Auraglow blog

The Psychology of Smiling at Work

by Aura Glow on Feb 12, 2021

The Psychology of Smiling at Work
We’ve all been guilty of smiling at work. There’s a good chance you’ve faked a smile after your coworker tells a mildly funny joke, in a job interview, or during an exceptionally long Zoom meeting. But all those fake smiles can add up — and it’s not a great result.

Genuine smiles have numerous benefits both for your mood and health, but fake smiles can negatively impact the way people see you. Smiling too much coupled with faking smiles can make you look disingenuous to others. That’s not to say you shouldn’t smile at work, but there are certain instances when no smile is better than a fake one.

We’ll walk you through these scenarios so you’ll have a better understanding of how smiles can help and hurt your career. Or jump straight to the infographic below for even more tips for smiling in the workplace.

Genuine Smiles Have Real Benefits

Fake smiling can have negative effects, but genuine smiles are a happy way to strengthen relationships at work. In fact, studies have shown the numerous benefits of smiling for mental health and wellness.

Boosts Productivity
A genuine smile not only shows you’re a positive and upbeat person, but it can also improve the mood of those around you — and when people are happy, productivity goes up. A study by Oxford University's Saïd Business School found that workers were 13% more productive when happy.

Makes You A Better Leader
A smile can go a long way, especially when you’re managing others. Smiling helps your employees feel at ease and creates a positive environment that can lead to a better company culture.

Improves Confidence
One of the hallmarks of a confident person is a genuine smile. A genuine smile shows you’re an approachable and trustworthy person. We suggest limiting fake smiles so that your genuine smile can really shine when you’re happy.

Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Over-Smile at Work

Genuine smiles do have a place in the workplace. On the other hand, fake or forced smiles can have adverse effects on how you’re viewed among your coworkers. Research has found that  the energy cost of faking a smile can also cause a decline in your mood, energy, and productivity. Here are a few reasons why you might want to rethink that pasted-on smile next time you’re at the water cooler or on a Zoom call.

1. You Appear Insincere

Constantly smiling (especially when those smiles aren’t genuine) can be off-putting. A study found that very happy people are more likely to be perceived as naïve than those who aren’t always smiling. Another reason not to smile for the sake of smiling is that when you’re genuinely happy or excited, you’ll have no way to communicate this any differently than you would for, say, a mildly funny joke on a Zoom call.

2. You May Confuse People from Other Cultures

Americans are a bit of an anomaly when it comes to smiling frequently and smiling to signal a multitude of emotions. This is important to keep in mind when you’re meeting someone from another culture, where smiling might not be the norm. A few countries that fall into this category include Japan, Russia, India, Iran, and South Korea.

3. You’re Trying to Project Authority

Interestingly, scientists believe that smiling evolved from teeth baring among primates that either signaled a friendship or rivalry. This friend versus foe smile dynamic still plays out within the workplace.
Research has shown that people in positions of power will return the smile of a subordinate, but are slower or less likely to smile at someone of equal stature. This is an important piece of information to keep in mind next time you’re negotiating your salary.

4. It’s the Wrong Time for a Smile

Humans have the tendency to smile when they’re nervous or when they’re unsure of how to react in a situation. This can be especially confusing when delivering bad news to someone like telling them they’re fired or that they made a big error in a report. While you might think a smile helps soften the blow, what it really does is confuse the person on the receiving end.

Smile Scenarios

It can be hard to decipher the moments where you should and shouldn’t smile at work. A good rule of thumb is to smile when you’re truly happy, content, or enjoying your time with someone. Learn when to relax those facial muscles and when to turn up the smile wattage in these specific scenarios.

You’re Interviewing for A New Job

There’s a fine line between too much smiling and not enough smiling in a job interview, but we’d recommend you err on the side of less is more. A study conducted by the Northeastern University department of psychology showed that smiling can hinder your performance in an interview, especially when you’re interviewing for a job in a more serious field like reporting and management. To be taken more seriously, try to only return smiles during an interview or save them for in between moments rather than when you’re answering a question.

Your Coworker Is Nervous Giving a Presentation

This is a great opportunity to flash them a smile to show your support and strengthen your relationship. People need a little extra encouragement when they’re nervous, and a smile is a wonderful way to nonverbally communicate this.

You’re Giving Bad News

Don’t paint on that smile if you have bad news to report like a project will be late or you made a mistake on a report. Smiling when delivering bad news creates confusion and can lead to your boss or teammates viewing you as naive.

You’re Negotiating Your Salary

Save the smiles for the break room, especially when it comes to negotiating your salary. A study published in The European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology found that employees who are affable and pleasant and likely smile more have lower salaries compared to more assertive and dominant coworkers.

You’re Meeting a New Client

If you’re meeting a client or coworker from another country, it’s important to note that frequent smiling isn’t always as common as it is in America. Do your homework before meeting a new client to find out the customs of their culture so you don’t commit a smiling faux pax.

You’re the New Person at Work

Aside from genuine smiles that come from connecting with a new coworker, try not to overdo your smile as a new hire. Like we mentioned earlier, smiling too much can be off-putting and make people see you as gullible or naive. It’s much better to be sparing with your smiles as you get to know people than paste one on during your first few months.

You’re Meeting a New Coworker for the First Time

This is the perfect time to smile — maybe even more than you normally would. Smiling when meeting a new person shows positive intent and helps them relax, especially if they’re feeling a bit nervous as the new person.

How to Spot the Difference Between Real Smiles and Fake Smiles

Knowing the tell-tale signs of a genuine smile will help you navigate within the workplace. When interpreting a smile, look for two signs to know if it’s a bonafide smile. Check to see if the corners of the mouth are upturned. Next, look to their eyes. A genuine smile should travel all the way up to the eyes, resulting in a wrinkling of the corners of the eye, also known as crow’s feet.

Bottom Line: Smiling Offers Real Benefits in the Workplace

Smiling does have a place in the workplace when you’re having genuine, happy moments with your coworkers. Studies have shown that more confident employees tend to perform better in their jobs. To help improve your confidence when it comes to flashing your pearly whites, we’d recommend regular trips to your dentist and introducing a teeth whitening regimen to keep them (Zoom) camera ready.