Tina Laws is an experienced relationship coach and workplace mediator in Bermuda. One intervention she’s been needing to suggest in recent months is the simple act of telling people to smile.
“One of the most common kinds of non-verbal language that’s universal to all is a smile,” says Laws, CEO of Under Konstruction, which helps corporate leaders, organizations, individuals, couples and teens communicate effectively. She also provides services such as leadership and team building, workplace mediation, domestic violence training and more. “Smiling helps build strong interpersonal relationships. It’s welcoming. It says ‘hi, how are you?’ without actually saying a word.”
The consequences of not smiling—for frowning or showing no facial expression at all—can be dire, particularly in an office environment. “If you see somebody’s straight face you’re unable to determine what mood they’re in,” Laws explains, noting that smiling is powerful. Particularly when you’re meeting someone for the first time, such as at an interview, it’s a good way to promote yourself. Smiling is a great way to make a positive first impression and say “choose me” without actually using any words.
“Smiling makes others feel you’re warm and approachable,” says Laws. “It increases other peoples’ brain function, creates a sense of bonding, puts out positive emotions, raises spirits and is infectious.”
What does this translate to in the real world? A potential employee is more likely to be hired if they seem personable, friendly, and approachable—and all that can be achieved by walking into a room and smiling.
Since the pandemic, however, people have forgotten how, and that’s a problem. “We are having to re-learn how to smile since the pandemic,” says Laws. “Many of us were behind the screen, working from home and wearing a mask with no physical interaction in the office.”
For many of us, smiling no longer feels natural and we have to re-learn this behaviour. It’s especially important since people have become accustomed to not hugging or getting too close. “A smile goes so much further right now. It’s become more important.”
Laws advises introverted and solemn clients to practice smiling into their phone every day and by the end of the week, they can compare photos to see how much friendlier they look. After several days, it will become more natural and they’ll become more comfortable walking into various spaces and smiling at people. It’s even worked for Laws herself. “I found that smiling changes the trajectory of how other people view life. It helped me to start smiling and looking at things from a different perspective,” says Laws. “It’s a free reaction we can give to people. And it says so much.”
Other forms of body language are important too and can give the right—or wrong—impression. If you want to decode what your body language might be saying, Laws offers a few of the most common gestures and what others might take them to mean:
Hands on hips: This can mean aggression, being bossy or disagreeing. It can say “what I say goes.” It’s a form of control for those who do it and it can intimidate other people. It can also be an act of insecurity when struggling to make a decision.
Arms folded: This can have the same notation as putting your hands on your hips. It’s a way of creating personal space.
Eye contact: Looking directly at someone can be positive and show respect. Or it can also mean “who do you think you’re talking to?” When you don’t make eye contact, it can mean various things depending on your cultural background. “In Bermuda where we have a mixture of cultures and styles, looking at someone is a form of respect; it’s a leadership trait and signals that you’re telling the truth and mean business,” says Laws. “If you look away, people could think you’re lying or insecure. It could also mean you’re nervous. It’s hard to know today, so it’s important to focus on this now more than ever.”
Leaning back in a chair: That could give a sense that someone is comfortable or not interested. If comfortable, a person may be inclined to smile and write while listening to you. Of course, this should include an explanation of why you’re writing or taking notes. The uninterested person may lean back, potentially falling asleep or mentally wandering off into another meeting. This person would usually maintain a straight face, prompt questions, or remain silent with a slight smirk.
Fidgeting: That could mean different things. You could do it because you’re thinking about what someone is saying. Or it could mean the person is nervous or has a lack of interest. “Be respectful and give people the same attention you’d want,” says Laws. “In certain environments, like during an interview, you have to give your undivided attention. Or if you’d like to take notes at the same time, let the person you’re speaking to know you’re very interested in what they are saying and ask if they would mind.” In a professional environment, people are prone to operate according to how their brain works. This could include writing or recording important notes on paper or saving it in their phone or on their laptop. It can also include things like writing down one’s birthday or remembering you have a doctor’s appointment that you forgot to record. The latter has been known to offend people. Especially individuals who are accustomed to having everyone’s undivided attention. If that is your case, advise your audience of your personal expectations.
Laws says so many conflicts could be avoided if we understood what our body language is saying and made small adjustments to give off a more positive impression. “I do a lot of conflict resolution and mediation in work environments,” says Laws. “People can learn to work together after a dispute and become the best of friends. Being intentional and attentive when listening to one another and paying attention to your body language is an important part of that.”