Smile! 

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Trying to influence or establish contact with people by smiling only works with sociable people, according to research at Stanford University (2002).

Their brains respond and react with positive emotions but smiling has no impact on negative people, introverts, or those more neurotic.

The more extraverted you are, the more you allow yourself to be infected by the other person’s smile.

People make judgements based on your appearance in 1/10 of a second or less, to know whether or not they like you or think you are trustworthy. But after a couple of seconds they are distracted by what you say or do anyway.

Research by UK psychologists for Comic Relief in 2003 found big variations in the way people responded to smiles. In Edinburgh only 4% responded but in Bristol 70% smiled back (Birmingham was 31%). NB Smiling responses probably depend on the setting and the context.

Women smile more than men but it is discounted more as it is expected. 30 years ago researchers thought it was because of status differences between men and women but it may be more about relieving anxiety. Generally men only smile to be sociable.

Smiling is good for you as it lowers your heart rate and improves you immune system eg happier people resist catching colds better than unhappy people.

Cultural differences need to be taken into account too eg in former Soviet Union countries the older generation tend not to smile at strangers, even in shops and customer service settings (Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Lithuania).

There is also a cost to smiling when you are required to do it for your job. Emotional Labour, the so-called “have a nice day syndrome”, is the cost of appearing happy and reasonable no matter how you really feel. Having to fake it for your job eg in medical settings, teaching and call centres, can make you feel exhausted, detached from other people and your own feelings, and can eventually lead to job dissatisfaction. If you want to see how good you are at detecting fake smiles go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/surveys/smiles/index.shtml

Regulating empathy in this way is taking management control a step further than requiring staff to behave in certain ways. “You can’t force people to smile, they have to be satisfied with their lives, their jobs and their performance” said the HR Manager at IKEA, Russia.

There are things organisations could do:

  • Recruit extroverts who are generally more optimistic and positive
  • Give people who aren’t, role models to emulate (introverts can learn how to behave in extrovert ways)
  • Help people to get into positive moods through visualisation or by remembering positive events
  • Give people satisfying jobs to do!

If you need an incentive to smile it also looks like people who smile may live longer. http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2010/06/say-cheese-big-smilers-in-photos-are.html

It seems dimples are in fashion (influenced by Cheryl Cole) and a “dimpleplasty” operation – cutting a hole in your cheek and stitching it to your muscles – is now all the rage. The problem is that, unlike real dimples which disappear when you stop smiling, your grin is permanent and as Carol Midgley in the Times magazine says, it might be awkward having a permanent grin when your neighbour tells you the dog has just died.

First posted 2010

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