Is Your Smile Getting You Into Trouble?

According to new research, smiling isn't always the best social strategy.

Posted Feb 25, 2017

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

It’s almost automatic that when you greet someone, whether a stranger or a spouse, you’ll accompany that greeting with a smile. Consciously forcing yourself to smile also helps you avoid committing the faux pas associated with the "resting bitch face." Like the song from the musical “Annie,” you may feel that “you’re never fully dressed without a smile,” or, as in the many other songs about smiling, you may believe that it's the best way to show someone you care. However, it’s probably also dawned on you that there’s a time and a place for a smile. Not only might someone else not be in a very smiling mood at a given moment, but you may worry that smiling will detract from the impression you’re trying to convey of yourself as a sober and mature individual.

As pointed out by KU Leuven’s Elise Kalokerinos and University of Queensland’s (Australia) Katharine Greenaway and James Casey (2017), smiling was the key ingredient of Dale Carnegie’s recipe for success in winning friends and influencing people. At the same time, they note that under the wrong circumstances, it can be a recipe for disaster. Instead of following the rule of smiling as a blanket strategy, the Belgian psychologist and her team believe that your best bet to win and keep friends is to balance the expression of positive emotions with suppression, under the right conditions.

Kalokerinos and her team note that “to reap the rewards of emotions while controlling the costs, it is necessary to be able to successfully regulate emotional experience and expression” (p. 169). The researchers believe that you can find that successful balance if you use “expressive suppression,” in which you still allow yourself to feel the emotion; you just don’t show it to those around you. If you’ve ever had a hilarious image or sarcastic remark float through your head while at an important meeting or social gathering, you could still laugh on the inside as long as your eyes and mouth remain fixed in a neutral expression or even a little frown. We see actors struggle with this frequently on comedy shows such as "Saturday Night Live," when one performer’s hijinks stimulate uncontrollable giggles in the others. You definitely want to be able to do a better job in your own comparable situations.  

Thus, according to Kalokerinos et al., it’s generally better to express emotions, especially positive ones, only under the right conditions. This principle underlies the concept of “display rules,” or guides for getting your emotional expression to appropriately match a given situation. The researchers propose that, in general, we don’t really like it when people suppress their actual emotions. When everyone else is laughing, you’re expected to join in, or people will think you’ve got no sense of humor. However, you’ll be given more slack by those around you if you don’t break out in giggles when others are laughing than if you should laugh when a situation makes others sad or angry. This becomes an interesting problem when you consider the classic sitcom bit in which someone trips or falls. It’s typical for such an antic to trigger laughter in an audience, but in real life, laughing when someone falls just seems cruel.

The basic paradigm of the Kalokerinos et al. study involved having participants rate the appropriateness and likability of individuals shown in a videotape to be suppressing positive emotions in situations with positive versus negative valence. The premise was that participants would be more harsh in judging actors shown to be suppressing positive emotions in a positive situation than in judging actors shown to be suppressing positive emotions in an oppositely valenced (negative) situation.

In a series of six experiments, the Belgian-Australian team manipulated the perception of actors suppressing positive versus negative emotions in contexts that were either positive or negative. As predicted, emotional suppression was negatively regarded unless the context didn’t match the emotion being suppressed. Participants tended to judge more favorably, and seem to like more, people who smiled when the situation was funny (such as in a scene from a film in which a character clearly was behaving in a way known to elicit humor). However, when the situation was a mismatch with the conditions, emotional suppression was perceived more favorably, even when it was clear that the people being judged actually experienced — but didn’t show — the positive emotion. These findings led the authors to conclude that “despite its bad reputation, suppression is a useful strategy when applied in a contextually appropriate manner” (p. 184). We don’t generally like people who seem to show no emotions at all (hence the anti- “resting bitch face” bias), but if their suppression reflects that they’re sensitive to the moods of those around them, then flat affect indeed wins the day.

The findings of this study could be interpreted to mean that because you never know what kind of day someone else may be having, it’s best not to smile at all those strangers you meet on the street. You can’t be sure they share your sunny and optimistic outlook, at least not at the moment. Your smile and laughter could be interpreted as insensitive and egocentric. On the other hand, precisely because you don’t know what kind of day someone may be having, particularly if that person is a stranger, there’s no reason for that stranger to judge you harshly for sharing your pleasant mood of the moment. If, however, there’s a common gloomy or even tragic mood due to some experience you and your fellow passers-by share, then that smile will seem not just insensitive, but perhaps diabolical.

Let’s switch to what happens when you’re in a situation with people you know very well. Although you may be in a great mood, if you know that other people are not, it will behoove you to keep your feelings to yourself. Perhaps your friend is fired from a job, but you’ve been promoted. Smiling will only sharpen your friend’s pain. But if your friend knows you are in a good mood due to your recent success and are reining in your feelings, that consideration on your part will be even more greatly appreciated.

We inhabit multiple emotional situations — both those shared by the people we know and care about and those which only we experience. Learning to adapt the way we express our own inner emotional state to the context seems not only wise, but also a true way to fulfillment in our social interactions.  

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

References

Kalokerinos, E. K., Greenaway, K. H., & Casey, J. P. (2017). Context shapes social judgments of positive emotion suppression and expression. Emotion, 17(1), 169-186. doi:10.1037/emo0000222