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The Deadly Inappropriate Smile

When facial expressions are deeply disturbing.

The heart surgeon smiled broadly. It was bad news, dreadful news. With a smirk on his face the head of cardiology told the wife and kids that their dad had just died on the surgical table. The patient, Mr. Saul Sherman, was now officially a casualty. Through his broad, toothy grin, Dr. Purvis assured the family that “despite our very best efforts some patients do not survive open heart surgery.” The family was speechless, stunned and in utter disbelief. It was later revealed that Mrs. Sherman’s shock and highly emotional response to the failed surgery was 25% due to the unexpected death and 75% due to the inappropriate smile on Dr. Purvis’ face.

Inappropriate smiles are deadly at times. A smile crazily out of place was a caustic blow to the just deceased patient’s wife and children. This nonverbal means of expression, the smile, can be a source of happiness, bonding, good will, appreciation and love. But in response to a surgery gone bad the misplaced smile created deep turmoil and anger. We hardly need a lecture on facial expression to know that a grim, expressionless and saddened face typically delivers very bad news. It is etched in our minds, hearts and culture that there is some synchronicity between events, words, and the look in one’s eyes and the expression on the mouth and lips. A broad smile at a time of despair, disappointment and death is disjointed and deadly. Consequences follow.

It should not be surprising that the shaken wife proceeded to file a medical malpractice lawsuit again Dr. Purvis, his surgical team and the hospital. In depositions it was revealed that the trigger for the pursuit of negligence and plans for retaliation was Dr. Purvis’ “chilling, horrifying smile accompanying his news of the patient’s death.” When questioned, Mrs. Sherman admitted that she was “somewhat clueless as to the level of medical care or the rigor of the surgical procedure.” It was rather that the out-of-place smile on the doctor’s face told the wife that something was terribly wrong. The wife was convinced that “only an evil doctor could smile moments after his patient’s death.”

An inappropriate smile is hardly limited to a heart surgeon. I recently coached a COO at a U.S. Fortune 100 company who was the subject of accusations of bullying and abuse from his subordinates. The reports on the COO included “a pattern of grossly inappropriate and toxic behavior.” The COO was astute, even brilliant, but had almost zero tolerance for subordinates who were in his words, “slow, sluggish and unable to make quick synapses on the firing line.” In response to sluggishness the COO was repeatedly nasty to employees, frequently humiliating and demeaning them in public. This destructive behavior triggering public loss of face was his alleged means of whipping lax employees into shape. The humiliations spread throughout the division and went viral as workplace attitudes soured, black humor rose, and abusive behavior among coworkers became commonplace. When grievances mounted against the COO, the human resources director pointed out an overwhelmingly toxic pattern of “deadly demeaning, disrespectful relationships.” This bullying behavior by the COO was accompanied by a repeated pattern of rolling his eyes and “condescending smirks and smiles” targeted at his subordinates when they were in the midst of being verbally abused and degraded.

The dastardly smile at the time of the COOs lashing out at employees was described as: scary; ghastly; devilish; chilling; smug; from hell; a demonic grin; Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” and the Smirk of Hades.” Somehow, in the midst his bad language, harassing verbiage and public threats there was something that resonated ever louder. It was the inappropriate smile that jumped out as the most threatening and deadly means of expression.

In the world of politics I was recently caught off guard by a candidate smiling when she was being verbally attacked by her opponent. Her smile was off cue and inappropriate. I wondered whether she was unaware or providing us a glimpse into her inner world of deception. On the surface she was responding to a full throttle attack on her character, demeanor and past. When repeatedly called “a liar” she just smiled incredulously and out-of-context. In my experience voters have an intuitive radar and what some call a belly logic. People have a gut level negative response to a candidate with an inappropriate paste-on smile. You kind of cringe and know something is wrong. How could a candidate smile when she was being verbally demeaned and demolished by her opponent? Was this a sign that she is an automaton? A phony? Internally torn? Discombobulated? Defensive?

I wondered what this candidate had in common with the surgeon smiling after his patient’s death and the COO who smiled when publicly demeaning a subordinate. The origin of such wildly out-of-place, out-of-synch and dysfunctional smiles make for strange conjecture. Do these bizarre smiles originate out of a swampy marsh or altered state of consciousness where we lose control of our own faces and reflexes? Are there lurking medical or psychological issues? Or are some leaders being advised by their executive coaches that somehow they are belittling their opponents or colleagues with a nasty, irreverent smile? A smile that has no place and does not fit the situation can be quite upsetting. It is strange. It can be viewed as an abomination. People turn around and look at each other in order to confirm what they have just witnessed. It appears to defy logic and the troubling behavior typically is in dire need of interpretation.

The message I convey is a simple one. Destructive, disturbing behavior in the workplace, in surgical waiting rooms and in the international political arena may pivot around something as small and seemingly innocent as an inappropriate smile.

Moral of the story? We may need to conduct an inventory of our nonverbal behavior as it can go amok and astray. Is an inappropriate smile worth a medical malpractice lawsuit or the wrath of colleagues? Beyond spoken and written language, maybe facial expression, rolling eyes, lifting of eyebrows, hissing sounds, fidgeting hands and flashing inappropriate smiles are also fair game for sensitivity training.

Intolerant, condescending, dismissive, impatient, abusive behavior is not limited to words. It is written all over the face and spews out from every appendage of human anatomy. Perhaps it is time for some managers, political candidates and public figures to take a closer look at their nonverbal communication. An appropriate, deeply felt smile can light up a room and make the day brighter. Whereas, a deadly smile can turn an easy going spouse or voter into a disgruntled, angry adversary.

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