And you should smile more often,” he said, leaning in. As if he was sharing with me the secret to my advancing in the organization. “You should just smile.”
That was the feedback I received early on in my career. Impromptu words of wisdom from a well-meaning male colleague. It would seem as though that smiling would be the key to my success. My lack of smiling was clearly holding me back.
On one occasion when I was sitting, tapping away quietly at my keyboard. Someone came up to me and said “What’s wrong? Is something wrong?”
No that was just my resting face. I was just concentrating on an email. I wasn’t smiling.
Another time I was walking down the hallway. On a mission to make it to a meeting on time. “What’s wrong? Is something wrong?”
No I was just wearing heels that are too high. I was developing a blister on my heels. I wasn’t smiling.
And a third time. I was listening intently in a meeting. Taking notes and following along in the conversation. “What’s wrong? Is something wrong?”
No I was just paying attention. And thinking about next steps for the project. I wasn’t smiling.
Throughout the course of my career, I inevitably started to smile more. I was conditioned to smile more. I smile often. I smile to make people feel welcome. I smile to disarm people. I smile and even throw in a laugh to cut the tension in any given situation. I smile when given tough feedback. I smile when others are angry. I smile when I am angry, sometimes growling through my teeth. I smile often and smile plenty.
“You should smile more often. Just smile.” But when is the last time we ever asked a man to smile more?
If a man doesn’t smile, it’s ok. We never question, never doubt. He’s commanding, he has a presence and gravitas. He’s a leader. He’s a visionary. He’s someone we can follow. He will lead us to where we need to go. Follow that man!
We don’t smile? The narrative can quickly go in another direction.
Then we are cold. Lack empathy. Lack emotional intelligence. People just can’t seem to connect with us. We make people uncomfortable. We appear aggressive, sometimes threatening. People wonder if we like them, if we approve of them, if we can lead teams. If people will follow us. If we can make an impact. We just don’t have that warmth, that energy, that charisma- those intangible qualities that make that next great leader.
It would be so much simpler if we just smiled. So why don’t we?
Because maybe like our friend Kim Kardashian we don’t want wrinkles. Because we don’t feel well that day. Because we have blisters on our feet from heels that are far too high. Because we are just intently listening, planning what action we have to take next. Because we are fed up with the comments, the jokes, the daily attack of micro-aggressions we as women face in our lives
Because some of us just don’t like to smile, because we don’t have time to smile. We aren’t here to make friends. We aren’t here to smile and show off our happiness and make everyone else comfortable. We are here to make moves and make things happen just like our male colleagues. We are here to make as much of an impact as humanly possible.
So what does smiling have to do with anything?
Next time you are in a meeting. And someone questions why she doesn’t smile enough. Why she’s so aggressive. Why she’s so calculating. Why she doesn’t collaborate. Why she’s difficult.
Ask yourself and the others in the room, would we use the same words to describe a male leader? And doubt his capabilities?
And for the record. I do love to smile. I have a great smile. I smile often. Because life is good.
But please don’t ask me to smile. Unless we are taking a selfie. Unless we are out enjoying a glass of frose. Unless I am with my children, snapping a photo, and we all shout “Cheese!” Then I will smile on command.