What’s in a Smile? Cultural Differences Boil Down to the Simplest of Surprises

In travel, even the simplest of differences can dramatically shift our perspective. For a group of professionals who traveled from Tanzania to Wisconsin this spring, that simple difference was rooted in a smile.

What’s in a smile? In Tanzania, it is the cultural norm to greet one another with a straight face, say these delegates, who visited the U.S. through a program facilitated by World Services of La Crosse, Wis. Pictured, left-right: Lilian Mselle, Ph.D., Ndementria Vermond, Training Officer at the Tanzania Ministry of Health, Thecla Kohi, Tanzania Nursing Initiative Principal Investigator and Senior Lecturer at Muhimbili School of Nursing. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

World Services of La Crosse recently hosted the delegation from Africa with the goal of improving the quality of nursing and nursing education in Tanzania. The partnership was forged between Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences School of Nursing and Winona State University (Minnesota) Department of Nursing, with assistance Gundersen Lutheran Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse, Wis., and is funded, in part, through a financial award from the American International Health Alliance.

Health care was delegation’s primary focus, and delegates were enthusiastic about the depth and breadth of education they received as well as the hospitality with which they were received. “We enjoyed our stay here we were very very welcomed and taken care of,” says Ndementria Vermand, Training Officer at the Tanzania Ministry of Health. “We gained a lot more than what we thought we would, it is above all expectations. Now the challenge is for us to take what we can and implement it back in Tanzania.”

The improvements to nursing education in Tanzania through this peer mentoring program stand to be longterm, laying the groundwork for a healthier future for the country. Yet the education delegates received outside professional training—the knowledge gleaned through observation in travel—can provide deeper cultural understanding to the population, as well. Perhaps surprisingly, for these delegates so far from their home, one of the primary cultural differences that struck them was embedded in the simplest of cultural norms: our smiles.

What’s in a smile? The question is more culturally complicated than it might appear.

Dr. Thecla Kohi, Tanzania Nursing Initiative Principal Investigator and Senior Lecturer at Muhimbili School of Nursing says in her travels, she and her colleagues noticed the same smiles coming from people in the U.S., the England and Canada. “We called it the ‘wicked smile,’” she explains with a laugh. “We didn’t think it was a true smile. In Canada they told us that it’s like kids from the beginning are trained to smile to acknowledge that you have seen a person.”

World Services of La Crosse delegates from Tanzania show off their American-style smiles. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

I once hosted delegates from Russia through World Services of La Crosse, who would never smile for photographs. At the time it struck me as odd. When they did smile, even in casual conversation, they would often cover their mouths self-consciously. One shyly confessed that Russians believe American smiles are less than authentic. I considered the notion, and thought about how a cashier might issue a wan smile to a customer, how a passerby might nod and smile in my direction. And, I could see her point. As Americans, we very often smile without meaning it.

As travelers, it’s important to be aware that there are language differences that go far beyond words alone. Even body language is different In Tanzania, explains Mselle, and a smile means something more than what it might mean in the U.S. “For us that would mean someone wants to talk to me.” Imagine the surprise a traveler from Tanzania would experience when someone smiles, then walks on by without a word. Imagine also a smiling traveler who finds no one smiling back, who might perceive a nation to be unwelcoming or unfriendly. Likewise, consider the impression someone from a nation of grinners might have when in a foreign nation, if they were approached for conversation every time they smiled. It could be—at the very least—unnerving, and at the worst, frightening.

In some countries, a smile can also be an invitation. One Russian friend said a smile in her circles can often be misread as romantic interest, and as she was prone to smile freely, it often got her into trouble at work. I remember traveling in France and smiling to no one in particular, just happy being in Paris, only to find an eager Frenchman accompanying me across the street, smiling meaningfully.

For many of us in the U.S., smiling is a habit, and one we think nothing of. Yet it is a cultural norm that is highly nuanced. We have many different smiles: smiles to hide discomfort, smiles to acknowledge that we see someone, smiles to close business deals, and smiles because we are happy. How confusing it must be for people of differing cultural backgrounds to decipher what each smile means, so they might correctly perceive our intent and respond appropriately. And how enlightening it is for us to know how the simplest of our habits can be perceived by visitors to our country. It is the seemingly insignificant that can help us realize both the fundamental differences between cultures and a sense of oneness. For a delegation focused on healing, this is an often disregarded, but critical step in laying a foundation of understanding and knowledge so that we might build a healthier world.

About World Services of La Crosse

World Services of La Crosse, Inc. is a non-profit organization that is a leader in providing real-life experiences and sustainable solutions for the nations it serves, primarily through international cultural exchange programs and peer mentoring. World Services of La Crosse is frequently in need of short and longer term host families willing to share their hospitality with delegates from around the world. If you are interested in hosting delegates, check out the World Services website for more information about current programs and hosting needs: http://www.worldserviceslax.org/.


Join our community of travelers and enjoy exclusive content by liking us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/RollerbagGoddess

 Photo on 11-2-12 at 3.52 PM #3


Charish Badzinski is an explorer, food-lover and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 


Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb

Creative Commons License

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.wordpress.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s