This is a difficult topic to write authoritatively on, because it’s not my area of expertise, and the only knowledge I have of it is a few pop sci articles and my own experience.  So this should perhaps be taken as an anecdote, but if I find any more information on it, I will post it here.

Another thing that makes it tricky is that while I have been able to find psychology papers on smiling, I haven’t been able to find very much on the specific scenario on which I want information. I did find this article from a business coaching firm’s website, but obviously they have a vested interest in identifying a behavioural problem. And how much of the problem’s existence and solution depends on everyone buying into it? It does quote a study undertaken at UCLA, which I wasn’t able to find. I did, however, locate a couple of interesting studies on smiling in job interviews:
  • Mollie A. Ruben, Judith A. Hall & Marianne Schmid Mast (2015) Smiling in a Job Interview: When Less Is More, The Journal of Social Psychology, 155:2, 107-126, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2014.972312

(TL;DR: jobs viewed as more “serious” rate smiley candidates less favourably at interview, using smiles at different stages of the interview has differing effects, some jobs have male or female connotations, men smile less than women)

(TL;DR: people in positions of power smile according to their genuine emotions, people in low-power situations did not smile more overall but did smile more when they were not actually happy)

The situations described on the business coaching site do reflect my own experiences, but I am wary of my confirmation bias in the selection of studies I’ve found.  That having been said, I’ve found a reasonable solution that seems to be working for me, and if I base all of my decisions on a meta-analysis of a number of peer reviewed papers, I’ll never make it out of the front door.  Anyway, my story goes like this:

I was chatting with somebody about the perception of smiling (I can’t remember how we got on to this), and I mentioned that I try not to smile as much as I once used to.  It’s a part of my assertiveness drive mentioned in this post.  It’s because I tended (and I do sometimes still do, if I let my guard down) to smile at anyone and everything, when I’m talking to people about probably anything, at work, in the street, at university, when speaking to friends, strangers, acquaintances.  The problem isn’t the smiling itself, but its ubiquity.  My instinct was to always smile when addressed, and it’s just not appropriate.  This is a learnt behaviour, and while it’s ingrained and hard to break free from, I am more aware of it and I’m able to manage it more effectively.

So my problems with my incessant smiling were:

  1. I appeared to only have one emotional state: deliriously happy.  This effectively rendered me expressionless and less able to convey my emotions or intentions to others.
  2. People appeared to take me more seriously when I adjusted the volume control on my smile dial.  I do worry here that I might be seeing this because I’ve decided that this is the result I want, but I can think of a few examples in which someone thought they could get one over on me by laughing it off, and I didn’t play along… and it noticeably worked out in my favour, accompanied by their embarrassment (I’m not going to deny I felt satisfaction about this – but mainly because I didn’t end up the one looking like a fool).

The person I was talking with argued that smiling is a positive aspect of human interaction, and that is true.  The article in the first link addresses this, noting that a smile is a weapon to be wielded with skill and care.  Use it appropriately to your advantage in an exchange, but don’t apply a scattergun approach.

I’m going to finish with another article (from the Guardian) about the perception of women, that takes a slightly different direction.  So there’s evidence to show that people are more likely to lie to a woman than a man.  And many women would agree that they’ve been in a situation where people bullshitted them and not their male colleague / friend / partner.  But the Guardian piece argues that that’s not the part of the problem that you need to look at.  Sure women get lied to more, but doesn’t that make them more vigilant to lying?  And by extension, better liars themselves?  Well, that’s one way of redressing the balance, I suppose.

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