I started working for a US-based company about nine months ago. It is a hybrid role where I go into the office two to three days a week and work from home the other days. The job is perfect for me—just challenging enough. I feel that I can do my best and do well.
My problem is an older male colleague. I am female in a predominantly male industry and role (environmental engineering), and every time I see this colleague, he says “Smile, Danika (not my real name but I am from Denmark), things can’t be all that bad.”
Now, I have been told that I have resting b*%*# face. It is true that when I am thinking hard about something or simply paying close attention—which is all the time—I tend to frown. Ever since I moved to the US for graduate school, people have been telling me to smile more.
I. Am. Sick. Of. It.
It is only matter of time before I tell my jolly colleague where he can shove his remarks, which I know will not win me friends. What to do, though? Any ideas?
Oh, how I can relate, my friend. I grew up in France and Belgium and also have been hearing “Smile!” since I moved to the US. It is definitely an American thing. I just spent three weeks with a bunch of South Americans and noticed that the women only smile when they really feel like it. The rest of time, their faces stay quite neutral. I felt out of place with my bizarre American habit of smiling all the time just to keep from putting people off. Some members of my group looked at me askance.
I am pretty sure it is only women who are told to smile constantly. I actually got a comment that I should smile more on a 360-feedback report that I engaged in recently. I was shocked—at this point in my career and life, someone (I am certain, a man) still feels the need to tell me to smile more. And I make an effort already! Honestly, it is enough to make a woman scream.
To be fair, I have worked with some male leaders who are terrifying to their team members due to their seniority, physical stature, authority, or sheer IQ. These men have benefitted from simply remembering to smile when they see others in the office or on zoom, or when they ask how someone is. It makes people relax a little bit and remember that, brilliant and authoritative as the boss is, he is still just a human being.
And you are right—a witty comeback will not serve you, as satisfying as it may feel in the moment. So here are some ideas:
- When you greet people and are perfectly happy to see them, tell your face. Remember that you might be intimidating to some. Reminding everyone you greet that you are just a regular person who cares about them as a person can’t hurt. It takes some practice, but it is worth a try.
- If someone continues to be annoying with their reminders, practice a comeback that is the truth—something like “Hey, I grew up in a culture where people don’t smile all the time, and I am trying to get used to this American smiley thing” or “Oh, hi, I was just noodling on the intractable water purification problem we are wrestling with on the Sanoz Project,” Or “I’m trying, but I hate Mondays, don’t you?” And if they keep it up: “I am trying, I really am! Thanks for the reminder!”
- Share one of my favorites: Substitute your own country of choice and say “You know why (French) women have no wrinkles? They never smile!” Haha. Not to insult anyone, but you get the idea.
- Put a sticky note on your computer screen to remind you to smile, especially on web conferences.
- Put up a little mirror at your workstation to remind you to smile. I have seen this done in call centers because even with zoom, people can hear it when you smile.
Americans are just weird with the smiling thing. I could go down the rat hole with the whole gender and culture thing, but we aren’t going to solve those issues today. Remember that you are working in an American company with American people, so doing what you can to fit more comfortably into their culture will probably ease your way. There is also research that shows that smiling lifts your mood—strange but true. So as long as you don’t resent feeling like you have to smile, it might actually feel good.
Clearly, you are serious about your work and you tend to focus hard, so this will be a stretch for you. But in the end, you are working with people and you can’t get anything done without them, so whatever you can do to get them to warm up to you will help you achieve your goals. At the end of the work day you can go home and do whatever you want with your face.
You might feel that your intellect, problem solving ability, and work ethic should be all people should care about. And I would agree—but that just isn’t the way things are. Since I also need to take this advice, I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear. Worth a try, though? I guess you’ll have to find out.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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