By Thomas Talhelm

Several years ago, I was traveling in Thailand. They call it “the land of smiles,” and that sure seemed true to me. I remember seeing a passenger on the back of a motorbike make eye contact with me and smile. I smiled back.

Two days later, I landed in Kunming, southwestern China. Thailand had gotten me into the habit of smiling at people, so as I walked in a local market, I smiled at anyone who made eye contact with me. What happened in response is what I’d call confusion, mild negativity, and sometimes a furrowed brow.

This got me wondering: is smiling less common in China? To get to the bottom of it, my research assistants at Beijing Normal University and at my home campus at the University of Virginia stood on campus and counted how many passers-by were smiling.

After more than 1,000 observations, the differences were stark. People in China were smiling at less than half the rate of Americans.

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When I looked at another variable, the cultural differences became clearer. Among people who were walking alone, about 35% of Americans were smiling. In China, it was almost 0%.

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In both cultures, people were more likely to smile when they were walking with other people. That’s a no-brainer.

But in China, smiling was almost entirely contained within social interaction. People walking alone almost never smiled. This data suggests that smiles in China are more strictly limited to social engagement.

This might explain my culture shock in Kunming. It’s not that China is the land of no smiles. Instead, it’s simply a culture where it’s uncommon to smile at strangers on the street.

Thomas is an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He researches cross-cultural differences and north-south cultural differences in China. He has lived in China (both north and south) for four years doing research, as a Fulbright Scholar, Princeton in Asia fellow, and as a freelance journalist. While living in Beijing, he also founded Smart Air, a social enterprise that researches and ships low-cost DIY air filters to help people protect themselves against air pollution.