The meaning of a smile

One of the biggest problems of Asperger people in love is that we can’t tell a false “salesman” smile from a genuine nurturing smile. One smile is delivered for the benefit of the smiler; it’s essentially predatory and self-serving. The second is delivered for us, the smilee. It’s true, open, and giving.

However, without the mechanism for instinctively evaluating other people’s facial expressions, we may use the wrong evaluation criteria. You see, the salesman is often loud and expressive in her expressions, where the true friend is much quieter and more reserved.

In the absence of working instinct, we may choose the salesman’s louder signal as the better one simply because it gets through to us where the subtle signals (those that are really true) are totally missed.

The result can be disastrous, when it comes to romance.

When we respond positively to the salesman, we are in essence accepting her pitch. In commerce, the message might be:

Look at me, I smile and make you feel good, so you will buy your next home from me and I will get a big commission.

In love, the message might be:

Look at me, I smile and make you feel good so you will fall in love with me and buy me things and give me the life I know I deserve.

There is nothing for the recipient of the smile in either of those messages. In contrast, a true message, delivered in the realm of love might be:

Look at me, I smile because I love you and I want to make you happy. When you look happy, I feel good inside.

That message implies a strongly positive and essentially equal exchange for both parties. Laid out in that manner, no rational person would choose to be in the presence of salesman smiles when he could choose a true smile instead. Unfortunately, when people smile at us in real life their expressions do not come with honest interpretive guidebooks. We have to judge with the tools at hand, in our heads; heads which are all too often inadequate for the task.

How do you recognize the genuine smile; how do you tell the person who is true from the one who sees you as a resource to be used, enjoyed, and discarded?

The first tip is that real smiles are not this black and white. Everyone has a mix of salesman and true lover within them. Even the hardest hearted salesman will give a true smile every now and then. And the truest and most nurturing person in the world will still succumb to moments of greed. So it’s a balance; we want to find a person who is mostly true.

So what do we look for?

In some cases, we can look for sudden and dramatic changes in the other person’s indicated mood. A true person, when feeling a strong emotion, will not be able to change their feelings, or their display of feeling, suddenly.

A salesman or trained actor will display any emotion required, at the drop of a hat. That's a skill that comes from one of several sources: In the case of an actor, it results from years of careful practice. In the case of someone else it may indicate a narcissist, a sociopath, or someone who is simply totally superficial. Needless to say, none of those latter things are good attributes in a potential mate.

Therefore, the “trueness” of a person whose signals change suddenly and dramatically is open to question. Tread carefully if you see this.

Another clue comes from the smiler’s other behavior. A true person will display a consistent positive attitude toward you whatever you do, within reason. A salesman, in contrast, will only like you as long as you are doing what she wants.

Ask yourself the question: Is she nice to me all the time, or only on her terms? If you suspect the latter, be wary.

Finally, you can look at the requests that accompany the smile. Are they self-serving, or altruistic?

Think of mom, who smiles and says, Smile for mommy . . . I get so happy when I see you smile! That’s altruistic, and a fair exchange.

Now think of the salesman, who smiles and says: Please will you buy this refrigerator? The smiler’s sole purpose is to sell a refrigerator and earn a commission. To the smiler, the recipient is nothing more than a source of money and a strong back to carry home his purchase.

Requests in love can be complex, but with careful observation, a pattern can often be seen.

Remember, there is always a balance. Some smiles will always be self-serving, even in the best of people. What we want to do is weed the totally or mostly self serving people out of our lives while keeping those that are true close.

Here are a few other thoughts:

True love, and the smile that goes with it, is not manipulative or controlling. True love is unconditional.

True love does not appear overnight, or after two dates, or even after a month. True love builds over time. A true person may not smile much in the beginning but smile more as feelings develop. A salesman smiles more in the beginning, and less later as your feelings develop because her purpose has been achieved and the smile is no longer needed.

True love, and the smile that goes with is, does not hurt. If a person smiles at you, and you wince inside, or wonder, what’s next, be very, very careful.

I wish I could say, read these rules and avoid the pain I’ve been through. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. As a realist, the best I can hope for is that you’ll feel the same hurts I have known, and read this story, and have a flash of insight that perhaps keeps you from being hurt the next time.

As my farmer friends say:

There are some men who read the manual.

There are a few more who learn by watching.

And then there are those who have to pee on the electric fence themselves.

Which kind are you?


SP said…
I suppose I'll have to start looking at faces during conversation to even begin finding the difference. I tend to look at people when they're looking away. I currently have an interest in another Aspergian. So, I do not think I need to worry.

Great Article.
Stacey said…
Neurotypical people have a difficult time telling the difference too, we are just a little quicker to pick up on all the other verbal and non-verbal cues that support or deny the smile. Even so, I've been fooled many times by false smiles.

There always seem to be memes and tests going around that check if you can tell the fake smile from the real one. I usually score a wee bit over 50% accuracy (I'm supposedly n-typical,) and I consider myself a decent judge of character, but facial expressions alone just simply don't provide as much reliable data as we would like to believe.
Anonymous said…
John, truly remarkable.

It is no wonder that so many of us have suffered and survived abuse. It is also sad that so many of us have not survived.

You are right, we just don't see the signs. However, these challenges are also complicated by the fact that when we do see the signs, we sometimes refuse to believe them because we are so desperate for acceptance... for connection... for companionship.

What kind of man am I? The kind to read the manual, then watch someone else, then pee on the electric fence anyway - just because someone smiled at me.
Lisa Jo Rudy said…
What Stacey said.

If neurotypicals could tell "real" love from lust, or "real" friendship from "pretended" friendship, we wouldn't need therapists, agony columns or "tea and sympathy" chats with friends.

I sometimes think we NT's are just misunderstood! :->

Jessica said…
These "salespeople" find Aspergians to be a prime target. My husband married two of them who drove his life into emotional and financial ruin and then moved on to the next poor sucker.
M said…
I have keen intuition, but I tend to ignore it and fall for the false smile much more often than I would like to.
Anonymous said…
Just started following your blog (recently read your book & found you on Goodreads).

Great post! It's a universal sentiment. There are plenty of us with good instincts, but learning to follow them is something else entirely. Even when we can recognize facial expressions we don't always exercise that ability.

Really enjoyed it!
Anonymous said…
you know, i almost wrote a related post recently when i realized that my girl doesn't know how to smile on command, as for a photo.

i think you've written about this before (or we've talked about it) as it rings a bell, but i find it to be a fascinating topic. makes sense that those on the spectrum wouldn't be comfortable (or perhaps able) creating a disingenuous expression.
Gogetter said…
I'm opposite to most Asperger's people. I'm extremely hyper-sensitive to body language, almost to the point of physic ability.
lindaharre said…
You have given me thought:D My granddaughter is Autistic and that is one area that never entered my mind! Thanks for sharing. I understand your predicament and only hope you come to some resolve that works for you.
kwesleyweaver said…
I watch my teenage Aspergers son go through this painful process. At this point unwilling to read the manual or listen to advice from therapists, counselors and especially not Mom. What the Hell do I know? I'm old! He's peeing on the electric fence daily. It's very painful to watch.
Jennifer said…
I agree with Stacey, even neurotypicals don't pick up on deception very well. I just read a book (wish I could remember the author; female psychologist) on Predators, Pedophiles, and Psychopaths (or something like that). Even police officers are no better than the average person at picking up on deception. FBI agents only slightly better. Practiced liars are adept at getting people to believe them. For those who have a hard time looking at/reading people's faces, be encouraged. The true tells of a person's deception are in "leakages of emotion" that rarely show up in the eyes and only somewhat in the voice tone. Actually, people who are lying often do something with their hands that give it away. Hands more than faces reveal deception. But psychopaths and predators will fool everyone because they don't have emotional leakage that comes from some degree of conflict within. They delight in duping people so they are much more convincing and thus dangerous. We have predators and psychopaths around us all the time. And I do believe many of them wind up in sales because they're so good at it. Thanks for the great article. I'll have my aspy/autistic teenage sons read it and see if we can generate some conversation about it.
Jennifer said…
I just read a book, by a psychologist whose name I don't recall, about deceivers. The book was called something like Predators, Pedophiles and Psychopaths. As it turns out, nobody is that good at picking up on deception. Even police officers don't do any better at it than the average person, FBI agents only slighly so. The true tells of deception are not on the face and only slightly in the voice tone. The true tells are in the hands. When someone is lying they tend to feel some sort of internal emotional conflict, which shows up as "leakage", usually in the hands somehow. However, psychopaths, who delight in duping people, don't feel this conflict and thus have no emotional leakage. This makes them very dangerous and everyone is susceptible to their machinations. People who are religious (usually Christian) are the most gullible and sought out by predators, as are people who tend to look for the best or believe the best in others. Psychopaths walk around like you and I; often they are politicians, CEOs, heads of departments and organizations... and yes, I believe salespeople. Thank you for this article. I'll have my aspy/autistic teenage sons read it and generate some good conversation.
Cat Connor said…
As a parent of a child with some ASD traits and Sensory Processing Disorder, this was a very interesting post.
She thinks everyone who smiles at her is her friend. (Even the nasty girls in class.) Quite honestly as a parent - it scares me.

Corabelle said…
a real smile includes the use of the whole muscles of the face, including the eyes. If a person is smiling for real, then their eyes squint up. If its a fake smile then it will only use partial facial muscles and therefore will not cause the eyes to squint. This is made more dificult by the fact that most Austic people have problems with looking people directly in the eyes, but Its also a face reading technique that has been proven over time to work every time.

hope that helps
Katy said…
You and me, too, GoGetter! But it just doesn't help... I'm so tired of the battle, I just want to trust everyone and be done with. Obviously this doesn't work well for me! The whole childhood thing about "do your best", "work hard and it will pay off", etc. works against us and the users seem to know it. Still, I'm trusting that there's balance to be had... it's about the last hope I've got.

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