Category Archives: body language

Trapped! Women and the smiling myth


Or why does no one write books about men not smiling enough?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post “10 ways women supposedly sabotage their careers“. It sparked some heated discussion. The 10 ways were lifted somewhat unceremoniously by Citibank’s Diversity Department, from the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois Frankel (sales of 27 million) and converted into dubious “bumper sticker” phrases to support women in the organisation (+/- 330.000 employees globally).

One seemed to attract more attention and curiosity than the others – women seemingly sabotage their careers by smiling inappropriately. This I thought merited closer inspection, because that’s a helluva lot of women believing they smile at the wrong time in the workplace. But what constitutes inappropriate?

Some basics
A spontaneous smile is defined as ” a facial expression formed by flexing those muscles most notably near both ends of the mouth. The smile can also be found around the eyes ..” known as the Duchenne Smile. A smile is deep within our primate nature. It depicts positive social relationships and confirms anthropologically that no harm is intended. Combined with eye contact a smile is perceived to be the sign of a confident person, but most importantly, it suggests energy and vibrancy to the recipient. How can that be damaging?

Some research
According to Daniel McNeill, author of The Face: A Natural History, women are genetically built to smile in order to bond with infants. “Smiling is innate and appears in infants almost from birth….The first smiles appear two to twelve hours after birth and seem void of content. Infants simply issue them, and they help parents bond.”

Although women apparently smile more than men, this statistic changes when other variables are factored in: culture, ethnicity, age, or when people think they are being observed, according to the study funded by the National Science Foundation.

It would be interesting for social psychologists and anthropologists to look at these data because the wide cultural, ethnic and other differences suggest that the sex difference is not something that is hard-wired,” said Marianne LaFrance, professor of psychology at Yale and senior author of the study published the journal psychological Bulletin. ” This is not a function of being male or female. Each culture overlays men and women with rules about appropriate behavior for men and women”

Minimal differences
The cultural variables were also interesting, with women in the United States and Canada smiling more than in other parts of the world, (England and Australia) African-American men and women smile equally, while there is indeed a gender difference amongst American Caucasians. They also noted that when occupying similar work, power and social roles, the gender differences in the rate of smiling disappears or is minimal. Here, LaFrance surmises that the sex differences are overridden by smile norms for the position one is in, rather than by gender.

Perceptions
As they rise up the career ladder, the rate at which women smile therefore is line with their male counterparts. This is why Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and any other senior professional woman would conduct themselves correctly! The converse then should presumably apply and men working in service roles should be motivated to crank up their own smile levels a notch or two. Speaking from personal experience, I would suggest some French waiters or male railway personnel (Platform 5, East Croydon to London Victoria) might be a good target market for any future books on the appropriateness of the male smile.

Assigned roles
Research also shows that the facial expressions of men when stressed become fearful and angry, while the incidence with women is less. So in male dominated stressful business environments are we just conditioned to expect this type of reaction from our leaders than anything else? Do we simply expect our leaders to look fierce? Perhaps this is the reason why according to Management Today trust in CEOS increases when a woman is in charge in difficult times.

Imprecise vocabulary
What sort of situations would therefore merit accusations of smiling inappropriately, or is it simply poor word choice? Delivering bad or sensitive news with a wide grin perhaps? Smiling when anxious, more accurately called grimacing. A sarcastic smile – known as a smirk? As women are recognised as having superior qualities of empathy, then the same research would suggest that they are actually less likely to react inappropriately. LaFrance says women are more likely to smile to defuse tension doing what she calls ” emotion work” – but as creativity tends to go out of the window when tension exists why is this negative?

Trap 1
Perhaps the smiling quotient (and herein lies the first trap) is related to the fact that women have traditionally carried out service functions and men have been assigned ” warrior” roles. Their smiles are therefore perceived (no matter what they are achieving) as being an indication of deference , and therefore self sabotaging, in leadership roles. This myth is now even being perpetuated by women themselves.

Trap 2
What is even more worrying that countless women now believe that in order to succeed they must modify a key and instinctive part of their behaviour to conform to male norms over and above what they do naturally as their careers progress up the male hierarchy. That will lead to that age-old fall back of course, the second gender trap: accusations of PMS in the corner office.

If there is to be any levelling out of smiling ratios, the next slew of books should perhaps focus on men smiling more.

What do you think?

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Living in the shadow of your own resume

Are you what it says on the tin?

I received a CV from a candidate ( let’s call him John). My eyes lit up. A complex search had just become much easier. His CV was powerful, positive, succinct. But unhappily John was not. His responses ranged from arrogant and overbearing to hesitant, unclear and evasive. If his resume had not been on my screen I would have had no idea what John did. Who was this person?

Many candidates suffer from  what I call Resume Shadow Syndrome. This is when a CV is stronger than the candidate’s personal presentation of themselves, whether in person or on the phone. They therefore live in the shadow of their own resume. This means that they will be called for interviews or contacted by telephone, but will either come unravelled at the first screening stage, or the face to face interview. Basically for different reasons, they don’t own their message.

No quick fixes
They believe that having a strong CV is the magic carpet solution to career change, where they can float over the whole process, preferably at speed. In fact constructing a strong resume is probably only the 3rd or even 4th step in a building block process to success and by leap frogging all the basics they crash and burn. It’s like thinking you can tackle black ski runs because you have bought top class equipment and look good. Not happening. Or finding out from the small print that the “top quality fresh ” product is full of dubious additives and unpronounceable, 10 syllable chemicals.

Why is this so important?
Having a powerful CV is only part of the job search process and although it will open doors, it won’t get you the job! It’s only part of communicating your message (brand) so that people hear you! If you are not connected to your own message and you are not what it says on the tin, then you’re in trouble.

What can go wrong?

No self insight: The CV has been prepared with professional help but with insufficient time on core “discovery” work and follow-up. You have to do basic discovery work and spend some time reflecting on your achievements and skills. If candidates don’t really know themselves, how can they expect other people, who don’t know them at all, to glean any understanding of them.

Poor delivery : The message might look good on paper but it has not been converted into an elevator pitch or soundbites. Not enough practise! Laziness, ignorance or arrogance – or a combination of all three

Poor first impression. Body language, general appearance and demeanour are incorrect or inappropriate.

Insufficient preparation. No research is carried out on the companies and individuals involved in the process. Most companies make it easy for you to learn about them on their website and LinkedIn. Use Google! Even if it’s not an interview, but just a networking session or an informal chat, make sure that you know who will be involved in the process and practise your elevator speech.

Inferior content : Be concise, precise and relevant in your delivery with crisp presentation to avoid detailed questioning, because your point is fuzzy. See point on preparation, research and practise. Understanding your core mission statement and practising the delivery of your message , over and over again if necessary, is key here. Don’t expect it to be alright on the day. Even confident people get nervous and forget things. Be direct and professional in terms of language and topics covered. Interviewers don’t want to know about your kids sports games – unless you are asked.

Fuzzy : Be honest and don’t exaggerate or evade. Skilled interviewers can detect spin or lies instantly and will pick at it until the truth is out. You want to avoid the ” Let’s go back to…” unless it’s a major achievement and even then you should have sold that thoroughly. Fuzziness creates doubts. If there are real doubts – you will be cut.

Negativity : Be positive – don’t run your ex company or colleagues down. It’s a small world and you never know who knows whom. If you do that about one company you could well do it for the hiring manager and organisation.

Anyone who thinks because they have one strong document they can short-circuit running the hard yards can be in for a serious wake up call. You have to be who you say you are on the tin!

Just make sure you are a brand and not a white label!

Interviews and Non – Verbal Communication

Body language

Body language

Your lips may not be moving and you haven’t said a word, but you’re actually sending a message in all sorts of other ways without even realising it. You just have to make sure it’s the right one.

So you‘ve been called for an interview for a great job. Your amazing CV has missed the reject pile, you’ve survived a telephone screening and now you think all you have to do is knock ‘em dead with your perfectly honed interview pitch. Right? No…. sorry… wrong.

Remember that first impressions are created within the first 10 seconds to give a lasting impression. 55% of a person’s perception of you is based on the way you look, the rest is split between how you say what you‘re saying, and finally, after all that, what you actually say. I know.. tough! So even assuming you’re suited and booted in absolutely the right way, you’re completely prepared but will that be enough? No – afraid not. Non verbal communication is paramount. The way you look is significant , which incorporates, not just what you wear, but your posture, body language and general demeanour. These reveal more about you to the interviewer, than you will ever know. You want to show that you are calm, confident and professional, without being arrogant. Then you tell them how good you are.

So what to think of ?

  •  Smile – Remember we all smile in the same language. It’s the classic ice breaker.
  •  Handshake – should be firm – but not bone breaking. Ladies, this is really important. No limp finger tip tickling.
  •  Eye contact – is paramount -without looking crazed. It shows people you are engaged and interested. Erratic eye contact is associated with shiftiness and glazed eyes indicates lack of interest.
  •  Introduce yourself – OK, I know this is verbal, but it is too closely related to first impressions to be excluded. This is particularly important if your name has a difficult pronunciation, or the interviewer has a different first language to your own. I thought I had a sure fire way around any misunderstanding by saying ” I’m sorry – how do you pronounce your name?” The guy didn’t miss a beat and replied “Mike “. Didn’t do that again. If you’ve misheard – just apologise and ask them to say their name again.
  •  Repeat – the interviewers names a few times in the early part of your conversation ( without sounding robotic) more verbal communication – but for the same reason. This is a trick our US friends employ perfectly and one we Europeans could well emulate.
  •  Posture – Sit or stand straight if you want to be seen as alert and enthusiastic. When you slump in your chair, perch on a desk or lean against a wall, you look tired and bored. No one wants to recruit someone who looks lethargic and lacking in energy
  • Body – The angle of your body gives an indication to others about what’s going through your mind. Leaning in shows interest, leaning or turning away the complete opposite. That says “I’ve had enough” Adding a nod of your head is another way to affirm that you are listening
  •  Head – Keeping your head straight, will make you appear self-assured and authoritative. People will take you seriously. Tilt your head to one side if you want to come across as friendly and open.
  •  Arms – crossed or folded over your chest suggests a lack of openness and can imply that you have no interest in the speaker or what they are saying. This position can also say, “I don’t agree with you”. You don’t want to appear cold – I don’t mean temperature here. Too much movement might be seen as erratic or immature. The best place for your arms is by your side. You will look confident and relaxed. If this is hard for you, do what you always do when you want to get better at something – practice. After a while, it will feel natural.
  •  Hands – In the business world, particularly when you deal with people from other cultures, your hands need to be seen. Make sure your fists aren’t closed – it suggests aggression. When you speak –don’t point your index finger at anyone. That is also an aggressive move. Having your hands anywhere above the neck, playing with your hair or rubbing your face, can be perceived as unprofessional.
  •  Legs – A lot of movement can indicate nervousness.The preferred positions for the polished professional are feet flat on the floor or legs crossed at the ankles. The least professional and most offensive position is resting one leg or ankle on top of your other knee. It looks arrogant. That’s a guy thing (normally).
  •  Personal Space -there are lots of cultural differences regarding personal space. Standing too close or “in someone’s face” will mark you as pushy or even aggressive. Positioning yourself too far away will make you seem remote. Neither is what you want, so find the happy medium. Most importantly, do what makes the other person feel comfortable. That shows empathy.
  •  Listen well -Active listening is a form of non verbal communication.It is a real skill and demonstrates engagement and empathy. Paraphrase and ask for clarification of any points, to make sure you have fully understood. Modify your body language to indicate you are fully engaged – leaning in slightly, making eye contact and nodding affirmation.
  • Smell – if you’re a smoker do try not to smoke any time before your interview. The smell lingers and some people, especially today, find it offensive. I’m personally relaxed about perfume/aftershave – but others aren’t, so once again err on the side of caution.

Now you can make your elevator speech!