Can and Should we Train Employees to Smile?

From time to time, a lone woman stands outside the steps of the New York Public Library’s main branch asking passing pedestrians a single question, “I’m looking for something – can you help me?” Anyone who stops receives the same reply, “I’m looking for the nearest smile!” While the lone woman outside the library appears to be generating smiles for purely personal and esoteric reasons, generating smiles is also serious business, but what are the actual benefits of smiling and what is the cost, if any, of faking a smile at work?

To Smile or Not to Smile?

Even before Arlie Hochschild published her seminal book, The Managed Heart, in 1983, which popularized the concept of “emotional labor”, there was already a widespread understanding in business that smiling has an impact. Smiling employees, especially in customer service positions, are typically more likely to be read as approachable, helpful and satisfied with their jobs and often read as more trustworthy. At least in the United States, smiling has preoccupied business writers since the early 20th century. In Better Business Letters (1921), the smile is even seen as something that should permeate one’s written correspondence: “The customer’s interest must be given the preference over everything, so far as one’s feelings are concerned, and the way to do this best is to let one’s letters convey the impression of the ‘smile that won’t come off.’”


Can and Should we Train Employees to Smile?

However, more recent studies suggests that “the smile that won’t come off” may have both positive and negative effects on both employees and business. In many cases, “service with a smile” constitutes a form of “surface acting” (hiding or faking expressions like a mask) and surface acting can negatively effect employees’ personal well-being. It has also been linked to employee burnout and subsequently, to high rates of employee turnover. On the other hand, “deep acting” (perspective taking to appear real or authentic) has been proven to positively impact employees’ actual feelings about their work, their company’s products, and their interpersonal interactions with both customers and coworkers.

Thus, while smiling can and often does have a positive impact on work, asking workers to deliver “service with a smile” while expecting them to work under less than optimal conditions can also backfire (e.g., lead to lower worker retention rates). Demanding a fake smile may also fail to have any long-term positive effects on a business, since customers are bound to see through the fake smiles over time.

Is Smiling Universal?


The general assumption underpinning the “service with the smile” philosophy is that smiling is universal. In short, it is assumed that everywhere in the world, smiling means the same thing and is always welcome. In fact, smiling is not as universal as one might expect. For example, while highly prevalent and expected in the United States, in many other cultures, smiling—without any real reason to do so—is considered disingenuous and even cause for suspicion. Indeed, research suggests that Germans, Russians and Koreans, among other nationalities, generally think that Americans smile too much and too often.

Other studies suggest that there are also notable differences in terms of who is expected to deliver positive emotions on the job, as well as differences in terms of who must fake out these emotions. As Hochschild emphasized in The Managed Heart, women are far more likely than men to be expected to deliver service with a smile. In addition, research suggests that younger employees find themselves faking smiles more often than older employees, although this likely reflects the high number of young people working in front-line service industry positions where smiling is considered especially important. Visible minority workers, when working as a minority member of a work team, also report faking positive emotions more often than white employees.

Finally, there are notable differences across cultures in terms of how positive emotions are experienced in the workplace. While workers in the United States generally report “surface acting” to generate positive emotions, Chinese workers are more likely to report “deep acting” as a way to generate positive emotions in the workplace. If smiling is not necessarily universal, however, research suggests that suppressing negative emotions is universal.

So can and should we train employees to smile? There is no question that smiling has many positive impacts. There is also strong evidence to support the conclusion that smiling without authenticity may negatively impact employees, be bad for business and fail to translate across cultural boundaries. In short, while few people will turn away a sincere smile, insincere smiling comes with significant risks.

For more on this topic, see eLeap’s training program, SMILE! Customer Service.

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