Because we view complaints as acts of self-assertion rather than the requests for help they indeed are, we often fail to utilize the most effective tool we have for eliciting help in complaint situations-conveying an implicit optimism about getting the outcome we want by using authentic smiles.
How smiles affect helping behavior
Authentic smiles convey optimism and strong confidence that the complaint reciient will respond favorably to the issue we're presenting, thus making them more likely to do so. It all boils down to how authentic smiles effect our mood and the mood of those who are exposed to them. Authentic smiles have the power to elicit a reflexive response in the recipient-they smile back. Consequently, we can induce a better mood in others simply by flashing them authentic smiles. Smiles can be a powerful tool in complaint situations because people tend to be far more helpful when they are in a good mood.
The impact of mood on helping behavior has been demonstrated using mood enhancing devices such as sunshine and even cookies. Smiles are equally effective in inducing good mood and they have the added advantage of being readily available, glycemic friendly and weatherproof. The problem is that flashing an authentic smile is not necessarily easy after we've waited fifteen minutes to speak to the service representative we view as responsible for the fact that our new auto-drip coffee maker refuses to drip.
But let's think about that for a moment; is it fair to be angry with the service representative?
The person who can solve our problem is rarely the one who created it
Although customer service employees do represent the company, their job is merely to resolve our complaints to the best of their ability using predetermined guidelines. Certainly, they did not manufacture the defective toaster oven that lobs our toast seven feet into the air, nor were they responsible for our St. Patrick's Day sweater arriving in pink instead of green. Similarly, the manager of the restaurant was not the one who spilled the beet soup on our wife's white dress and the municipality clerk was not the one who composed the 600 page permit application for repaving driveways.
Reminding ourselves of these facts will help us manage our frustration so we can flash an authentic smile at the manager or service representative and increase their motivation to help us. Authentic smiles are also called Duchenne smiles, for the French physician Guillaume Duchenne, who studied the physiology of facial expressions in the nineteenth century. The question is how does one tell the difference between an authentic smile and a forced one?
Why crow's feet are good for happiness despite what the Botox industry thinks
Take a trip down memory lane and look at your class yearbook pictures from middle school (if your pictures are from the 70s or the 80s, try not to get too distracted by the hair...). It shouldn't take long for us to realize that we can indeed distinguish between authentic smiles and smiles that appear forced even if we cannot put our finger on exactly what it is that makes a smile seem un-authentic (and no, it's not the acne).
So, what does make a smile authentic? One basic thing-crow's feet. When the muscles around our mouth and lips try to go it alone by saying "Cheese!" our smile looks forced. But when we involve the muscles around our eyes and cheeks and create crow's feet, our smiles appear natural and authentic and they truly light up our faces.
Duchenne smiles are highly associated with happiness and not just because they affect our mood for the better. Studies found that people who displayed deeper crow's feet in their childhood pictures were less likely to divorce as adults than those whose childhood pictures had less intense crow's feet. And a study of smiles in pictures of baseball players found that players with deeper crow's feet lived five years longer on average than those with non-Duchenne smiles.
The steps for using authentic smiles in complaint situations
To elicit good will in a complaint recipient our smiles must be authentic because only authentic smiles elicit authentic smiles in return. However, Duchenne smiles are not easy to fake and they can require some rehearsal to deliver convincingly. Following these steps will make you more likely to get the result you want and they will also make the entire complaint process far more pleasant for all concerned.
1. Start by practicing in the mirror. If making faces in the mirror makes you self-conscious, use a cell-phone camera to assess your progress. Try to involve your cheek muscles by thinking happy optimisitc thoughts such as I'm going to get a refund! or I hated that white dress anyway!
2. The true test of any Duchenne smile is whether it elicits one in return. Take your Duchenne out for a spin. Practice on neighbors, colleagues or sale associates in stores (avoid sample sales-way too cutthroat and Darwinian). If your smile has deep crow's feet, theirs will too.
3. Once you've perfected your Duchenne smile and a complaint situation presents itself, make eye contact, say hello and flash the service representative or manager your best Duchenne smile. Then present your complaint in a calm and civil manner.
Smiles, like many effective complaining techniques, are simple tools we can all use. Indeed, once we acquire the right skill set, becoming an effective squeaky wheel, getting results and reaping emotional rewards by doing so, is often easier and more worthwhile than we realized.
View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:
Read my website blog to find out about my adventure practicing authentic smiles with the scariest worker at my local Post Office branch.
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Copyright 2010 Guy Winch
Abel, E. L., & Kruger, M. L. (2010). Smile intensity in photographs predicts longevity. Psychological Science 21 (4) 542-544
Hertenstein M.. J., et al (2009), Smile Intensity in Photographs predicts Divorce later in Life: Motivation and Emotion 33 (2) 99-105,