can you trust a smile

Body Language

Don’t Trust That Grin

In negotiation situations, most people analyze the body language of their counterpart to gauge their trustworthiness. But as researchers from USC recently discovered, this can be a dangerous mistake. Other factors play a much larger role.

can you trust a smile

Just because someone smiles doesn’t mean they’re trustworthy. Other factors are much more important than their facial expressions.

Recently, one of the most controversial topics of conversation has been Melania Trump’s smile. In one particularly damning video captured at her husband Donald Trump’s inauguration as President, she’s seen beaming widely at her partner. But as soon as he’s turned around, Melania suddenly looks devastated. As the entire scene occurred during a religious sermon, there’s plenty one could say about the way the interaction played out. But situations like raise the question of the significance of facial expressions, especially the impact of a smile.

People place too much trust in facial expressions

Almost everyone knows that uncomfortable feeling before an interview, or an important negotiation: “How should I behave, and what kind of first impression will I make on my interviewer?” To make a great first impression, most people believe the secret is simply to smile… It’s thought that people who smile are considered to be trustworthy. People who struggle to curve their lips upward are considered by their counterparts to be unreliable. But a nice smile isn’t everything. It can also be deceptive, and sometimes even hurt your career.

In a study published by researchers from the University of Southern California in November 2016, they found that when it comes to assessing the trustworthiness of a colleague or business contact, the majority of people have a flawed sense of judgment.”They place a lot of trust in facial expressions when it comes to gauging the honesty of their counterpart,” it states.

In an experiment, participants were required to act as antiques dealers, and decide, in groups of two, who should get various items. The items included lamps, records and paintings, each with various assigned values. The scientists observed the dialogue of the participants, as well as their gestures and expressions – and if they mislead their partner to take advantage of them. At the same time, they also observed the expressions and energy of each participant, as compared with their actual intentions and actions. The question: Do friendly, smiling people merely give the impression of being trustworthy? Or can they actually be trusted?

The friendliest people can’t be trusted 

The results are clear. Just because someone seems friendly, that doesn’t mean that he or she is telling the truth. Even smiling people often lie, or share misleading facts in order to gain an advantage in a negotiation. This study also refers to people who smile joyfully, as well as those who appear distressed. In summary, this means that managers shouldn’t place too much value in the emotions of their counterparts. It could be a good indicator, but it also might be a deterrent.

In other relationship matters, the participants of the study could trust their instincts. They could accurately guess that the more talkative participants would be less trustworthy. And in fact, the most talkative subjects were also prone to sharing falsehoods.


A smile could damage your career

Of course, managers shouldn’t judge their negotiations partner They should also reflect on how frequently they smile at their employees, and the effect it has. This also goes for female managers. A study conducted by the Technical University of Munich shows that “happy women” are considered to be less competent leaders. When people judge their superiors, they tend to stereotype, and they generally have traits like follow-through and strength in mind. When female managers react proudly and with a dominant manner, they’re typically considered to be stronger leaders, according the study.

Male or female, managers should avoid smiling too large, in an exaggerated fashion, according to body language expert Tatjana Strobel. “A leader must have clarity, and should embody a certain severity,” says Strobel. Strobel believes it’s very important to celebrate successes, and to bring a little humor and joy to the office. But the boss should always remain the boss, and the first responsibility is always to lead.

About the Author

Felicitas Wilke klein

Felicitas Wilke studied business and journalism and attended the Deutsche Journalistenschule. She works as a freelance journalist in Munich. She enjoys writing about topics affecting the economy and has a passion for Scandinavia. She is a keen supporter of the black and yellow football team Borussia Dortmund.

'Don’t Trust That Grin' have 2 comments

  1. June 9, 2017 @ 11:20 am Sharon Henry

    I found this article about grinning interesting but quite disturbing. To me an insincere grin resembles the grin of a shark – wide, deadpan (particularly the eyes) and dangerous. Trying to gain credibility by remaining grim-faced is going to make the workplace even less human than it is already becoming. Open direct face-to-face human communication holds the key to building strong relationships if those taking part are genuine in word and deed. I think the significant point here is ‘sincerity’.

    I regard myself as being a fairly intuitive and perceptive person who works very much on my instincts. I can usually sense when a person is not demonstrating genuine emotions as they often convey undercurrents beneath the surface. During October and November 2016 I worked on a project where there were several Americans, with three in particular who always tried to project their mood as being up-beat. Whatever was being discussed or however exhausted they were they just seemed to grin virtually constantly and always talked and laughed excessively loudly . It is a wonderful thing if you can remain naturally optimistic and cheerful in the face of adversity but they conveyed no sincerity of emotion; it seemed forced to me. When a grin is displayed on somebody’s face as a matter of course, without the normal accompanying overall change of expression which transforms the eyes and other features of the face to radiate sincere warmth, it is totally meaningless, vacuous and disconcerting. Let us please continue to laugh and smile as we communicate together through natural sincere conversation to build rapport and establish relationships. Even on the telephone it is possible to tell when the person you are talking to is smiling – there is greater warmth projected in their voice if they are smiling, projecting a pleasant personality and communicating sincerely. In a sales situation people are more likely to buy from somebody they like and believe is genuine than a cold, hard-faced unsmiling person who is repressing their natural desire to smile or bring some humour into the transaction. If you don’t want human grins and personality projection switch to robots. What a dismal society that would make.


  2. June 9, 2017 @ 4:08 pm Jeanine Joy

    It’s important to be authentic. Authentic happiness or joy attracts others. Inauthenticity is detrimental to your health and to your relationships. Other people can pick up on the discord between your expressed emotions and how you really feel.


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