exchange smiles of equal warmth[2]. Smiles seldom penetrate the horizontal ceilings of the vertical ‘class’ structures.  But then, does the smile register a greater presence within the horizontal spaces?  Not really.  Actors, even within the same or equivalent occupational groups seem to find the need to avoid allowing their glances to bump into each other.  While there seems to be more inter-generational bonhomie, within the horizontal spaces, intra-generational smiles are, generally, absent. And, before I proceed further, it is necessary to define the smile that is being discussed here: It is not the sardonic, shy or cynical smile – or all those other smiles that have been studied so as to generate so many adjectives to go with it. The subject, and object, of this piece is the simple smile which, as the poem goes, “brightens up the face” and then goes off to its “secret hiding place” without much ado.

Having grown up believing humans to be “social animals” and exchanging a smile with co-humans to be a universally understood gesture of goodwill, I find the ‘absent smile’ a phenomenon worth investigating.    It appears to have the potential of uncovering layers of meaning concealed beneath stratified structures, as well as the motivations that drive the conscious and unconscious acts of human agents in the institutional system.

Can so much meaning be really read into the absent smile?  Let us go back to the one that started it all – the smile that I gave the Class IV employee, let us call him Shaun.  Have I been right in interpreting his enigmatic expression as having its roots in his perception of a hierarchical barrier or a ‘class’ difference?  Perhaps it was simply that my smile confused him since we had never before had a social exchange of any kind.  Maybe he would have smiled back if he had had a few more seconds to respond.  Why did his expression stay with me long after the incident?  Why has the image continued to intrigue me and morph into an interest in the studying of more absent smiles?  How far has my interpretation of Shaun’s expression impacted my interpretations of the behaviour of other actors?  As the smile that started it all was not planned, nor was Shaun’s reaction to it, it does appear that there could be some validity to my direct understanding of his expression and my attribution of his interpretation of my unexpected smile – to respond to which he had less than a split second.   However, as Giddens[3] says, “Similar action on the part of several individuals may be the result of a diversity of motives and, conversely, similar motives can be linked to different concrete forms of behaviour.”  So, it is a moot point if my interpretations about the motivations of the other actors are valid. The matter needs further observation and study.

[1]See  Anthony Giddens, ‘Capitalism and modern social theory: an analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber,’ Cambridge University Press, 1971, p.151.

[2] I use ‘warmth’ as a measure to quantify the ‘strength’ of a smile for want of a better unit of measurement that may be understood easily without my having to go into a lengthy explanation about it.

[3] Giddens, ‘Capitalism and modern social theory,’ p.148

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