“We will have succeeded in our deconfinements when we smile at each other without forcing ourselves”

With the wearing of the mask, we were deprived of many smiles. What exactly have we lost?

Marie-Françoise Sales: Wearing a mask made it obvious to us the importance of smiles. We had forgotten to question their astonishing and indispensable presence. It is said that even masked, we can “see” the smiles or hear them. It’s true that when you smile and talk at the same time, you can hear it. And when the smiles are genuine, they mobilize the eyes, which then signals real smiles. But when you can’t see the lower part of your face, it’s still very difficult to recognize a smile. You have to be really very focused on the eyes or the voice and, in front of a group, this observation work is almost impossible.

What we also lack with masks are not only the genuine smiles, but the social smiles, the “mask smiles”, front or polite smiles, which are very important in our daily life, because we are social beings and that they facilitate our daily relationships.

In Friday or the wild life, Michel Tournier tells that Robinson, plunged in loneliness, loses the habit of smiling. Can this happen to us?

M.-FS: It turns out that we smile first of all because others smile at us, out of mimicry. The fact of being in front of masked faces thus has an effect: it is possible that we unlearn to smile when we do not see smiles.

During this pandemic, people who live with families were fortunately able to continue to smile at each other. At least we can hope so. But people who live alone are at risk of unlearning how to smile. It is a serious reality about which little has been said. I also noticed that during the first confinement, there were a lot of funny things on the Internet, humor, hijacking of images, jokes around the health situation. There are fewer and fewer. Maybe this is the sign that we smile less?

The smile can translate a wide range of emotions and intentions. How to navigate?

M.-FS: The smile is extremely varied and rich. It can express pleasure, joy, peace, the absence of tension, wisdom… But some smiles are not happy. There are sad smiles. We can smile in tears. There are also smiles that carry a lot of nastiness: cynical, perverse, sadistic smiles …

To find your way around, I think we can start from the difference between “smile” and “smile”. “Smiling at each other” implies reciprocal smiles. However, as soon as we exchange a smile, we put ourselves in a situation of recognition of the other. First, because you have to look at yourself to smile. And if I answer a smile, I accept that there is a link between me and the other. This hyphen can be extremely fleeting, because smiling is not something that engages a lot. But smiling at someone is giving them the opportunity to start a relationship. This is the start of a meeting.

Should we then speak of smiles as an opening to the unknown?

M.-FS: Yes, because this hyphen pushes us to recognize the otherness of the other. And from there, a story that is not written in advance can begin. This is why it is important to smile at each other during the difficult period we are going through. It gives us the opportunity to hope that something new can happen.

The interesting thing is that any type of smile can produce this, even the most commercial smile. Because we cannot protect ourselves against a smile. We cannot completely lock ourselves out. When you answer a smile with a smile, you never know what’s going to happen …

Some people may experience protection from wearing a mask. What do you think ?

M.-FS: The face is the place of our vulnerability. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says that, in front of the face of others, we are immediately called to a primary responsibility towards them. Levinas is not interested in facial expressions. For him, whether a face is smiling or not does not change the call he makes to me. However, I have the impression that the smile accentuates the expression of an expectation addressed to us. Wearing a mask can therefore be a relief for those who do not seek to enter into a relationship.

To seek refuge behind our masks is however an impoverishment. We must relearn not to be afraid of the relationship we have with others. To savor the possibility that something new will happen when we are connected. This will be one of the challenges of our convalescence. We will have to get used to the fact that the other is in front of us, that he requires us, that he engages us in a relationship that is not written in advance. We will have succeeded in our deconfinements when we are no longer afraid to smile at each other and when we will be able to smile at each other without forcing ourselves to do so.

How to compensate for the handicap of wearing a mask? By paying more attention to others?

M.-FS: When we smile, we breathe. Smiling is breathing, both in our relationship to others and in our relationship to ourselves. Not seeing smiles robs us of that breath, but we can make sure we reintroduce those pauses into our lives. When we smile, we also give the other the possibility to catch his breath, to think, to express himself. He is offered the silence and attention that can allow him to speak.

We can also compensate for wearing a mask by paying more attention to what we see on the other’s face. And when it’s “down the masks”, let’s not forget to really take them off and don’t forget to smile at each other!

What link do you see between a smile and the mystery of others?

M.-FS: If smiles fascinate so much, it’s because every time we see a smile, we perceive something that escapes, a ” I do not know what “ as the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch said. When we see someone smile, we understand that it is not reducible to social codes and psychic determinisms …

A smile always reveals this transcendence of others, either by its presence or by its absence. Maurice Blanchot said of absence that it is always a “Fine presence”, a hollow presence. Thus, in a smile that does not seem authentic to us, we notice the absence of something that should animate it but is not there. The part of mystery that a smile translates is therefore present in all smiles. In the smile of the Buddha as in the very commercial smiles.

What relationship do religions have with a smile?

M.-FS: The smile reveals something that escapes our grasp. This revelation is so overwhelming that it explains why smiling is complicated for religions as well as for philosophy. In religions, in general, there should be more smiles than there are: in texts, in iconographic representations and on the faces of believers. By definition, the believer is the one who hopes, who has a relationship of trust in what gives meaning to his existence. This should make her smile more! However, in all religious traditions, believers are invited to smile and are reminded of it. So it’s not obvious …

I believe that the smile is destabilizing, dangerous, for any dogmatic approach, any discourse that claims to grasp a meaning by excluding others. The smile goes against all that is rigid. It is of the order of the heart. All the religious traditions which pay a real attention to the free relationship with others and to transcendence make room for smiling.

The sage is often represented as slightly smiling. What does this smile mean?

M.-FS: The philosopher Alain wrote that “The smile is the weapon of the sage”. This smile is not a smile addressed to someone. It expresses the absence of worry, the absence of tension in body and mind. The wise man who smiles does not impose anything on anyone because he does not need to impose anything. It is a smile of freedom, which invites everyone to think for themselves.


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