As I See It: Lip Service
October 6, 2014 Victor Rozek
What if there was a bodily function that could help make or break your career? Sounds improbable since bodily functions are generally involuntary and occur outside our conscious awareness. But even though it is chemically induced in the brain, this particular function can also be initiated volitionally. And, when appropriately applied, it is socially welcome which, as we all know, cannot be said for all corporal processes. Yet for all its promise, it remains vastly undervalued.
In a tome on the subject Angus Trumble called it the “fabulously versatile contortion.” Indeed, with only subtle variances, it is capable of communicating a wide range of meanings from wisdom, deceit, or delight, to sympathy, desire, and lewdness. When given authentically, it may well be the shortest distance between two people, and anyone can find it right under their nose. Oh, the title of Trumble’s book: A Brief History of the Smile.
Like it or not, the face provides a shortcut for evaluating character and personality, and projecting future behavior. Therapist and author Wendy Maltz, who has amassed a mountain of research on the subject and graciously offered to share it with me, notes that some of the virtues associated with smiling are: honesty, sincerity, sympathy, competence, kindness, confidence, friendliness, approachability, intelligence, and attractiveness. Conversely, the owners of dour faces are presumed to be lacking said virtues, and miss out on the many benefits automatically extended to those who are well liked. And although negative judgments based on facial impressions are largely subconscious and seldom voiced, research shows they manifest in poor evaluations, smaller raises, and fewer promotions.
It wasn’t always so. The popularity of smiling is a relatively new cultural phenomenon. A survey of European portraiture shows that, with the exception of a few iconic grinners like the Mona Lisa, most subjects have their lips pursed tighter than a politician’s wife questioned about her husband’s infidelities. Historically, depictions of smiling people were largely restricted to leering demons, drunks, village idiots, and dirty old men. The smile was more indicative of moral dissolution than joy and aliveness.
It was Bruegel (the Elder) who finally broke the prohibition against depicting happy people. He was the first artist to abandon the grim religiosity of medieval life to paint scenes of dancing peasants rather than saints and deities. But even Bruegel’s subjects smiled with mouths closed, reflecting a historic distaste for showing teeth. Then again, medieval peasants probably didn’t have all that many teeth to show.
It took the advent of advertising and modern dentistry to fully liberate the unselfconscious smile. And then, like winter flu, it began to spread everywhere–to magazines, television, billboards, busses, and benches. From tires to toilet paper, every conceivable product was peddled by a fawning smiler. Smiling salesmen, a Japanese survey showed, increased sales by 20 percent. Women were hired as hostesses for trade shows with only one instruction: keep smiling until your lips cramp, and then smile some more. Even the popular culture became infected. Harvey Ball, a commercial artist created a graphic that he sold for $45. Harvey turned out to be a good artist but a poor businessman. At the peak of their popularity in 1971, 50 million smiley-face buttons were sold in the U.S.
If smiling is an asset to career aspirations, it can also thwart them. When Steve Forbes ran for president in 2000, during interviews he unfailingly displayed a dopey, vacuous grin that he held in place with noticeable effort. He had probably been coached to smile frequently because he lacked the natural appeal demanded by the camera. But his grin undercut his single-issue flat tax candidacy. In the words of Alexander Pope, “Eternal smiles his emptiness betrayed.” The lesson being, if you smile all the time, you won’t be taken seriously.
That’s particularly true for women, especially in management positions who, according to Maltz, are caught in a double bind. Excessive smiling undermines their authority, while miserly smiling is proof of bitchiness. To be effective, a smile must be contextually appropriate as well as genuine. Unwarranted smiling suggests obsequiousness, while never smiling suggests Dick Cheney.
For men, excessive smiling is a sign of weakness, but the inability to smile implies a lack of caring. One study concluded that testosterone levels influence the frequency of smiling: the more testosterone a man has, the less often he is likely to smile. Which is one reason why two boxers staring at one another exhibit all the facial animation of Easter Island stone heads.
Although 95 percent of people in a nationwide Logitech survey agreed that “smiling made a better and more productive workplace,” most still take themselves way too seriously. Granted, taking your job seriously may be essential to professional survival, but good health demands taking yourself lightly. According to Kayrn Buxman, of the American Association of Therapeutic Humor (folks who take their laughter seriously), workers consume 15 tons of aspirin a day. One in four suffers from some anxiety-related illness. In Silicon Valley, drug use is as ubiquitous as the keyboard. If, as Inc. Magazine posited, a sense of humor was the #1 survival skill for the 21st century, that message has been lost in the deluge of self-medication.
But relief is available in non-prescription form. Smiling, says Maltz, increases endorphins and T-cell production, while reducing heart rate and stress. It has the power to turn bad moods into good. On an energetic level, the type of behavior you are presented with is the one you are likely to mirror, so smiling offers a way to exercise a degree of control over your workplace environment.
At its best, at full wattage, there is radiant energy in a smile, like a small blessing bestowed upon the viewer. It has the power to heal both the giver and the recipient. Those small, healing moments spread across a stressful workday, can make the intolerable endurable. A holdover from the 15th century is the phrase “to smile on” meaning to look upon with favor or approval. In the workplace it is exceedingly rare to find anyone suffering from an approval overload, and bestowing a smile of appreciation, or kindness, or understanding can have a profound impact well beyond the momentary connection.
Some years ago I heard a story about a man in New York City who committed suicide. In his apartment he left a note that said this day he intended to walk to the bridge and jump. But if a single person smiled at him on the way, he would turn around and return home.
Author and motivational speaker Steve Maraboli said: “It only takes a split second to smile and forget, yet to someone that needed it, it can last a lifetime.”
It’s certainly worth considering.