an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

What is Hidden Behind the “American Smile”?
Some Notes on American Psychology

Part I

The Forgotten Plot

A phrase of Shakespeare is rather well-known throughout the educated world: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It, Act II Scene VII) – which single line itself leaves open the question as to whether they are “actors” who are conscious and deliberate in and of their roles on this stage, or whether the world’s “play”, as it were, “acts them” (more, or less, unawares). Most persons, in any society, know at least portions of their roles in societies’ “plays” – their “parts” – adequately well. With the growing secularization of culture and life in the past two to three centuries (like some gradual but real change in the stage scenery, or a slowly spreading stage fog), the play’s ultimate plot – the realm of religion, philosophy, metaphysics, etc, – has become increasingly uncertain and disputed, sometimes simply ignored and forgotten. Yet the play must and will go on . . . and so, whether they have any knowledge, or beliefs, as to the script’s ultimate Plot as to the human role on the world’s stage (of which each player is a small part) – most “actors” nonetheless reasonably well are able to play at least portions of their parts on the “world’s stage”: sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers; businessmen, bankers, bombers; sailors, spies, spendthrifts; etc, etc, ad infinitum.

But in this age of spreading agnosis, religious pluralism and uncertainty, the increasingly secularly-understood social roles and Plot’s sub-themes: financial wealth and status, society, politics, science, technology, rural and urban life, economics, possessions, professions, international communications, etc, have come to bear a much greater weight and seriousness (“ultimacy”) to them, than in a more clearly “vertical, religious age”. The secular life and realities are given more importance because the spiritual life and realities are so collectively uncertain. It is as if the players on the world’s stage have begun to dimly realize that they have mostly forgotten the deeper themes of the human story, and as the many actors continue to act as best they can, the play’s coherence begins to unravel, as the actors (with their own vague remembrances of the script’s Plot) begins to carry on the play with increasingly-divergent “plots” in their minds.

Perhaps the players need a rest? Perhaps they are about to forget their lines, and are secretly praying for an intermission? Perhaps some are beginning to hope that this is all a mere “dress rehearsal” – and that soon a clap will come, like some saving deus ex machina, from the great, forgotten director offstage, calling the uncomfortable players into a full-cast meeting.

However this may ultimately be (sub specie aeternitatis), a few theater critic’s notes and observations, related to the Americans on the world’s stage, may not be completely inaccurate.

The Invisible American Persona

A study of the history the facial physiognomy of different nation’s (a history of the facial expressions, and their “language”, of various nations) would surely be an interesting work to read – though probably difficult to research, determine, and write. And while one can suppose that the nineteenth-century American Civil War and the “Great Depression” of the 1930’s were “sad” periods for the public American countenance; since after the Second World War, America has come to establish in its social life a very powerful social force: the now world-famous “American Smile”. This physiognomic factor, this facial pattern’s presence in the broader US society (at least in the second half of the 20th century), is quite as much a matter of social patterns and cultural expectations – of culturally-conditioned social demeanor – as are other elements of shared, national American social manners and customs: verbal (“Hi! How are you?” “Fine thanks.”), visual (limited “eye-contact”), social (avoiding controversial topics, or speaking of one’s own private life; manners of courtesy), etc.

One might be tempted to simply say that the “American Smile” is an essential and necessary part of a person’s social mask (allowing them to relate smoothly to the people and world around them), except for the fact that this is, in deeper fact, a bit redundant, since the word “person” comes from the Latin word for mask: persona. While scientists have reported – in their infinite quest for valuable knowledge – that it takes many more facial muscles to frown, than it does to smile (nature rather than nurture), any fairly self-aware American can feel how his or her own face and smile is something which often has a life of its own, almost its own social autonomy. This may be a behavior learned unconsciously in childhood (nurture rather than nature), but adults can experience that their own “American Smile” often has its own volition and power: it can and does often appear on the face, as if by itself, when the social situation expects or requires it.

Television shows and commercials, street or magazine advertisements, Hollywood films (with their predictable, and often saccharine, sentimental “happy endings”), movie “stars”, social gatherings and parties, etc., are expectable places for the “American Smile” to be seen. But the “American Smile” is now found throughout most all of the USA’s geographic-cultural-historical regions – on people rich or poor, educated or ignorant. American life and culture is preponderantly determined now by its bourgeoisie, its middle-class, which today pervasively affects virtually all aspects of daily American social life, including generally expected manners and behavior, which includes the famous smile. So that, whether all people in the USA wear an “American Smile” or not, almost all are confronted by it daily – even hourly, sometimes seemingly constantly.

“Eleanor Rigby” à la America

Eleanor Rigby statue in Stanley Street, Liverpool dedicated to “All the Lonely People…”
Eleanor Rigby statue in Stanley Street, Liverpool
dedicated to “All the Lonely People…”

Now the fact is that a native-born American’s actual feelings and thoughts are very often hidden, cloaked, or obscured by a – let us play the role of a “serious social scientist” and define it as a: “standard daily social American smile”. (It is “American”, for different nations and cultures – as is observable – do physically smile in differing ways.) This is the common smile – which most Americans “wear” on a normal day of life. If the person is not having some especially “bad day” (at home or at work), then the smile is perhaps not awkward or difficult for them to wear – therefore it is not disingenuous. But this smile – which is socially, pervasively expected in America today – generally always attempts to hide any real feelings or thoughts which are strongly contrasting to it, such as problems, uncertainties, anxieties, fears, hates, anger, bad feelings, sadness, etc., at which time this smile can sometimes be discernibly uncomfortable, “strained” or “forced”. Americans, it need not be stated, do of course smile and laugh genuinely. But when it is genuine smile or laugh, it is visually, and audibly, more real and alive than a “standard daily social American smile”, or laugh. But in fact – like the Beatles’ famous Eleanor Rigby: “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” – Americans are often psychologically separated from each other, by their socially-expected, mutual smiling “masks”. (Of course, people tend especially to hide “negative feelings”, rather than “positive” ones, yet they are nonetheless separated.)

Now, why is it a “mask”? Surely a person’s face is their genuine own?

No, a person’s face can be a sort of invisible “mask” over which the person may not have but partial control; and the face can hide as well as reveal. (This does not refer to whether they are physically beautiful, common, ugly, etc., in appearance, i.e. individual nature rather than nurture.) The “American Smile” is only the perhaps most-often noted portion of the American mask, of the American persona. And let the obvious be stated (for those who need to hear it): Americans “are just like everybody”, human beings, with thoughts and feelings (good and bad), pains and pleasures, joys and sorrows, desires, dislikes, etc., etc., etc.; and genuine feelings can at times be truly seen in the face. But the American Mask (which includes the famous American smile) is a face, a persona, which often regularly hides and protects the actual “person” inside. This common facial smile is like the daily social commonplace: “Thanks, I’m fine.” The person may, in fact, be in moderate, or even serious, personal anguish and pain; they may be in some more or less difficult personal crisis (with their spouse, their child, their lover, their business, their life), but most often... “How are ya’ doin’?” “Fine thanks.” Even people who know each other very well, and who can see that the other person (perhaps even a “friend”) is having “a bad day” or is “not doing so well”, the friend or co-worker (often with a little bit of extra sympathy) will very often not “intrude” into the other person’s “private affairs”. Here we have the social and cultural tendency and force of “individualism” working amidst people.

The “American Persona” separates, as well as protects, the single, isolated individual, from others, who are likewise in a similar situation. And this face is similar to much that is very often spoken in public – it is also often like a verbal (smiling) facade of protection (which, for those with ears to hear, can be discerned or felt in the voice). The mask, with the smile, is commonly like a pleasantly-decorated wall, a kind of closed “physical-psychic door” (locked?), behind which the individual person actually lives their private life. The smile is the “I’m fine”; even if it is in fact completely false. The person’s actual inner life may be a lonely hell. Their actual life situation may be some degree of a disaster. They may be suffering from great loneliness or ennui; but they most often will smile publicly – even if they do not really want to! The demand, the social expectation – some powerful, mysterious, social force (invisible and psychological) – most often requires and achieves the person’s wearing this invisible, smiling social mask, even contrary to their own feelings. It is, many times (though not always), very difficult for people to live in, to be in this psychic condition. It is individualism and independence as a trap; a sort of semi-voluntary solitary confinement – though everything is invisible, and some people for life do not ever clearly realize they are so “imprisoned”.

The “American Creed” (aspects of which American Reflections has often considered) describes “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; and American people often generally believe and assume in their daily life that they should be “happy” and enjoying life, even if they are not, and don’t know why. In fact, they are often not at all even able to say what the “happiness” is they are pursuing; how to achieve it; or why all of their material wealth (the successful, material “American Dream” – a big, luxurious home, swimming pool, wealth of clothes, plenty of food, cars, boats, vacations, electronic entertainment galore, the comforts of life, etc.) has not made them “happy” (as the earthly “American Dream” and the “American Creed” seem to have promised). Indeed – contrary to e.g. Hinduisms’ claims that life and world are ephemeral illusion (maya); Buddhisms’ that all life is suffering; Plato’s that earthly life is the mere shadows of the real, archetypal world; or Tolstoy’s deep anxiety as to the meaninglessness of life (Confessions, chapter 5) – there is a widespread assumption in the USA that life is inherently to be enjoyed; that happiness, rather than suffering and struggle, is the true and natural condition to life and the world. Not that this life- and world-assumption is very conscious and reflective; no, it is a semi-conscious social assumption which is, as it were, in the very social air in America, affecting the lives of millions. And if life is – or is believed and assumed by most to be – inherently enjoyable, and “happy”, then what good excuse can someone have for not smiling most of the time, as the common public society has come to expect?!

Strange though it may sound, the America Smile is really a psychological and social burden for many people. And, had Jefferson happened to have written the “pursuit of truth” rather than “happiness” – in what Americans turned into the “American Creed”– surely America’s intellectual and cultural history would have been very different!

Part II

In deeper fact, the American Smiling Mask is often a sort of castle’s wall; it can even be a sort of psychological prison for the “personality”. A person can feel imprisoned – as if in solitary confinement – behind their own smiling face! (A, potentially, very intimate and lonely imprisonment indeed). The smile, in this way, is a sort of safe social protection and defense – sort of like a “closed, heavily guarded door” to an individual’s private castle – which protects the soul from unwanted intruders. Why Americans are so “closed” to each other concerning the deeper parts of their “private” lives and souls... why they often cannot share deeper aspects of their personal human stories... why there are so many topics that are just not proper and “polite” to discuss in public... are very interesting questions, to which this author can only give some partial answers, observations and ideas.

“...shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

In the nineteenth century, some Russian travelers interestingly noted and described the psychological condition of the “individual’s” social and psychological isolation which they experienced in Western Europe. This certainly has something to do with the Western historical idea and social force of individualism and independence. Ivan Kireyevski wrote of European individualism (in his crucial “slavophilic” essay: “Response to A. S. Khomyakov”, 1838-39): The whole private and public life in the West is based on the concept of the separate, individual independence presupposing individual isolation… As to America, consider what the traveling French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville (who helped to define and give currency to the word “individualism”), wrote of the early United States of America in his Democracy in America (1835, 1840):

Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau (1850)
Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville
by Théodore Chassériau (1850)
“Individualism” is a word recently coined to express a new idea <…> our fathers knew only egoism. <…> Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself. <…> there are more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to have hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands. <…> Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

Any American social observer today, cannot but be surprised by the insights of Tocqueville (in the 1830’s) to aspects of American character in early America, for they put into important historical perspective their continuing presence in the USA today.

In my view, the difficult condition of individual isolation in America, is a sort of historical spiritual, psychological and emotional condition (and suffering!) of “Western Man”. (In California, as I have mentioned often, this condition is at a Western extreme.) American people often suffer their own individuality, their own lives, in real aloneness; they can’t necessarily even talk to a “closest friend” about this at all. Psychologists and psycho-therapists (also the characteristic American 1960’s “encounter-groups”, psycho-therapies, and today’s social “support-groups”, in the USA) often play the role in America, that real, good, deep friends and community should seemingly play in life. (The very loose contemporary American idea of a “friend” will be a topic in the future.)

Strange though it may perhaps seem, it is those many people who are not such strong individuals, who are often the most trapped individually (behind their own social, smiling masks) – their very smiles (often even their speech, their pronunciation, their jokes, ideas, emotions, gestures, etc.) are determined, to varying degrees, by the society and culture around them; i.e. they are sort of “acted” by the play. Strong, courageous individuals, are those who can live without their social mask (and this is not at all a common achievement in American society today); who can easily show in public (or to friends) their true feelings, thoughts, and personality; who have conquered, or found a key to escape the social mask (which tends to keep their personality locked up in itself, separated from others).

The society, culture, traditions, history, etc., tell American people that they should be “individuals”; and it often takes much suffering, and years of insight into life and the human soul, for an individual to come to realize the society is not completely right and healthy about this psychological direction. Yet realizing this intellectually, does not often mean that a person can easily, immediately, be more genuine and “open”, as it is said; that they can share their lives and souls with others – the individual must often break through the “mask” to do this, and this is often a painful and difficult achievement, which can take many years of a lifetime.

The danger of being, involuntarily, shut up in the solitude of one’s own heart in America is very real, and unfortunately common (even inside of families). For example, for an American to be in public with a serious or solemn, sad or “depressed” face, usually takes a rather strong, self-confident person in the USA. It takes a strong individual, to be able to deliberately choose (in contrast to a sort of unwanted collapse into embarrassing, emotional exposure – tears, crying and confessions, etc.) to “open up” to others, especially in a public setting.

Many Americans never really speak their souls openly, honestly or vulnerably to each other – even to invisible “close friends”. They may love and need (or dislike and reject) each other; but they may never truly and honestly say what they actually think or feel to another, because it risks showing their vulnerable individuality. Deep talks of open-souled “Russian kitchen philosophy” are great rarities in the USA. First, because there is increasingly little common fund of ideas and literacy in America’s “pluralistic” society (about the meaning of life, world, man and society), and, secondly, because Americans are often raised to guard their souls, pains, and passions privately from each other.

There is some sort of mysterious, invisible “psychic wall” around most American people. This mysterious, personal, psychic fence – not necessarily even visible in the face, or eyes – may be high and very thick; it may also be very small and thin; but most Americans (and many other Westerners) always have it – whether they like, or want it, or not! It is some mysterious psychic element to the structure of the psychology and “soul” of Americans – a subtle reality which I doubt social scientists will ever truly fully decipher.

Russians, to this author’s experience, are more often like “unprotected villages” than castles. They are, often, deeply open to others – perhaps the village is too open. As this author experienced (in what turned out to be the late Soviet time), the grim Soviet face (which Americans tourists always noticed and mentioned), often very poorly hid the real soul and feelings. The real person was readily visible in the speaking and soulful eyes: and people would often open and pour out their lives and souls if occasion allowed.

There is some common, real need in the Russian soul for deep, close contact with others in feelings, thoughts and experience (perhaps also with nature, music, art, with God, etc.) This is fundamentally different from the American psychological structure, the American persona, smile, voice, or inclination.

I recall, after several trips to Russia since 1986, returning to America from the streets of Moscow – with its buildings and streets in poor repair, foul toilet facilities, old unkempt street buses, “remont” in process everywhere – and landing in America, where most things were much more clean, well-organized, convenient, available (not deficitny), and yet frankly having the feeling that most everything in the USA was somehow an unrealistic facade. The well-stocked convenient, clean, store fronts in America – with their nice clean facades, like the “American smile” and the “I’m fine.” – seemed somehow not really true or real. (I am sure that this “unreal” commercial/business/consumer “clean” character of American architecture has a real effect on the human soul and experience.) In Moscow (and other places in Russia), I had the strong feeling that things were at least real and true – even if they were dirty and ugly. The Russian face often – at least in the eyes – revealed and reveals its real feelings, good and bad. It was and is much more genuine in this way.

Ancient theatrical mask
Ancient theatrical mask

In ancient drama, the actors wore persona over their faces; in America the face itself very often is a sort of permanent, invisible personal mask – behind which the person, often for life, hides most all of their own private thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. In such a situation, the “windows to the soul” are often the only realistic, possible means to determine the actual feelings of the person – and sometimes that is also not adequate. Here, through the eyes, one can sometimes discern how much of an independent inner life – distinct, if hidden, by the socially-expected smiling mask – the person may or may not have. One can find many people whose actual inner life of thoughts, emotions, etc., seem more or less psychologically undisturbed, and in agreement, with the social expectations around them – the face seems to fit the person’s soul: they are inherently well-adapted to the society one might say. On the other hand, one can, again via the eyes (if not an uncomfortable, or awkward smile), also see people whose inner life is quite at variance to the socially-expected smiling mask (either temporarily – a “bad day” – or in some more or less long term condition). The more discerning, subtle observer, can sometimes also see whether the person’s smile hides “private problems” which are ontological-philosophical-existential, personal, relational, physical, emotional, economic, temperamental, or mixtures of these. But it is difficult to get Americans to talk about it, to expose such secrets.

The most awkward “polite”, social encounters in the US are perhaps those between people who are conversing, in the socially-expected manner (which includes the polite topics, voice tone, casual eye-contact, attitude, style of humor, et.,), but who both see in the other’s eyes (“windows”), that neither of them is actually speaking genuinely their real thoughts, feelings, moods, etc., yet who also see that neither of them is able to escape the situation of carrying on their disingenuous conversation. When each is not only aware of their own disquiet (between their own actual thoughts and feelings, and their social acting), and not only aware of the same condition in the other person, but when each is aware that they are both aware of being trapped in the polite conversation, and that they cannot possible openly admit their awkward plight, they both feel foolish trapped in a situation in which they feel like fools to themselves and also to the other.

The psychological structure of Americans is something which must be understood and recognized. However unaware both traveled and untraveled Americans may be – also with their ahistoria, cultural illiteracy, national “provincialism”, etc., – about this structure themselves (they often tend to assume it is “universally-human”), it is historically, culturally and psychologically a certain type nonetheless.

And while there is much else that needs to be considered with the question of the American psyche, certainly one of the things that is very often hidden behind the American Smile is… the lonely human heart and soul.

First published in the magazine English, #25, June 1997, p. 8; #29, August 1997, p. 15.