The Slippery Slope of a Smile

Smile by artist

Smiling art by artist Yue Minjun

I am creating a professional development program with our Education Coordinator, Dara, Kong, tailored for our EGBOK Mission graduates. There will be three parts – Self-Awareness, Customer Service and Leadership.  Interestingly, the subject of smiles came up recently, and it provided me with “teachable moments” that relate to all three parts of the professional of developmentprogram. I was chatting recently with Mara, my former student who I wrote about in the previous blog, who brought the subject up.

It is said that smiles connect people by breezily transcending cultural differences, but really, the smile can create a slippery slope when dealing with people of different cultures.  Though kind and gentle in its very definition, a misplaced smile can be misleading and misguided, causing negative workplace relations or poor customer service, depending on the people involved.

Me and Mara

Mara (on right) and me

Mara had made a mistake at work.  He had smiled while his director, an Australian bloke, was explaining the consequences of Mara’s error. It was just his natural reaction.  His director, Mr. Tom, became increasingly annoyed, asking Mara “what is funny about this?” challenging Mara to explain his expression.  Though Mara couldn’t explain why he smiled, it had to do with “saving face” – the cultural circumstance when a person feels uncomfortable, doesn’t understand another person or is unwilling to admit a mistake.  It’s a mask to avoid public embarrassment. But to the receiver, it can be interpreted as condescending, insubordinate, dismissive, or just plain annoying.

basket weave artisan

When asked if I could take a picture after I bought a basket, this woman seemed truly delighted.

Knowing Mara, being uncomfortable and embarrassed probably caused him to smile. But the cool thing here, and this attests to Mara’s emotional maturity and self-awareness, is that Mara had the wherewithal to realize a mixed message had occurred, causing a problem and his director.  Mara learned how smiling was not appropriate when another person was exhibiting discomfort, confrontation or frustration.  He realized he needed to respond to the behavior of the other person, rather than behave in a way that made him feel more protected or secure.

Listening to Mara’s own professional development actively at work was very encouraging. To me, this was a huge cultural leap that many of Mara’s peers will have more difficulty learning and embracing.  Mara’s good fortune is also that he has a supervisor who wants Mara to understand the impact of his behavior.  (A general manager of a local hotel shared her own frustration when an employee kept smiling as he told her he was quitting his job.  She too asked, “What is so funny? Are you happy you are leaving?”   Though she recognized he was saving face, the mask of the smile was exacerbating.)

To Mara’s credit, he didn’t keep this valuable lesson to himself only. Mara now coaches his staff not to smile when a customer is complaining, but to listen with intent while they actively find ways to fix the situation.

So with a smile, I bring this little story to an end. A story and lesson in self-awareness, improved customer service and emerging leadership – all based on one misplaced smile.

Cynical realism artist

A smile sometimes isn’t always what it seems. Artist Yue Minjun is part of the cynical realism movement


But sometimes, a smile is just a smile.


About Barbara Lang

My career has been filled with life experiences and professional opportunities all focusing on food, ranging from university lecturer, restaurant owner, schooner chef, and Adult Lifelong Learning Coordinator for the U. of Virginia's Semester at Sea. During the around-the-world voyage, I found food adventures in all 15 countries, but India is the most memorable. Early on I was a Napa Valley, CA winery culinary director and most recently started a company called The Etiquette Factor - helping people present the best of who they are, as they move forward in their careers. In late October, my husband I will start a three-month commitment volunteering at a NGO in Cambodia where I'll be teaching and advising young adults hospitality skills as they pursue careers in the local tourism industry. It is my hope and intent, that in upcoming years, we will return to India for more than 6 days, becoming more acquainted with the people and of course, the incredible food.
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