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How to Smile Your Way to the Top

Becoming a Human Chameleon

Consider this: we are highly evolved chameleons. From birth, we as humans are geared towards mirroring body language, reflecting facial expressions, and subconsciously mimicking the people around us. This is particularly true for smiles.

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Deciphering Smiles

Broadly, this instinct to recognize cues and mimic them helps us thrive in society, even with something as simple as smiling. For example, not all smiles mean the same thing, so identifying the nuances of a smile can help us read the room. If someone is truly smiling, the side of their eyes will crinkle, portraying a Duchenne smile. This gives off positive, genuine emotions and shows us that person can be confided in. In contrast, fake smiles make us seem uncooperative and untrustworthy. Whether a child or adult, we are constantly faced with the decision to trust someone–a friend, colleague, teacher, or boss. Understanding the details behind a smile can help make us make that determination.

The Boss Effect

Overall, the way we read and subsequently mimic a smile is strongly influenced by social situations and our perceptions of authority figures– known as the ‘boss effect’. Many studies indicate that when we are in a position of submission, we subconsciously smile more frequently– like when presenting something to our boss. On the other hand, power, or superiority, makes us less likely to mirror another person’s smile, possibly due to feelings of competition. If we can better learn to control the automatic nature of mimicking smiles, we may be able to appear more trustworthy or cooperative when it is important to do so. These scenarios might include interviewing for a job or attempting to sell a product.

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Improving Smile Recognition

This is especially important for people who have been socially rejected or excluded in some way. In fact, feelings of ostracization or inferiority can make us better at interpreting social cues, like smiles, because rejection motivates us to find more opportunities that help us fit in. After a disagreement with someone, recognizing a Duchenne smile shows us that there’s a potential to reconnect with that person. A simple fight with friends or demerit from a boss can be discouraging, but if we identify and mimic positive feelings through a smile, we can make a big difference. As we get older, it becomes easier to recognize a real friend from a fake one, and smiles help us make that decision. Although these skills are innate, tough situations or distrustful relationships help us adapt and improve these mimicking skills.

Becoming a Human Chameleon

We succeed when we interpret social cues because they give us a chance to distinguish real emotions from fake ones. Smiling during a presentation to your boss needs to be strategic. An ingenuine smile can quickly damage your credibility because you can come off as trying to appease them, while a real smile promotes confidence in your skills. Strengthening your ability to identify the emotions behind a smile and when to mirror one will make you a social chameleon — and hopefully a boss.

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Sonali Loomba

Sonali Loomba

Software Engineer and Aspiring Product Manager | Berkeley, 2022