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How a smile could change the course of history

A recent newspaper photograph suggested that Mark Tedeschi, QC, the senior NSW Crown prosecutor, was celebrating after his successful prosecution of Des Campbell.  Not quite the done thing for someone of his position.

But according to a rival newspaper’s subsequent account, Mr Tedeschi had been “fitted up”. He had refused to comment on the Campbell verdict outside court. Later he was asked about an exhibition of his photography, and it was his smile then that was snapped.

The incident resonated with Dr Susan Coulson, a lecturer in physiotheraphy at the University of Sydney, who is something of an expert on the power of smiles. She writes:

“Smiles trigger strong reactions in others. The power of a smile is shown when we perceive it to be mismatched to the trigger situation. Imagine if you were to see a photo of Barrack Obama’s broad smile printed alongside his serious verbal response to the clean-up failure of the tragic oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Immediately the suspicion would be created that the face was indicating the true emotional response.

Mark Tedeschi QC, the State’s senior Crown prosecutor, ran a successful prosecution of Des Campbell last week and was unsmiling during an interview about the proceedings outside the courtroom.

Later that day a photo was taken as he happily discussed his recent photographic exhibition and this photo was printed alongside his verbal response about the case. Therefore, he was shown to express delight when we expected restraint.

Mismatches between the facial representation of emotion and the gravity of the trigger situation typically affect the credibility of the individual portrayed. We saw restraint on Lindy Chamberlain’s face when we expected to see grief when the dingo was reported to have taken baby Azaria. Obama would always be been expected to show serious concern on his face for the victims of an environmental disaster – not his broad, winning smile.

From the viewpoint of a physiotherapist who treats facial nerve disorders, I know this mismatch in facial emotional expression is what people with injured faces experience every day, without having the option to choose the right expression to run beside their story.

Bell’s palsy, shingles or other disorders which affect the facial nerve and nerve damage during surgical removal of an acoustic neuroma can leave one side of the face unable to move properly. Facial expression of emotion is altered and the viewer often misinterprets the intended meaning. An intended friendly smile may, for example, come across looking like a hostile lop-sided grimace.

Smiles are social currency, needed just at the right moment in a social situation. If not, they can be perceived as inappropriate, offensive or suggesting the person’s true opinion is quite different to what they say. Could not showing enough emotion, or smiling at the wrong moment pervert the course of justice?

There’s a might of power in the immediacy of a smile.”