2 Sure-fire Ways To Spot A Fake Smile

Why It Matters To Your Leadership More Than You Think

Were you ever greeted by anyone with a smile and you weren’t quite sure whether they were well intentioned, insincere, or pandering? I know I have have. Faces can convey  a lot without saying a word, especially a smile.

I just finished reading “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future” by Daniel Pink. In it, he discusses Dr. Ekman’s research into universal fascial expressions and the emotions they convey.   Concepts like “slight expressions” and “micro-expressions” were new to me. However, the part that really caught my attention was in the section on Empathy dealt with smiling (pages 165 – 167 to be exact). Specifically, the difference between a fake smile and a real smile.

Now, I think I’m pretty good at reading folks and connect well with most people. Having said that, it means I also probably overate myself in that regard (aka overconfidence effect  or overprecision). One thing I am certain of is that there have been times when talking with people that I wasn’t sure of how I was impacting them.  It was hard to read their perception of something I said or did, which made it hard to connect.  In the context of friendships and working relationships that can be a problem. In the context of leadership, it can be a disaster.

Back to smiling. Although it seemed odd at first to read about smiling and empathy in the same short chapter of a book, the more I thought about it the more it made sense.

Smiling is one of the most recognizable fascial expressions we have. It also probably gives us the greatest ability to connect with others and influence their state.

Smiles come in a variety of flavors: soft smile, sweet smile, gentle smile, encouraging smile, tepid smile, sad smile (yes)……and even empathetic smile. Given how nuanced smiling can be the list could go on. The one common thread between these is sincerity. In other words, a genuine or “Duchenne” smile.  The one smile that does not share that common thread nor connect with and influence others is a fake smile; neither the one you give or the one you receive.

So what’s the connection with smiling, leadership and empathy?  Simple: smiling can strongly connect us with other people. And empathy, along with the other competencies of social-awareness, is the lynch-pin of your personal ability to manage relationships with others.  As a leader, it’s the cornerstone of your most basic, primal task: to prime positive emotions in your followers. Once primed, positive emotions will sustain a resonance in your followers that inspires, motivates and empowers them to do great things.

So how can you spot a fake smile?

First, know and learn to recognize the two distinguishing features of a genuine smile:

  1. Contraction of both zygomatic major muscles, which raises the corners of the mouth.
  2. Contraction of the obicularis oculi muscle, which pulls the eyebrows down slightly and raises the cheeks. The more subtle distinguishing features that helped me see this effect is that the skin under the eyebrows is pulled a little higher and the eyes themselves appear a little narrower.1116 fake-vs-real-smile

Second, know and learn to recognize when #2 above is missing. If so, it’s a fake smile.

I think Dr. Ekman said it best: “The emotion of frank joy is expressed on the on the face by the combined contraction of the zygomaticus major muscle and the obicularis oculi. The first obeys the will but the second is only put into play by the sweet emotions of the soul.”

Simply knowing something usually doesn’t get you very far; it’s no different with smiling.  One of the best ways to actually make your new-found knowledge useful (and fun) is to assess your prowess at differentiating between genuine and fake smiles. You can do that by taking this Spot the Fake Smile test. The other is to start practicing regularly.

Smiling sincerely and recognizing it in others can improve your ability to connect with, influence and lead people. In fact, as a leader your “smile IQ” takes on even more significance: you can’t afford to be clueless!  And to smile regularly, intentionally and sincerely requires emotional intelligence and  emotional fitness; you really have to feel it or your faking it.

How would you rate your “smile IQ”?

Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts or how you did on the Fake Smile Test; it’ll probably make me smile :).


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “2 Sure-fire Ways To Spot A Fake Smile

    • Thanks Jeff, interesting article.

      The other interesting and unique part when it comes to our faces and how they reflect emotions is the innervation of the upper muscles of the face. Unlike the lower muscles, those of the upper receive dual innervation so are served by both right and left sides of the brain.

      Thanks for the comment!

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