Why Smiling Matters

Michael Phelps Smile at Rio
(Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

When Michael Phelps smiled up from the pool in Rio, he was communicating to his mom, finance Nicole Johnson, son Boomer Robert, teammates, spectators, and viewers back home. He was saying something primal. That level of smile is actually a form of embracing others according to notable researchers like Paul Ekman.

Your facial expression matters—because of the instinctual assessment we conduct of one another.  When people meet you or see you take the front of the room to make a presentation, they detect your trustworthiness on a primal level. An unfriendly face simply pulls up a barrier that works against you.

Regardless of what you actually say, you have another language that can be more powerful — because of the instinctual assessment we conduct of one another.

The pioneer researcher who first taught about this language was Albert Mehrabian, UCLA professor emeritus of psychology. In 1971, he released a groundbreaking study that found the impression and the impact of your overall communication is 7% words, 38% vocal tone and color, and 55% visual.

That does not mean words aren’t important. Mehrabian was not looking at the integrity of a lecture given to an audience of specialists. Clearly, if you are called to lecture on quantum physics, you better know your subatomic particles.

PullQuote_Mehrabian

Instead Mehrabian was asking, “On what do I base the primary information about your trustworthiness?” He found the answer to be the way you look, sound and move — not what you say.

What does your facial expression tell people? Do you appear engaged, aloof, interested, disinterested, passionate, bored, warm, lukewarm, sparkling, flat, fully present, distracted?

Researchers have found that we are born using and recognizing facial expressions — there is even a part of the brain devoted to the signal received by facial expressions.

We come into this world recognizing the human face. We don’t turn off a part of our brain because we’re hearing your business presentation.

Faking It

Last year, I attended the wedding of a friend in a beautiful chapel. The service was short, but the photo-taking took forever. Time and time again, the bride and groom smiled for the camera. After a half hour, the entire wedding party became fatigued, but everyone pushed on, holding poses.

How often do we take vacations or attend reunions, posing for the camera, rather than living in the moment, where we might generate true joy?

Guillaume Duchenne du Boulogne would have known if members of the wedding party were faking those smiles. A pioneer neurophysiologist back in the 1860s, he used electrical stimulation to distinguish between the genuine smile that turns up at the corners and the toothy smile that is produced for the camera.

Life itself is expression. Holding back becomes a language — and no matter how much we tell ourselves we’re being professional, there is nothing attractive about a blank face.  Faking a smile sends a subtle message, too.

Rediscover your own spontaneity. Pay attention to the activities that make you laugh.  Smile.  It’s good for you.

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Avatar for Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.