Cultural stereotypes as assets: Smiling

[This post is part of the series on navigating stereotypes that are ascribed to me because of my nationality.]

My last blog post about cultural stereotypes was featured an Brazen Careerist, and Aurora tipped me off on the differences in the meaning of smiles in other cultures. I think I did come across this topic somehow at work already, but I never really thought about it in a structured way.
Summarizing, my American colleagues seem to smile way too much (as Aurora mentions, this looks false to many non-Americans). And they ask me why I am always so serious. The Eastern European colleagues rarely smile back, so that I am left asking myself why they are so serious. The French seem to have a really dry humour, which sometimes keeps me wondering whether I am supposed to laugh or not. And seeing that I am ascribing these facts to nationalities, there might well be a cultural component.

Searching through the research about the meanings of smiling, I ended up at Shelley Batts blog and her article on “The cross-cultural meanings of a smile” (2007) I learned that smiling is indeed an innate ability, however the way we use it for communication is determined by the culture we grow up in. Thus in some cultures people smile a lot, while in others the smile is reserved for the immediate family or friends. In some places it indicates friendliness and trustworthiness, while in other places it is deemed “not serious” and thus not appropriate in official settings.

The danger here lies in the assumption that if everybody does it, they mean the same as you do. As punctuality is expected from me for being German, it is not judged to be a reaction to the person I am treating with. The stereotype (though not true for everybody) is so well diffused that you don’t assume that I am on time to make you feel bad. I am just German and thus I am supposed to punctual. With smiling it is different. We rarely think about why we smile and in which situations we do or don’t smile. We deem it natural. That way the simple fact of “x smile a lot” or “y doesn’t smile a lot” leads directly to the assumptions that “all Americans are so fake friendly”. “Germans are incapable of having fun”.

If you are working in an international environment, or have otherwise contacts with international people (which is very likely in today’s world), I invite you to re-asses your judgement of colleagues, business partners, neighbors, and acquaintances. Especially those you are deeming way too friendly or way too hostile. Next time you meet them focus on the smile. Try to mimic their behavior. If your interlocutor smiles a lot, try to smile more often as well. If she is very serious, try to stop smiling for a while. Go the extra mile to meet your partners on their ground. You will both feel more comfortable and reach your aims more easily.

2 thoughts on “Cultural stereotypes as assets: Smiling

  1. You make a very good point, and I am happy you wrote this post. I think i am probably considered “a smiler”and I tend to smile to most people I know when I meet them on the street, in the corridor or otherwise, but when there is no reason for stopping and having a chat. And I often wonder why some people smile back while some never do. And it is the same people all the time. I haven’t hurt them have I? And the next day I meet them in a meeting and everything seems fine. So there is probably a difference both on cutural and personal level on wheter people tend to smile or be more serious looking 😉 I think I will follow your advice and see how that works out.

  2. Jacob, thanks for stopping by. I guess the most important thing is just to remember that most probably someone not smiling back at you doesn’t mean it personal, especially outside the office. This is actually not as easy as it sounds, because the the smile (or its absence) evokes clear emotional responses (like asking one self what went wrong with the person). But remembering this often already does the trick. Good luck, and let me know how it works for you!

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