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Smile! You're doing business in the United States

Insights and tips for people from less-smiling countries.

Wyron A on Unsplash

Last week, I had two very different meetings. My first meeting was with a potential American client who was interested in learning more about my services. The second one was a networking meeting with an Austrian entrepreneur.

These meetings were quite different in nature and purpose, but there was another noticeable difference I want to highlight for this blog post: the amount of smiling during the meetings. My potential US client smiled a lot. I smiled a lot. There was a lot of smiling throughout the meeting. My Austrian meeting partner was also friendly, and we had a great conversation. There was, however, a lot less smiling along the way.

So, why do Americans smile so much? Do they mean it or is it fake? And to what extent should you adjust to the American way and put on a big smile when you do business with them?

The science behind the American smile

Smiling is a form of non-verbal communication and influenced by our cultural background. Researchers know that there are cultural differences in how we express emotions:

  • how often we show emotions,

  • what situations and context we show emotions, and

  • how openly and strongly we express them.

In 2015, an international group of researchers took a closer look at why some countries express their feelings more frequently and openly - and why some smile more than others. They drew a few interesting conclusions:

Immigrant countries smile more

The group of researchers found a link between emotional expressiveness and migration: If a country's population is diverse and made up of people from many different source countries, people show their emotions more openly.

country flags

That is certainly true for the United States. Migration played a major role in the country's development and Americans come from many different source countries. The US is often called a "melting pot". Americans also tend to show their emotions openly and strongly: they don't just say that your idea is good, but that it's great or awesome; they don't just like something but love it; and they smile a lot.

People in less diverse countries, on the other hand, show their emotions less openly. The German-speaking countries are historically less heterogenous than the United States and people are more restrained about their emotions.

Why people smile

The researchers mentioned above also looked into the function of smiling and revealed another interesting link with diversity. People from diverse societies smile for different reasons than people from more homogenous societies.

In historically diverse countries like the US, the primary function of smiling is that of social bonding. Smiling is a non-verbal tool to build relationships between people from diverse backgrounds and languages.

In less diverse societies, people are more likely to smile to show that they are superior to one another.

Smiling in business

The benefits

High Five

Smiling has several benefits, as long as it is real and authentic.

In this interview, Pattie Williams, Marketing Professor at Wharton Business School, talks about the difference between fake and genuine smiles. Real smiles don’t just involve the movement of your mouth. They have to extend all the way up to your eyes. If that's the case, smiling can have several positive effects:

1. Relationship building

Genuine smiling can benefit relationship-building and bonding. When you smile you are seen as more friendly and more approachable.

In presentations, for example, smiling is an effective tool to build a relationship with your audience. By the way, smiling also shows confidence – even when you feel a bit nervous. So that's another reason to start your next presentation in the US with a smile.

2. Positive atmosphere

Smiling can help create a positive atmosphere. If you smile, it’s likely your counterpart will, too. That’s because we tend to mirror the expressions on our counterparts’ faces.

For people in leadership positions, it can be a useful tool to reduce tensions. If you smile, your employees or team members will feel less stressed and the overall atmosphere will improve.

3. Customer service and sales

In customer service – whether it’s at the bank, in a restaurant, at a store, at the hotel reception, etc. – smiling is expected. Service with a smile is part of the American way.

Smiling is also important in sales. Salespeople who exhibit a genuine smile are seen as more trustworthy and likely to provide better service.

The downsides

Smiling too much or in the wrong situations can have the opposite effect, even in the US. Smiling inappropriately can have a negative impact on your credibility. If you talk about a serious matter and you continuously smile, people may not take you seriously. The message and the body language must be aligned.

Should you smile in negotiations?

In negotiations, smiling can work in your favor and to your disadvantage. The Harvard PON article on emotional expression as a negotiation strategy, highlights a few interesting points:

angry face
Andre Hunter on Unsplash

On the one hand, showing positive emotions can increase the willingness of your counterpart to agree to your proposal.

At the same time, it can also weaken you as a negotiator. Researchers found that negotiators made more concessions when facing counterparts who expressed anger.

Expressing certain feelings can be a negotiation strategy, depending on what you want to achieve and depending on the stage of the negotiation. For example, you are in a salary negotiation. One strategy could be to be warm and friendly early in the negotiation but to stop smiling later in the process.

What to do when it feels fake

To someone coming from a less-smiling country, too much smiling can seem superficial or fake. Maybe smiling in certain situations feels silly or inauthentic to you. If you are an Austrian university professor, you’re probably not used to smiling at your audience at the beginning of your lecture. If you are a German manager, you probably don't kick off your meetings with a smile.

It’s normal to feel inauthentic when we have to do things we are not used to.

3 Steps for overcoming the feeling of inauthenticity

Feeling inauthentic is one of the biggest obstacles we have to overcome when we try to learn the verbal and non-verbal behaviors of another culture. Here's an easy 3-step strategy for overcoming it.

  1. Understand: First, try to understand why people do certain things. Understanding the meaning of a particular behavior or practice will help you see its validity. In this blog, I gave you some of the background on smiling as a non-verbal communication tool to help you understand its purpose.

  2. Relate: Second, it helps to look at the behavior as something that has the potential to help you reach your goals. Ask yourself: How can this behavior help me? Try to make sense of it for your own purpose and goals. For example, if you are getting ready to speak at a conference, say to yourself: Smiling can help me create a connection with my audience.

  3. Incorporate: Then, make small adjustments. Don’t try to reinvent yourself overnight. Give yourself some time to overcome your inhibitions step by step. For example, if you present at a conference, you can try a smile at the beginning of your lecture. You don’t need to smile and joke your way through the entire talk. Eventually, the small changes will become normal and the behavior will seem less strange to you.

Contact me if you are interested in finding out more about common practices and nonverbal behaviors in the US and how to make meaningful adjustments that will help you be more effective without having to change who you are. I look forward to hearing from you.

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