People Can Listen to Smiles Over the Phone

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People Can Listen to Smiles Over the Phone

Ears are said to be able to distinguish different types of a smile, and a smile heard through the phone is called "auditory smile" / Photo by CC0 Public Domain via


A smile is a  gesture which is considered as the universal human signal. When a person flashes others a smile, it can captivate them and put them at ease, Cosmos explains.

Although smiles have been thought to be silent, there is evidence that a smile can produce a sound. In relation to this, others can detect whether someone else is smiling or not even if they are not talking to that person face to face.

National Public Radio states that a recent study from the University of Portsmouth in the UK discovered that a smile can be heard through the phone. This is called an “auditory smile”. Ears are said to be able to distinguish different types of smiles. When a person smiles over the phone, the person listening to that smile tend to smile back.

History of Smiling

In 1980,  Professor John Ohala,  from the Department of Linguistics at the University of California showed in his research that smiling makes a person’s words sound more appealing to others. His study, The Acoustic Origins of the Smile,  illustrates that a smile pulls the cheeks backward, lessening the size of the mouth and makes the vocal tract create higher vocal resonances.

Refraining from using lower pitched sounds shows that a person is not dangerous and that they are more open and willing to connect. This can be demonstrated in the way that humans talk to small children or a nervous kitten. Humans are able to produce sounds similar to these by making the lips retract. As a result, this retraction transfers the vocal placement to the cheekbones and it forms a smile.

Why Do People Smile?

Humans are the only creatures who smile to show that they are entertained, pleased and happy, Voice Matters states. When people smile, it shows that there are no threats or dangers.

Pablo Arias, one of the authors of the study  Auditory Smiles Can Trigger Facial Imitation, claims that a smile is a recognized gesture and convey several different meanings for cultures around the world. He also adds that the smile has different functions including displaying dominance or submissiveness, used in collaborating and to reward a person. It is a gesture which all cultures employ. However, the reason why people in different cultures contract their zygomatic muscles (the muscles that cause the corners of a person’s mouth to be dragged upwards when smiling) to express their emotions is still unknown.

In addition, babies are observed to be able to smile before they even learn to speak and this makes it “...a gesture that is profound in the human repertoire”, which is the basis of their research. Arias said this was the reason why they wanted to investigate auditory smiles.


Humans smile to show that they are being entertained, pleased and happy, and to show that there are not threats or dangers / Photo by Victoria_Borodinova via


Types of Smiles

Still in accordance to their study, Arias and his team said that there are three types of smiles. In an interview with National Public Radio, One of his co-authors, Dr. Amy Drahota elaborates on these kinds of smiles which are:

Duchenne smile

This is described as a smile where the lips are drawn back, the cheeks are raised and wrinkles form around an individual’s eyes. This is what is perceived as a genuine smile.

Non-Duchenne smile

This type of smile looks similar to the Duchenne smile but there are no crinkles around the eyes. This may be considered a half-smile. It may be a milder variation of the Duchenne smile or may be completely different from it.

Suppressed smile

This happens when an individual tries not to smile as an attempt to keep things serious. A person who is suppressing a smile may pull down their lips or draw them in while talking to someone.



How was the Auditory Smile Research Conducted?

Dr. Drahota narrates that their study had undergone three stages. They first had to record the voices of the participants who smiled while they spoke. To be able to do that, they interviewed the subjects with questions that went from normal to bizarre. The subjects were only allowed to respond with “I do in the summer.” After being able to record the interviews, they analyzed them and tried to identify whether they were smiling or not, based on the kinds of smiles and expressions established.

Effect of Smiling Over the Phone

In the aforementioned research, people are not only able to determine what the was identified as the "spectral signature of the stretched lips" or "the effect of the smile" in language, but it was also revealed that it also affects the subconscious.

When a person hears someone smiling in a phone conversation, just like in visual cues, it makes them inclined to imitate that smile. In their experiments, the participants could hear the improvement in their speech when they smiled over the phone. Even when they consciously missed a smile, their zygomatic muscles braced them to smile back in response.

How and Why Do People Hear Smiles?

Quartz states that it is not specified how people can hear smiles and the reason they have this ability. Arias and his team of researchers think that the mechanism may be associated with emotional appraisal or that it may be linked to the same automatic reactions used in comprehending words which are somehow kept in their subconscious.




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