Why We Use Fake Smiles

Do you know a fake smile when you see one? I thought I did, but I only scored 8 out of 10 on this smile quiz from Professor Paul Ekman. Try it to see if you fair better than I did.

We all use fake or forced smiles many times each day, and for different and valid reasons. The correct scientific terms for what we might call fake and real smiles is Duchennne or Non-Duchenne. Heathline says, “A Duchenne smile is the one that reaches your eyes, making the corners wrinkle up with crow’s feet. It’s the smile most of us recognize as the most authentic expression of happiness.”

Let’s look at some reasons we might be using them, and why that might end up being a problem.

Reason 1: Politeness

Many times we use fake smiles because we want to appear nice. Our intention is good. We want others to see us as kind and likeable. So we force a smile—one meant to say, “I’m here to play nice.” That’s why Healthline says it might be better to call these types of smiles “polite” rather than “fake.”

A tight, forced smile like this is sometimes referred to as a “brittle smile.” In a strategy + business article, the authors quote Tessa West who is a New York University psychologist and NeuroLeadership Institute senior scientist. They say brittle smiles happen “when people try to adhere to a ‘culture of niceness,’ as West calls it, even though they really want to speak or act more candidly and critically. So they overcompensate. They smile too much and become overly positive in their speech.”

Reason 2: To Combat Social Stigmas

Another reason we might use a fake smile is because we are trying not to appear prejudiced. In research from University of California professors Wendy Mendes and Katrina Koslov found that we often overcorrect and fake smiles when we are communicating with people who might have social stigmas. They found that participants forced smiles more when working with someone of another race as a way to show they weren’t racist. The participants also used fake smiles more with someone who had a noticeable facial birthmark. In both situations, the communicators used intentional effort to make their facial expressions say, “we’re all okay here. Everything’s good.”

So Are Fake Smiles Good or Bad?

There’s nothing wrong with trying to promote positive interaction or equality. In fact, Mendes and Koslov question whether overcorrection fake smiles do us more good or more harm. They conclude that fake smiles are okay, as long as they work.

But sometimes they don’t. Why not? When we use fake smiles, others know the game we are playing because they play it too. Perhaps you’ll recall the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Queen Gertrude says, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” When we overcorrect, we veer into inauthentic territory. And everyone knows it.

It’s always our goal to make sure our communication is honest and authentic. And we want the presenters we help and train to embrace those goals as well. But in order to do that, we all need to be aware of our tendency to overcorrect. If you find yourself using a fake (or Non-Duchenne or polite) smile, see if you can figure out why. And then make sure you aren’t smiling so much that you seem inauthentic. If you catch yourself giving a brittle smile, you can course correct.

When we think about presentations, we smile. The big, real, Duchenne kind of smile. But we know not everyone is as crazy about presentations as we are. That’s why we are here to help.

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