Category Archives: Smiling inappropriately

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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