It seems rather sad that such a lovely expression of pleasure as a smile should be put under scrutiny and become a subject for guidance and rules.
But smiling, like all other aspects of non-verbal communication, can add to or detract from the impact you make at work. It’s that Goldilocks effect again — too few smiles and you appear to be cold and standoffish, too many and you seem over-eager to please and to be liked. Get it just right, though, like the porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold, and you hit the right note of positive communication.
In our social interactions, mutual smiles help to establish a friendly atmosphere. A smile signifies that you are approachable and non-hostile.
It doesn’t matter how genuine it is. Smiling isn’t always an expression of inner warmth, well-being or delight. Often it is just a civilised convention.
We learn from an early age to slap on a smile in all kinds of situations in which smiling is the last thing we feel like doing — and we learn too that smiling when you’re feeling negative or low actually improves our mood. Smiling has a powerful impact on how we feel and on how others feel. It’s a contagious action, helping to lift the mood of those on the receiving end.
Nothing wrong with a smile, then, far from it. But in the context of the workplace, the nature of our smiles can have an adverse effect on the way we are perceived.
The fact is that if you smile too much or in inappropriate situations, you will come across as lightweight and lacking authority. And it’s so easy to do. The gap between the trigger (your boss in a temper walking towards you ) and the response (that ingratiating, out-of-place grin you could kick yourself for) is between 20 and 30 milliseconds. Like so much we regret, it’s done before we know it.
So don’t make a smile your default expression. Of course you don’t want the opposite either, looking so scowly and bad-tempered that no one wants to come near you. You can control your facial muscles to achieve a neutral, alert, engaged expression which is okay for most situations. What you do is:
- Widen your eyes just slightly
- Raise your eyebrows the tiniest amount
- Soften the corners of your mouth just a smidgeon
That’s a good resting or public face for the workplace (or anywhere else, come to that). You look approachable without being a pushover, self-confident without being in-your-face. Now it’s up to you to decide, or to be aware of, when it’s a good time to move up into a smile, or down into a frown or serious gaze. The guiding rule should be congruence. Your expression should match the context of the situation, which may include the nature of a conversation and how you feel about it
Don’t smile when:
- You are saying something critical
- Someone is criticising you
- You feel nervous
- You feel angry
- You feel embarrassed
- You are telling someone that you are angry
- You are in a serious discussion
- You’re asking someone to do something you know they don’t want to do
- You’re refusing to do something
- You’re making a serious request
- You’re disagreeing
Do smile when:
- You want to make yourself feel better
- You are meeting and greeting people
- You feel amused or pleased
- You’re enjoying a conversation
- You’re having a personal conversation
- You’re networking
- It’s the natural thing to do
As ever, there’s a gender issue here. It’s said that women smile too easily and too often, thinking or having been told that it’s expected of them.
A woman who smiles too much is seen as weaker, less dominant, less serious, less determined than her male counterpart. The more authority you have, the more slowly and rarely you smile.
Smiling too much was a matter of life and death for one poor woman. We’re referring to the titled lady in Robert Browning’s compelling dramatic monologue, My Last Duchess.
In the poem, the Duke describes the behaviour of his ex-missus. She was really nice to everyone, happy and flirty, and smiled a lot. A lot. The Duke couldn’t stand it, gave orders, then ‘all smiles stopped’. He keeps a portrait of his murdered wife behind a curtain, and only he can draw back the curtain and gaze on her smile.
Perhaps it’s not that much of a cautionary tale, because after all the Duke is clearly sociopathic, arrogant and insensitive, and therefore not a bit like anyone we have worked with…oops.
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