In the UK, we love a smile (well some of us do). We can smile at a complete stranger without it being a particularly odd thing to do. Yes, you run the risk of being completely blanked, or worse still, looked at in that pitying, slightly suspicious kind of way, but who cares? As the ‘smiler’ you’re putting yourself out there, and that alone must be some kind of victory.
But the act of smiling is not as universal as you might think. Despite being one the happiest countries in the world on any scale you choose to look at, the Swiss are quite the dour looking bunch, saving their smiles to genuinely express their emotions rather than just saying hi.
In America, smiling is much more common than in less emotionally expressive countries such as Japan. But this doesn’t mean the Japan is full of miseries, it simply means they are subject to different cultural influences.
And this is the important point: Cultural understanding can be extremely significant when you’re trying to build a relationship based on trust, confidence and mutual understanding for business purposes.
The importance of a smile in business
In business, what we do with our faces is important. If you’re working in a pro-smiling culture like America, which is arguably the smile capital of the world, be prepared to flash those teeth. Smiling in the States is seen as a tool to show respect, ease relationships and greet people you are unfamiliar with.
This is particularly true when it comes to customer relationships. As customers in America and the UK, we expect to be greeted with a smile, whether that’s by a retail assistant, a waiter or waitress or a service provider. In smiling cultures, if we are greeted by a serious or grim-faced employee, we tend to feel aggrieved in some way, and that the service wasn’t up to the standard we might expect.
These differing cultural attitudes towards smiling can cause misunderstandings when we travel abroad to do business. The Japanese culture, for instance, is probably where the most overt shunning of emotion takes place. That doesn’t mean Japanese people are unhappy, or do not wish their clients and customers well, but this humility and the suppression of emotions is actually the way they build and improve these relationships.
How does cultural background affect a smile?
Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology into the psychology of a smile found that people from a Japanese background tend to be better than Americans at determining when a smile is genuine.
By focusing on the eyes rather than the mouth when expressing and reading emotions, the Japanese are able to read the true emotions of others, and distinguish a real smile from a fake one. This difference is a manifestation of the cultural attitudes of the two countries.
While the American culture values overt expressions of emotion and openness, the Japanese culture tends to value humility and the suppression of emotion to improve relationships with others. These cultural differences could easily be misinterpreted and potentially become a sticking point in communications between businesses from these two countries.
Overcoming our cultural conditioning
As anyone who has tried to overcome their cultural conditioning will know, unlearning our natural characteristics and traits is not easy. There have been a few occasions when non-smiling cultures have tried to turn their frowns upside down.
Perhaps most famously, the Chinese authorities tried to get people working at the Beijing Olympics to smile more. Stewards were asked to clench a chopstick between their teeth in an attempt to develop their smiling muscles. Russian border guards have also undergone a little smile training of their own. They were told to smile more to be less intimidating and more welcoming to foreign visitors.
When it comes to moving into another culture, it can be just as important to understand the non-verbal cues as it is the spoken communication. Smiling is an important part of how we communicate with others and understand their behaviours and attitudes, so it’s essential you know just how much a smile is worth when you do business overseas.
How can we help?
At Linguistica International, we work with a professional network of translators, transcreators and interpreters who not only work in their mother tongue, but also live in these countries. That means every word, even the unspoken, is clearly understood. Please get in touch today to make your business heard, whatever the market.