Smile is a universal language

Ni Hao from Beijing….. As many of you know, my passion is understanding communication of all types yet, I have to admit learning languages is not a strong suit of mine! Even after two years of university level Spanish all I remember is “Donde esta el bano por favor?” Granted, good to know, but of limited use, especially here in Beijing. Ni Hao and xiè xiè are the only two words I’ve learned (so far).

I’m having to make do with the universal language of a smile here in China (and the occasional interpreter). Speaking of smiles, I love the photo above. I took it in a famous “peking duck” restaurant the other day. Look at those eyes and the sweet message they are sending. You can just see her smile (even though her hand is covering her mouth). She loved my red hair and green eyes. The little girl had never seen green eyes and called them “cat-eyes” according to my Chinese friends. Interesting how others see us, but that’s for another post I suppose.

The universal message of the smile

One thing that is extremely useful and universal is a smile! It has been understood at every city I’ve ever landed in. Yet, it can’t be just any smile—you don’t want to go around looking crazed like the joker from Batman fame…. At least, I hope you don’t anyway. It’s fascinating to observe the wide range and universality of smiles. Dr Paul Ekman, a famous facial expression researcher and author describes many kinds of smiles, from the real smile to the deception smile. Smiles range from the tight-lipped grip of embarrassment to the innocent smile of a child. People smile for all sorts of reasons.

A smile can send a message that endears someone to you or repulses you. It can express empathy, happiness, sadness or even embarrassment. There are real smiles and fake smiles and all sorts of smiles in-between. Smiling seems to be innate. In his book The Face: A Natural History, author Daniel McNeill, suggests that “the first smiles appear two to twelve hours after birth and seem void of content.” As the mother of two, I assure you, even if my newborn sons had no content to their smiles, their smiles certainly had emotional content for me. Whatever their basis smiles have a powerful effect on us.

Fine tune your smile for maximum impact

Often times, our smiles are easy and natural. We don’t think about smiling very often, they just happen, yet genders, cultures and groups view smiling and eye contact differently. Let’s review the basic smile.

There are two parts to a smile. First, the contraction of the facial muscles that turn up the corner of your mouth and sometimes opening the mouth or parting the lips to show teeth. Regulating the size of your lip opening is something to consider in business situations. Typically, the higher your position, the less you show teeth when smiling, unless of course, you are a politician. Then again, we all know how insincere a politician’s smile can feel.

Second is eye contact. Eye contact is not the same as your eyes’ response to emotional stimuli. Your eyes’ response to emotions or outside stimuli — such as tearing up at a sad movie, — cannot be easily manipulated; but eye contact can be. Eye contact takes little effort to shift your eyes away or lock your gaze.

Before making eye contact, know what response you want from the other person to determine the length of time you make direct eye contact. If you are in conversation with someone of a superior position, mirror (or use slightly less than) the amount and intensity of their eye contact. If you notice someone’s breathing accelerating, consider averting your eyes for a moment. Breaking direct eye contact can allow some “breathing space” for both parties.

Research has shown that prolonged direct eye contact can actually increase another person’s heart-rate and speed of breathing. In extreme cases, acceleration in breathing and change in heart-rate can leave a person hyperventilating, with a “fluttery” feeling, not unlike a feeling of falling in love. No coincidence, really, since one of the behaviors of puppy love is direct and prolonged eye contact. And no wonder that when stared at we can be left feeling uncomfortable or even threatened.

So what is the “best” business smile?

If you want to be seen as credible, sincere and friendly, first consider being slower to smile. If you walk into a room with a big smile frozen on your face, as though, anyone and everyone was the intended recipient, your smile will not been seen as credible, sincere or friendly. The frozen smile is a sign of distress and/or low self-esteem. Certainly, not a message you want to be sending. If you have a tendency to fortify yourself with a plastered smile, before you enter the room, take several long, deep breaths then blow-out (exhale) through your mouth. This will relax you and your facial muscles.

Enter the room and continue to remind yourself to breath completely – no rapid or shallow breathing allowed. Breathing comfortably is the key to looking credible, sincere and friendly from a distance. Upon an introduction, pause, breathe, then share a warm, responsive smile and direct eye contact. The slight delay tells the recipient your smile is genuine and you will be perceived as sincere and the smile as personalized.

It is the speed of the smile that demonstrates your credibility and sincerity. The slower the smile, the more personalized and sincere it appears. It is the size and “toothy-ness” of the smile that demonstrates your approachability and friendlessness. Yet, know that the amount of teeth shown depends on the culture and gender of the other person.

When in doubt, mirror the other person’s size of smile. Remember, often those in higher positions show less teeth. Toothy smiles and direct, prolonged eye contact is more prevalent in Western cultures, and is seen as a sign of respect when talking to a person in a superior position. In Eastern cultures, however, it can be a sign of disrespect to look directly at a superior. Although this is changing as the world shrinks, make note to understand the different norms regarding large smiles and eye contact when meeting people from other countries and cultures.

In general, I have found “on the street” in both Western and Eastern cultures, a genuine smile conveys a sincere approach to understanding each other even when you only know two words. “‘All right,’ said the [Cheshire Cat]; and this time it [the cat] vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained sometime after the rest of it had gone.” ~ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Have a great day whatever your adventures


p.s. *Ni Hao (pronouced ‘knee how’ means hello) and xiè xiè (pronounced ‘sheh sheh’ means thank you).