Smiles and power

December 19, 2014

"Higher power people smile when they're relaxed or happy but low power because they have to." - Marianne LaFrance

The latest show is all about power and body language at work. Something I couldn’t fit in was the subject of smiling. Most of us don’t think about this, except perhaps to notice when someone seems unusually grumpy. But smiling is social glue. It’s also linked to power.

Yale professor Marianne LaFrance, one of my guests on the podcast (left, smiling), told me that during her years of studying smiles she’s found a very quick smile from someone else has an immediate effect on the person who sees it.

“It’s a mini emotional high, an up in the day, although the person may not know where it came from,” she says.

If you’re female, chances are you smile a lot more than the men who surround you. Marianne says women not only smile more but “more intensely than do men”.

Women are expected to be pleasant and accommodating, and to make those around them feel comfortable. Smiling is a short cut to achieving this.

At work, it turns out those in lower-power roles smile more than people high up the food chain. Marianne says the smiliest employees are people – usually women – in roles that are all about making other people happy, such as executive assistant or paralegal. Smiling is their way of creating a harmonious environment. But they’re not necessarily content when they crack those smiles.

“The thing we’ve found in our studies is higher power people smile when they feel relaxed and happy….but they won’t smile because they have to, whereas low power people will report they will smile because they have to.” In short because it’s their job to please.

Broaden that and you’ve got women as a group. Our unofficial mandate is to please others. That’s why people of both sexes seem affronted when we don’t meet grinning expectations.

I was a reflective teenager, and on my way to school in London every day I’d be lost in my own thoughts (which, being a teenager, weren’t always particularly cheery). A loud voice in a Cockney accent would often erupt from a nearby building site with “Cheer up love – might never ‘appen!” or “Come on, smile!” accompanied by male laughter.

At the time I didn’t consider that complete strangers never seemed to do this to schoolboys, only schoolgirls. When I told Marianne LaFrance this story she reminded me that these days this kind of thing is considered street harassment.

“It’s not injurious but it is another way women are reminded they have to put out, and one of the ways they do that is by smiling and always appearing pleasant and agreeable.”

I don’t know that anyone’s ever done a study of the smiling patterns of male and female CEOs.  As is so often the case women tread a fine line between being viewed as cold and unfriendly and smiling too much, which can hurt their gravitas.

In an email, I asked Marianne LaFrance about female leaders’ body language, citing IBM CEO Ginny Rometty as an example. Marianne replied she didn’t know any details on Rometty’s body language as such, but “she is often photographed with a big smile.” 

Marianne is the author of Why Smile - The Science Behind Facial Expressions.