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.
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.
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.