Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The smiles we genuinely respond to

The playwright Alan Bleasdale, accepting the 1985 Evening Standard Musical of the Year Award for his play about Elvis Presley, Are You Lonesome Tonight?, gave an emotional acceptance speech, in which he tried to explain why Elvis meant so much to him – and came up with “when he smiles, he makes us smile”.

I couldn’t agree more. My wife bought me a framed copy of the this Elvis LP cover as a present several years ago, and  it hangs on the wall next to my desk. Whenever I catch sight of it, I smile back.

Bleasdale’s explanation for his fascination with Elvis sounds daft, I know, but, ever since, I’ve been using it as a handy instant guide to sort out the people I’m going to get on with from the ones who aren’t going to be soulmates. So far, it has worked pretty well: I’ve never worked (or lived) with anyone whose smile I instantly responded to with whom I didn’t subsequently form some sort of long-lasting bond (the breakdown of long-term relationships notwithstanding – but by then, the lack of smiles is probably a contributory factor).

Of course, we tend to return smiles automatically, as a good-mannered gesture – but I’m not talking about that sort of social mirroring: what I mean are those smiles to which one responds wholeheartedly and instantly, the ones that lift your spirits, that make you feel better about life. 

And there’s no better way of testing one’s natural smile-response that by watching TV – after all, the performers can’t see you, so you don’t have to be polite: if you do find yourself grinning back at the screen, it’s less likely to be a mere Pavlovian response.

For example, take this loveky woman:  

In case you’ve missed it so far, former model Lorraine Pascale is currently doing a Nigella-style series for the BBC about baking (no, seriously). Now if she were a glum NOP (“No Oil Painting”), a gun to my head wouldn’t make me watch a programme about baking – but being treated to that fabulous gap-toothed smile is like being bathed in sunshine breaking through clouds, or being enveloped in the early morning warmth and scent of a French bakery’s open door: I would refuse to believe that Pacsale is anything but a splendid person.

Kirsty Alsopp (who really does look as if she should be making cookery programmes) has a similar effect on me: when that lovely, chubby, fat-lipped face breaks into a grin, I find myself grinning back like an absolute fool.

I’ve already admitted my extreme partiality to the actress Honeysuckle Weeks (Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, is, reportedly, a fellow-admirer). She sounds incredibly ditsy when interviewed – but I don’t care, because I know that behind that wonderful smile must lurk a radiant soul.

So, is the smile the trigger for liking someone or do we respond to the smile so strongly because we like them? No idea – but I do know it’s an entirely visceral, instant reaction. The American journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book entitled Blink! a few years ago in which he argued that our instant gut reactions to people, situations and choices were almost invariably a better guide than rational deliberation – in other words, you may as well buy the car you respond to instantly, rather than the one you plump for after consulting experts, reading car magazines, and trawling through websites.

When John Humphreys, Terry Wogan or Tom Cruise smile, I want to push their faces in – but I don’t know whether that’s the result of accumulated dislike, or because my initial lack of response to their smiles told me I didn’t like them.

Of course, a lack of response doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy watching the smiler in question.  Bruce Willis’s lop-sided grin makes me want to slap him, but I enjoy him on screen – I just wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. Ditto the aforementioned Tom Cruise.

One’s reaction to politicians is interesting. I always grinned back at Ronald Reagan and assume I’d have enjoyed a beer with The Gipper (let’s face it, when Ronnie smiled, America smiled back – it was probably the secret of his success.) Contrariwise, although Mrs. Thatcher was a great political heroine of mine, I didn’t respond to her smile – and would have had no interest whatever in meeting her. Neil Kinnock’s grin always prompted thoughts of emigration, but Tony Blair’s - which I know caused projectile vomiting in some victims – didn’t. Despite the fact that I broadly approved of Michael Howard and Ian Duncan-Smith’s politics, their smiles left me cold. Similarly, I wasn’t a Dubya-hater – but that smirk was awfully irritating. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s merry grin always left me wondering whether I shouldn’t leave the Anglican Church, whereas it was very hard not to respond to Nelson Mandela’s. On a less exalted level, I’m a huge fan of Top Gear, and I dutifully laugh at all the jokes, but I don’t respond to the presenters’ smiles – perhaps because they strike me as manipulative rather than as natural expressions of their inner being.

So, responding to a smile has little to do with admiring, fancying, being entertained by or agreeing with a person. And it isn’t just about charm, either – even I’ll concede that Bill Clinton has charm, but that horrible, phony smile – yeccchhh!

So what does it have to do with?


  1. Does this mean I can stop feeling like a DOM - Dirty Old Man - for being atrtracted to Lorraine Pascale...or does it just make me a member of the DOM Club?
    Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 06:37 PM

  2. No idea what age you are, but when you’re staring 60 in the face, I reckon you’re allowed to admire a pretty gel without being accused of being a filthy old perv! None of my female choices appear half-naked, gyrating lewdly to sub-standard dance music, or (as far as I know) stripped to the buff in Lad’s Mags – they’re just outstandingly charming, attractive women whose personalities shine through the TV screen: I imagine I could spend time with them without behaving like Terry Jones in the Monty Python “Dirty Vicar” sketch.
    Thursday, February 24, 2011 - 05:32 PM