Hearing a Smile in Tone of Voice "I do in the summertime" — the different intonations in that sentence revealed to scientists in the U.K. that we can hear a smile in someone's voice without seeing his or her face. Scott Simon talks with Amy Drahota, an author of the study, about the findings.

Hearing a Smile in Tone of Voice

Hearing a Smile in Tone of Voice

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"I do in the summertime" — the different intonations in that sentence revealed to scientists in the U.K. that we can hear a smile in someone's voice without seeing his or her face. Scott Simon talks with Amy Drahota, an author of the study, about the findings.


When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you. But what if they can't see you? What if they can just hear you? A new study out of the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. says that a smile is, in fact, something that you can hear, and that a good set of ears can pick up on different kinds of smiles.

Joining us now from her office is the author of that study, Amy Drahota.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. AMY DRAHOTA (Research Fellow, School of Health Sciences and Social Work, University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom): I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: I think you're smiling a little, aren't you?

Ms. DRAHOTA: I am. I'm smiling now. Yeah.

SIMON: Okay. All right. Well, explain to us how you set up this study. I mean, did you have control questions, as they call them, and that sort of thing?

Ms. DRAHOTA: The study was carried out in three stages. The first stage involved recording speakers whilst they were smiling, but we didn't want the speakers to know that the study was about smiles at the time because they're interested in everyday expressions.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DRAHOTA: So in order to do this, we carried out some rather bizarre interviews where we asked the speakers to always respond to our questions with the same answer, which was: I do in the summer. And then we don't have the questions scheduled to gradually become more amusing, strange from bizarre in order to make them smile.

SIMON: First question would be: Do you eat oatmeal - I do in the summer. But the - like the 10th question might be something like: Do you go to Mars?

Ms. DRAHOTA: Yeah. Something like that - would you ever go skinny dipping?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I do in the summer.

Ms. DRAHOTA: Yeah. So then after that had been done, we took the interview recordings and analyze the facial expressions that people had while, say, with speaking.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DRAHOTA: And we picked up on three different types of smiles for the purposes of the study and these were Duchenne smile, which is where the lips are drawn back, the cheeks and raised and you get little crows-feet wrinkles around the eyes…

SIMON: What was that called again?

Ms. DRAHOTA: Duchenne smile.

SIMON: Duchenne.


SIMON: Okay.

Ms. DRAHOTA: Named after a physician.

SIMON: A physician.


SIMON: I thought it was Eddy Duchin, the piano player, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: …all right.

Ms. DRAHOTA: And then the second type of smile we did get was the non-Duchenne smile, which is just like the Duchenne smile but without the crows-feet wrinkles around the eyes.

SIMON: So that's more of a half smile.

Ms. DRAHOTA: Might be less intense version of the Duchenne or it might be something completely different altogether. And the third type of smile that we looked at was the suppressed smile, which is where you're trying not to smile whilst you're speaking perhaps because you are trying to remain serious and you say, pulling your lips in or down as you speak. And then the fourth type of expression we had with the study was a no smile where people just speaking normally.

So we categorized all those expressions and we then we lift it, just the voices, from the recordings and played them back to this different set of listeners. You have to work out whether or not people are smiling.

SIMON: When you played those voices back…

Ms. DRAHOTA: Yeah.

SIMON: …how did your controlled subjects do? Were they able to discern smiles after a while?

Ms. DRAHOTA: Most people were good at hearing the Duchenne smile. That was the type of smile that people are most successful at.

SIMON: Our producers here have been busy replicating.


SIMON: In this case, they've been trying to replicate at least some aspects of your study. So we're going to play some tape of someone who was on staff here, and going to try and guess. I'm going to try and guess with your guidance, perhaps, if she's smiling or not.

Ms. DRAHOTA: Okay.

Unidentified Woman: I do in the summer.

SIMON: That doesn't sound like a smile to me.

Ms. DRAHOTA: Well, I thought I had a slight twinge of a smile in there, but…

SIMON: They're nodding in the control room. You're right. And I know this person. All right. Let's here the next one.

Unidentified Woman: I do in the summer.

SIMON: But I would guess there's a - at least, a non-Duchenne smile there.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRAHOTA: I don't know, but I heard the smile in there.

SIMON: Right again. Of course, you're the expert. Okay. We're going to hear another one.

Unidentified Woman: I do in the summer.

SIMON: Well, I, of course, am thoroughly intimidated at this point so I'm not sure what I've been through, I guess. I'm going to say there's a Duchenne smile in there.

Ms. DRAHOTA: Yeah. I thought there was even a little sound of laughter in that as well, and hopefully with you.

SIMON: I'm told we were both right. Although, to be honest, it was more a process of elimination, whereas you have absolutely heard something. So with respect for what you have done - why? I mean, do we learn anything about how we communicate?

Ms. DRAHOTA: A lot of the research that's been done in this area in the past just focused on and when they've used actors to simulate the different expressions. They haven't looked at different types of smiles…

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DRAHOTA: …and everyday expressions which is what these three types was really trying to hime in on, but also this research could have further applications. For example, in our computer-stimulated speech, making computerized voices sound more natural as you speak because I've done a lot of work in making computerized phrases more expressive, but the voices still need more work.

SIMON: Ms. Drahota, I moved to ask you a philosophical question…

Ms. DRAHOTA: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: …given your area of expertise. Do people smile because they are happy? Do they smile to make themselves feel happy?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRAHOTA: I imagine it works both ways.

SIMON: Amy Drahota, University of Portsmouth. Thanks so much.

Ms. DRAHOTA: It's been a pleasure.

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