How to Manipulate Those Around You With a Simple, Strategic Smile

Jared Leto, the Joker in Suicide Squad

Jared Leto smiling as the Joker | Warner Bros.

There are a number of sly physical and mental things you can do to manipulate a given situation. These include a slew of body language tricks, training yourself to speak and stand with confidence, and even adopting some cues from certain individuals (a certain presidential candidate comes to mind) that can allow you to gain an edge in an interview, business negotiation, or simple exchange of barbs with friends. Manipulation, and how to manipulate, are subtle art forms, and learning them can be daunting.

But there’s a relatively easy place to start: just work on your smile. How do you think Trump does it, after all?

To get into the specifics, social scientists have discovered that some leaders, particularly in the United States, have adopted physical facial cues – that is, a certain smiling effect – that resonates with their followers. It’s a bit confusing, but basically, researchers say that by analyzing the smiles of people in leadership positions or positions of power, it was found that certain elements of excitement were able to be produced in certain cultures.

Wait, what? Researchers from several different countries worked together to publish the study, which was published in the journal Emotion, and they are telling us that on a cultural level, certain types of smiles are accepted differently. For example, a Donald Trump smile may not win over a Japanese audience, and a calm, reserved grin from a Japanese CEO may not inspire excitement in Americans.

Basically, leaders can change their facial cues and smiles to suit their audiences, giving them a sort of manipulation over them.

“Cultures differ in the emotions they teach their members to value (“ideal affect”). We conducted 3 studies to examine whether leaders’ smiles reflect these cultural differences in ideal affect,” the study says. For one of the studies, researchers “compared the smiles of top-ranked American and Chinese government leaders, chief executive officers, and university presidents in their official photos. Consistent with findings that Americans value excitement and other high-arousal positive states more than Chinese, American top-ranked leaders (N = 98) showed more excited smiles than Chinese top-ranked leaders.”

That got them to this conclusion: “The more nations valued excitement and other high arousal positive states, the more their leaders showed excited smiles,” the researchers write. “These results held after controlling for national differences in democratization, human development, and gross domestic product per capita. Together, these findings suggest that leaders’ smiles reflect the affective states valued by their cultures.”

So, after slogging through the research, the team concluded that a leader can act as a sort of chameleon, and put on his or her best face depending on what type of audience they’re facing. That, in and of itself, isn’t exactly surprising – you probably act differently around your parents or significant other than you do around your friends, for example – but the impact that a simple smile had in the study was particularly interesting.

And when a finding like this comes along, though it may not be Earth-shattering, you can still adopt it and add it to your tool kit for future reference and use. With that said, how can you take the information garnered from this paper and apply it?

The answer is in one of two major ways. First, you can use it as a defensive measure. If you’re meeting a new boss for the first time, listening to your CEO give a speech or trying to decide who you want to vote for in a political election, you can bet that there was some discussion about how to appear and behave in front of you at some point. There are entire businesses structured around communication consulting, and inspiring or getting certain messages and feelings across. By knowing that a simple facial expression can manipulate your thinking, you can now anticipate it in the future.

Secondly, you can use it yourself. Again, you probably already do, to an extent. But giving a little bit of thought to your smile, and how and when you deploy it depending on who you’re speaking to, may help you forge inroads with people you may otherwise not have been able to. Perhaps you work in a large, diverse office. Taking your facial expressions and smiles into account, you may be able to open lines of communication with co-workers who don’t respond well to certain things.

A smile is worth a thousand words, as they say, and by keeping this little strategy nugget in your back pocket, you might be able to give yourself an edge through slight manipulation. Or, at the very least, become a better communicator.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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