The Smile Myth

A great smile is important to your success in life. You can’t argue with that. And if you want to improve your customer service in business, a great strategy is to tell all your front line people to smile! Well, maybe not.

Here’s the catch. Not all smiles are created equal. Genuine smiles and fake smiles don’t have the same power and impact. And secondly, genuine smiles are not produced by executive decree. To believe otherwise is to believe a myth. Unless you hired Mona Lisa, the road to getting magical smiles is not easy or automatic.

Without even knowing it, our “fake” detector is always turned on. We unconsciously read body language, facial signals, giving us an impression whether a smile is genuine or plastic.

Have you ever met someone and felt that you had been thrown a fake smile? A salesman? Someone at a singles bar? Your in-laws? Actually, you could list almost any group as occasionally guilty of less-than-genuine smiles.

Journalist Chandler Phillips, in preparing for his article titled Confessions of a Car Salesman (, went undercover by working at two new car dealerships in the Los Angeles area. He recalls greeting his first customer: “I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on their faces…I saw the fear.” But wait a minute. I’m sure he greeted them with a cheerful Hello. And you can be certain he sported a flashy smile. What happened?

Having a customer warm up to a sales person or front-line greeter is more complicated than a genuine or fake smile. A good, trusting relationship doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger or the flash or a smile. A solid relationship is complex and it takes time. Let’s examine some of the considerations and factors that help us understand promoting good customer service, good first impressions, and good relationships.

First, you can’t mandate smiles for you subordinates. I love the story about teaching pigs to sing. It turns out to be an impossible task. “It frustrates the farmer and irritates the pigs.” And I’ll bet you that the farmer can’t sing any better than the pigs in the first place.

I was scheduled for an interview with the manager of a major Las Vegas casino. I knew that one of his goals was to have a casino floor staff with a reputation for their shining smiles. Before the interview, someone took me aside: “Don’t be caught off guard if he never smiles during the interview!” And you know what? Not once did he smile during the entire ten-minute interview.

Later that month I took a friend to visit the casino. We walked through the rows of slot machines to the pit of table games (blackjack, craps, roulette). My friend looked around and said, “Geez, where’s the funeral!” Nobody was smiling. I mean NOBODY. The dealers weren’t smiling. The floor supervisors weren’t smiling. We weren’t smiling.

You can’t create smiles by demanding them. If that were possible, you’d be drowning in a sea of fake smiles. If you think that ordering smiles for your subordinates is a good strategy…go buy a case of wax lips.

Other factors leading to misguided smile strategies are: Sometimes our behavior gets in our way, and sometimes our thinking trips us up.

A common fallacy of human behavior is to dislike in others what we dislike about ourselves. A sarcastic person likely has little tolerance for other sarcastic people. A pushy person probably does not like to be pushed around by others. A person who never smiles is likely to be bugged by people who don’t smile! Hence we have the grim-faced casino manager who wants to be surrounded by shimmering, smiling faces. As the street-wise would say, “Ain’t gonna happen!”

On the flip-side, another fallacy of human behavior is to think that everyone is just like us. Or, closer to the truth, that everyone SHOULD be like us. If we have a great natural smile we feel like others should also beam a celebrity smile. But people are NOT like us. Due to culture, family upbringing, peer groups, genetics, medications, emotional states, bad teeth, and more…people are inclined or not inclined to smile. They are who they are. It’s just the way it is.

Another fallacy is “what you see is what you get!” Not necessarily so. Interpreting human nature is more complex than just observing someone’s smile. Just because a person isn’t smiling doesn’t mean he’s unhappy. It doesn’t mean she hates her job. It doesn’t mean he dislikes working with customers. It doesn’t mean that customers don’t like her. Although a smiling worker is a terrific asset, there is a good chance that the more serious-looking worker connects better with the customer than the worker with the mandatory, plastic smile. Excellence at work is more complicated than the issue of To-Smile-or-Not-To-Smile.

By   Benjamin     Waller