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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Don't underestimate the power of a smile

Rika Kayama

There has been a lot of news recently about North Korea after its leader Kim Jong Un apparently retreated from his antagonistic approach and began working on plans to meet with the presidents of South Korea and the United States. The change is all the more considerable as the North has also promised to put its nuclear and missile tests on hold.

    Meanwhile, there are those warning against being deceived by the friendly change in diplomacy. A photo of Kim's bright smile while welcoming the special envoy from South Korea was released to the public. I'm told that this manner of meeting officials from another country with a kind and gentle expression and attitude is usually referred to as "smile diplomacy."

    I thought, "Isn't smile diplomacy a good thing?" But it seems that this phrase is often used negatively. For example, it can mean keeping a friendly demeanor in order to force the other party to let their guard down, and making a deal which benefits only your own country in the end, or taking advantage of the other party before they realize what's happening. These kinds of underhanded tactics are said to often be hidden under the guise of "smile diplomacy."

    It's true that in our daily lives, we often force a smile. That smile is not out of happiness rooted in the heart or joy, but rather a tool being used in pursuit of a certain goal. Sometimes we smile brightly so the person we are dealing with thinks that we are a good person before we deliver the punch line: "Well, actually I have a favor to ask you..."

    Of course, we have to be cautious of the kind of fake smile and smile diplomacy that tries to trick or use someone for malicious reasons. It would be no good if we let our guards down at the sight of a seemingly harmless smile, and end up in a terrible situation in the middle of a war or with all of our possessions missing before we even realize what happened.

    But that doesn't mean that we should go about our business with a stern expression. If we always go into an interaction putting up a front like we are in a fierce competition with the other person that we can't afford to lose, then naturally our relationships will sour. Even in times of serious negotiations, it's good to build some common ground by going out to a cafe or for a meal, relaxing a little bit and smiling while talking about each other's hometowns, favorite music or other topics. There is no need to hold on to the mentality, "If I smile, I lose."

    In my consultation room as well, the more serious the discussion of a patient's medical condition, the more I try to engage in light conversation once our session is over, commenting on the recent weather with a smile on my face. Precisely because the patient is going through difficult or troublesome times, a simple smile can do so much to put them at ease.

    So what will happen with smile diplomacy spreading across East Asia? I will continue watching with 70 percent hope and 30 percent concern, all the while trying to do more to value the power of a smile in both my daily life and in the consultation room. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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