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Friday, March 18, 2011

Why is that Black Person Not Smiling? A commentary on why African-Americans don’t Smile all the time

Smiling is considered a positive social cue in Western culture. A smile on a person’s face often implies that a person is happy and enjoying themselves. That they’re warm, friendly and approachable. That they’re interested in someone or something. However this social cue is not seen the same way African-American community as in the rest of the world.

Many brothers and sisters don’t smile in public because it’s not socially prudent in the African-American community. Being seen as warm, friendly and approachable in urban areas, especially inner-city neighborhoods is a sign of weakness. To street hustlers a smile is a sign that someone is a gullible mark they can take advantage of with a con. To more violent predators like gang members and hard-core criminals a smile is a sign a person will be an easy victim will put up little resistance if attacked. And to the mentally ill and drug addicted a person’s smile can be misinterpreted as mocking them or making fun of them.

So to avoid trouble, many brothers and sisters put on a grimace or glowering expression when they go outside. This serious expression is to protect them from the many predators that lurk on corners in the inner city.

Unfortunately in social situations outside of the Black community, this “game face” brothers and sisters use to navigate the streets of the inner-city can be misinterpreted by those who don’t understand African-American culture. In the workplace supervisors and co-workers often mistake the “game face” brothers and sisters use to navigate the streets for not being happy at work. In sales and customer service positions, the game face can be misread as surliness an attitude or hostility by customers and managers.

On streets in neighborhoods outside of the inner-city people can misread this “game face” and imply a person of color means ill intent. This isn’t’ the case at all. Many brothers and sisters are just trying to get from point A to point B and are trying to avoid running into trouble.

The truth Many African-Americans are very happy. In private situations at home and with friends most brothers and sisters smile, laugh and have a good time. At work they enjoy what they do. Unfortunately, they just can’t show it on their faces in public out of fear for their safety. So please don’t read the grim facial expressions on the faces of brothers and sisters as a sign of anger or hostility. Sometimes things just aren’t what they appear to be.


  1. That's another very interesting and informative article. It seems that it has gone from blacks being depicted in old movies as always smiling and hyper friendly, to the extreme opposite. I hope one day there will be a happy medium. Keep up the great articles Shawn! Works like yours help bridge those gaps.

  2. Oh Shawn, is this ever an interesting and much needed blog. It couldn't be truer or more on target. But there's still something else involved: when you have a grim expression, some hustlers choose to think, or pretend to think, you're high-hatting them, rejecting them, and they growl at that. Once in North Carolina a young deaf man was killed because thugs thought he was ignoring them.

    Lord, the list is endless Yours is one of the first blogs I've seen on this and it's so needed. Could I dub you The Twenty-first Century Sage? You are, you know.