The winning smile: Harder than it looks

People like a happy face, but to really get them in your corner, you should practise the ‘Duchenne’.


Photo: Paul Burley/Getty Images

Bill Sheridan, a workplace blogger for the Maryland Association of CPAs, recently let his readers in on what he called the secret to success (not to mention happiness, longevity, friendship, influence, power and health). “It’s not terribly complicated,” he said. “Smile.”

That’s bunk. The power of smiling is no secret. And it is very complicated, according to the new book Lip Service, in which Yale University psychology professor Marianne LaFrance examines the effect of smiling on everything from election outcomes to a con artist’s ability to take his mark for a ride. And while flashing a smile can help win you business, she warns that it can also backfire in the workplace.

The smile has received plenty of attention from science. In a recent TED talk, for example, American health guru Ron Gutman, founder of the Wellsphere blog network and the HealthTap site, pointed to studies of old pictures—ranging from yearbook headshots to mugs on baseball cards—that found people who smiled in youthful photos turned out to live better and longer lives than folks who didn’t.

Such research is well known in academic circles. Experts like LaFrance can go on for hours about how babies learn to smile to manipulate caregivers, or relating the tale of a U.S. Army officer who prevented a clash with agitated locals during the second Iraq War by ordering his men to lower weapons and smile as they occupied the town of Najaf. As for business success, you don’t have to be a Yale prof to notice sales and marketing folks have been deploying smiles for decades. Ad man Harvey Richard Ball created the smiley face in 1963 to boost morale among workers at merging U.S. insurance companies. Today, the image is aggressively employed by Walmart.

As LaFrance explains, smiles are an effective tool of manipulation because they make people feel liked. And since it is natural to want to trust someone who appears to like you, consumers tend to like products better when they are delivered or modelled by smiling individuals. The most powerful smile is a genuine ear-to-ear grin, which involves a spontaneous and symmetrical reconfiguration around the eyes and mouth. This is the Duchenne, named after a French physiologist who recreated it by applying electric currents to his subjects’ faces. Every salesperson worth his or her salt knows a good Duchenne can close a deal before the sales pitch has even started. Unfortunately, unless you’re plugged into a car battery, this smile is hard to fake and hold, because for most people it isn’t easy to control the related eye muscles at will. But don’t despair. LaFrance says a well manufactured “say cheese” smile can have the same winning impact when deployed on someone unschooled in the science of smiles. “That’s why con artists, sociopaths, psychopaths and salespeople get away with as much as they do.”

How do you spot a faker? Aside from the lack of eye movement, manufactured smiles can be detected by their controlled manner and the fact they tend to linger longer than the real deal, which appear in spurts. Fake smiles are also often asymmetrical. But LaFrance cautions against assuming the worst about the fakes. They’re often delivered with non-threatening intentions, while genuine smiles can cover up ill intentions because bad people often enjoy being bad.

Smiles can also send unintended cues. LaFrance warns managers to think twice about smiling when giving an employee a reprimand, because it can make the staffer conclude it’s not a serious concern. Employees, meanwhile, should understand that smiles can be interpreted in unwelcome ways. A woman, for example, might smile her way to great results in sales, but is at risk of being perceived as a flirt by some men. Smile-happy males, on the other hand, are considered very agreeable. Agreeable men don’t always finish last, but recent studies show they tend to get paid less.

Effective smiling comes naturally to some. For those reduced to faking, the trick is to create a positive impression without coming across as a suck-up. This is known as the ingratiator’s dilemma. And it is nothing to smile about.