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10 Smiles and What They Mean

There are many kinds of smiles and each one has a meaning. Each attempts to achieve a goal, and each has some type of effect on the recipient of the smile.

Below I offer a list of the ten most common smiles along with their meanings and ramifications.

1. Cheerful Smile. This kind of smile is an authentic smile by someone who is feeling happy to be alive and happy to share the happiness of being alive. It has no underlying meaning nor an ulterior motive. The recipient of such a smile feels uplifted and physiologically, according to research, their stress level is lowered. If it is a smile by an attractive member of the opposite sex, a cheerful smile has an even greater effect, as a smile by an attractive man or woman has a greater effect than the smile of an unattractive man or woman.

2. Seductive Smile. A seductive smile is different than a cheerful smile, in that it does have an ulterior meaning. Such a smile, whether it is a smile between a man and woman or between two men or two women, is intended as an invitation to intimacy and perhaps sex. There are as many types of seductive smiles as there are people; each person’s method of seduction is distinct. Certain histrionic personalities use seductive smiles to entice men and then reject them as a way of acting out their anger at men. A common seductive smile is one accompanied by a gaze from the corner of the eyes.

3. Condescending Smile. This is a smile of superiority that someone bestows on a person whom he or she feels is of a lower status. There is a certain reluctance in the smile or a bemused quality. The goal of this smile is to let people know that they are not on the same level, but nevertheless they are being given a grain of acceptance. The recipient feels a rise in their stress level, and research shows that such a smile also hastens one’s heartbeat. Narcissists have condescending smiles.

4. Defensive Smile. A defensive smile is given when someone is trying to hide an underlying sadness or anger. When the smile is defending against sadness, the smile is called a “brave smile,” and is intended to hide the sadness and pretend that all is well. When the smile is defending against anger, it is used to convey the impression that even though one is angry about something, it is not of much concern and one can smile or laugh about it. In both cases people are defending against inner judgments and projecting them outward. This has the affect of confusing people and causing them to make the very judgments that the smiling person is trying to deflect.

5. Smug Smile. A smug smile or smirk will be seen on the faces of those who look down on you and are feeling triumphant over you. It may be that you have said or done something they consider stupid or inane, and the smile may not only show a hint of conceit, but also some sympathy (feeling sorry for you, that you are so dense). The effect of this smile is to make recipients feel angry and stressed. The person who flashes this smile thereby lifts his own spirits at your expense.

6. Submissive Smile. There are two kinds of submissive smiles. People who feel inferior to others will smile in a submissive way to indicate their inferiority and to show that they are harmless. The smile is intended to avoid any possible conflict with people who are assumed to be superior. Another group of people use submissive smiles to put those for whom they harbor negative feelings at ease and make them drop their defenses. Once they’ve gained the trust of the people for whom they harbor negative thoughts (i.e., jealousy, competitiveness), they are likely to express their negativity in a disguised way, such as starting a statement with, “Now don’t take this the wrong way….” This kind of smile makes a person feel wary, often without knowing why.

7. Kindred Smile. This is a smile of allies. When you are with somebody who has the same political or religious views as you do, you share a bonding smile with that person. Not only do you share the same belief system, but you also have the same enemies. This causes you to have an artificial bond. It is a bond of common cause, rather than a bond of love or real affection. The feeling conveyed is, “We’re on the same side.” This smile will be comforting to those who receive it, and annoying to those who don’t; the latter will view it as conceited and exclusive.

8. Angry Smile. People flash an angry smile when they are threatened by something another person says or does. The angry smile may range from a mild grin of annoyance to a mad and sometimes bizarre smile of someone who has a severe mental disturbance, such as an antisocial personality or schizophrenic. The smile is a threatening one, intended to make its recipients uncomfortable and/or unsafe. Depending on the severity of the smile, the recipients may feel mildly uncomfortable or fear for their lives. This smile, when severe, causes the highest level of stress reaction. People who have a phobia of clowns view the clown’s painted smile as an angry smile.

9. Skeptical Smile. If you are telling your girlfriend that you love her, but you don’t really mean it, she may reply with a skeptical smile. Or you may promise to pay a debt after failing to pay it time and time again, and be met with a similar smile. The skeptical smile is simply meant to show a distrust of what is being said, as though the person who is smiling is saying, “Do you expect me to believe that?” It is intended to make the recipient feel guilty, and at times the recipient does feel guilty.

10. Cheeky Smile. A cheeky smile comes from the phrase, “tongue in cheek,” as when somebody is being a tease or a smart aleck. People who engage in such smiles and such behavior may harbor angry feelings towards the recipient of the smile and are able to act out the anger in this disguised way. The recipient may object to the behavior and the person who is smiling thusly will reply, “I didn’t mean anything by it; don’t take it personally.” Then it becomes a double-whammy.

These are just a few of the varieties of smiles. I’m sure there are many I’ve left out. The bottom line is that smiles serve different purposes and have different impacts and they constitute an important aspect of our lives

10 Smiles and What They Mean

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). 10 Smiles and What They Mean. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2018
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