Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Sex and Smiling: When is a Smile Not a Smile?

What does her smile REALLY mean?

Research shows that there are differences in how much men and women smile, but there are even more important differences in how smiles are perceived. For example, research suggests that some men may completely misinterpret the meaning of a woman's smile, and sometimes it leads to trouble.

First, some facts:

Women smile more than men, but only when they are in social situations or think they are being observed.

Smiling women are evaluated more positively than non-smiling women.

Women smile more than men when the situation is tense or strained (likely because they are trying to "fix" the situation).

When women are in a low power position, such as interacting with a work superior, they tend to engage in more smiling (likely in an effort to please the high power person).

A very clever experiment advertised for a job as a research assistant. Fifty young women applied and were interviewed. In one condition, some sexually provocative questions were interspersed with typical job interview questions (e.g., "Do you have a boyfriend?"). The women were videotaped, and their facial expressions were analyzed.

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Analysis of the videos found that women often smiled in response to the sexually provocative questions, but the smiles were not smiles of enjoyment, but "fake" smiles associated with discomfort. Debriefings with the participants found that many of the female interviewees felt that they had to "grin and bear it." Importantly, when the interviewees' videos were later rated by management students, those in the sexual harassment condition were rated as performing more poorly than in the non-harassment condition.

But here is the kicker: The researchers showed silent videotapes of the women's uncomfortable, fake smiles while being harassed (along with more genuine smiles and non-smiling clips) to men who rated the smiling women. Beforehand, the men were given a scale that predicts likelihood to sexually harass. Men with a tendency to sexually harass were more likely to rate the uncomfortable smiles as "flirtatious" and rate them as "desirable."

What are the implications of this research? First, it demonstrates some of the dynamics of sex and power. Women are placed in a sort of "double bind" in that they tend to use fake smiles to cover their discomfort and try to perform well in the interview, but this strategy seems to backfire as they are rated as "less competent."

Moreover, the fake smiles are misinterpreted by the very men who might be likely to put them into uncomfortable sexual situations, and could lead to increased incidence of harassment.

Lesson: Employers need to be alert and proactive when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, as the dynamics of sex and power are subtle and insidious.

This research is described in:

Woodzicka, J.A. & LaFrance, M. (2005). Working on a smile: Responding to sexual provocation in the workplace. In R.E. Riggio & R.S. Feldman (Eds.), Applications of Nonverbal Communication (pp. 139-155). Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.


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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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