“You need a little bit of a sneer in there,” says Adrienne Wood, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who studies social signals like smiles and laughter. Researchers have identified three main smile subtypes, each with its own morphology and social functions: reward smiles, affiliation smiles and dominance smiles. To make any smile requires upturned lip corners, resulting from the activation of the zygomaticus major muscle. Unlike the other two, a dominant smile is asymmetrical. “In other words,” Wood says, “it’s crooked.”
The dominant smile is layered in meaning; it’s an expression associated with feelings of superiority and pride but still more friendly than a frown or a leer. One study found that observers of all three smile types experienced the highest cortisol levels when smirked at in this way. “It might stress people out,” Wood says. Other studies have shown that people find dominant smiles to be the least trustworthy; you’re basically using your face to say, “I’m better than you.”
“To be convincing, you want to involve every part of your body,” Wood says. Lean back. Lift your chin so that you’re looking down at the person. Pull one side of your mouth back toward your ear. Scrunch your nose just a little. Psychologists have developed a detailed taxonomy of unique facial-muscle movements that can be identified with expression-recognition software. Those associated with dominant smiles include elevated eyelids, raised cheeks, wrinkled nose, lifted upper lip and that signature crookedness. Your smile might not translate everywhere, though. Recent research suggests that there are more distinct, culture-based expression dialects too.
An intimidating look isn’t the same as having real, earned prestige. “In animal groups, often the most overtly aggressive individual is not the one with actual power,” Wood says. Dominant smiling makes you a self-aggrandizer; she believes that people who are truly comfortable with their status don’t smile to unnerve. For respect, try smiling because you’re genuinely joyful and want to connect. Wood chose to study facial expressions and vocalizations in part because she loves animals and liked the similarities between the ways humans and animals use their faces and voices. “It’s just really fun to study humans as though we are just another animal,” she says, “which we are.”