Smiles in the workplace: what do they really mean?

Humanity has long accepted the smile to be culturally universal: no matter where you come from, what language you speak, or what your beliefs are, smiles were understood to be a uniform display of happiness and joy. The Duchenne marker in particular, which involves the crinkling of the eyes, was thought to be the ultimate involuntary portrayal of genuine delight. However, the beauty of science means that all things — even those that were previously held to be absolute truths — can change.

One study performed in 2012 found that the Duchenne marker only exists in certain cultures, and was erroneously believed to be universal because it can easily be learned and replicated.

“Specifically, the results from the present study suggest that a well-established marker of smile authenticity, [the Duchenne marker], does not seem to function as such in some non-Western contexts but rather represents a nonverbal cultural dialect that can be learned through cultural exposure.”

This groundbreaking information is old news! A current study dissects the use of smiles even further, claiming that they are used as tools in social interactions and that “cheerfulness is neither necessary nor sufficient for smiling.”

By creating a difficult test with a short duration designed to ensure the participants frequently gave wrong answers, their facial expressions were then monitored and any correspondence between their moods and the times at which they smiled were assessed by a team of researchers. Surprisingly, the participants smiled the most when they found out they had given the wrong answer.

“Our study showed,” said Dr. Harry Witchel, who ran the experiment, “that in these Human-Computer Interaction experiments, smiling is not driven by happiness; it is associated with subjective engagement, which acts like a social fuel for smiling, even when socializing with a computer on your own.”

This information could be revolutionary in workplaces where smiles are virtually absent; since 80% of workers don’t believe they’re getting the support they need from their management, this could translate as a deep lack of personal and subjective engagement — if management isn’t doing their best to keep employee engagement high, smiles and satisfaction plummet.

The relationship people have with their teeth could also be an influential part of this experiment: 25% of adults avoid smiling due to the state of their mouth and teeth, which creates possibility of skewed results. Insecurity plays a vital role in all social interactions, and if smiling acts as “social fuel”, as Dr. Witchel puts it, it’s conceivable that — regardless of subjective engagement — bad teeth can negatively impact life.