How to smile on command?
June 21, 2014 3:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I make a genuine smile when I encounter people so that they know that I'm open to interactions?

There's all kinds of advice that says that smiling is the best way to show people that you're open and friendly, most prominently from How to Win Friends and Influence People. Unfortunately, owing to my social anxiety and general fatigue, I feel like my normal expression is somewhere between ambivalent and pained. When I try to smile, either at people or in a mirror, I can tell that it looks fake, and my muscles just seem incapable of doing the necessary maneuvers to make a genuine, friendly smile on purpose. On the one hand, it seems disingenuous to force a smile, but on the other hand, in my view, I would actually be showing my genuine personality hiding behind the anxiety. I also suspect that if I start to smile more on purpose, then it'll become easier to smile without trying.
posted by PlasticSupernova to Human Relations (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
So you suffer from RBF?

I used to as well. Then I heard that cognitive dissonance would help. So I just thought of a happy song (Happy by Pharell is a good one) and then I started smiling. A little tug at the edge of my mouth. I practiced, and kind of forced myself to do it. Then it became natural.

Side effects, being happier. That shit WORKS!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:35 PM on June 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

I also suspect that if I start to smile more on purpose, then it'll become easier to smile without trying.

This is exactly the right (and often only) answer to this question. There has been an observation since the time of the ancients regarding virtue formation (or, habits-of-character formation), namely that we practice what we want to become. It's like learning a sport, actually, and the same principle applies to all kinds of things in life. When we first try to learn a new skill, it feels stilted. But sure enough, with enough practice, we get good at a particular thing, such that it becomes automatic, even without trying.

And here's the really cool thing about it, actually: you will find that actions can influence emotions. It's been shown that people who practice being happy, courteous, loving, etc., will actually start to feel these things simply by virtue of going through the motions. So not only does the skill become developed through repetitive activity, but your emotions will likely also feel happier as a result, and smiling becomes even more natural. It's a vicious cycle of goodness.

Good luck, and I'm confident this will come through practice. I speak from personal experience on a number of things where I've tried the same methodology (as have other people I know).
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:36 PM on June 21, 2014 [14 favorites]

"Putting on a sad face or a smile directly produces the feelings that the expressions represent, according to a new theory of how emotions are produced."
posted by ottereroticist at 3:40 PM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm naturally a shy person, but I love people and work hard at being friendly and seeming open, even when I'm feeling anxious. I have practiced smiling in the mirror - different smiles, imagining different scenarios - and found personally that my "what a sweet doggie you have!" looks the most genuine. (Not going to psychoanalyze that...) Your most genuine looking smile may be borrowed from a different imaginary scenario. When I'm getting ready to go out for an event I feel anxious about (fewer now that I'm older & more experienced) I'll stop & practice a few smiles in the mirror to feel more confident. Nowadays, by the time I get to the event, I've often forgotten about needing to pretend to feel at ease and do feel (mostly) at ease. You'll get there. Everyone I've met in the past decade is shocked when I tell them that I'm naturally shy and socially anxious. A victory, but it did take time.
posted by pammeke at 3:40 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Remember that smiling isn't just with your mouth, it's with your eyebrows, too.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:52 PM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Get more sleep and have a slower smile that doesn't feel as tight so quickly.
posted by michaelh at 4:03 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I develop a mindset where I consider everyone I encounter equally interesting and with something wonderful to offer. That kind of thinking allows me to interact with/look at people with good-natured curiosity and genuine acceptance. When our eyes meet, smiling as a form of friendly acknowledgment feels (and eventually becomes) natural to me.
posted by tackypink at 4:03 PM on June 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

I make a lot of eye contact with people too and agree that just acknowledging people is the way to go. I'm always surprised at how many people smile back at me when i didn't think i was smiling at all.
posted by katinka-katinka at 4:19 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

When you practice smiling in the mirror, warm up first. Do a couple rounds of "big face/squishy face": alternate between opening your eyes and mouth as far as you can and scrunching your face up tightly, with appropriate "aaaaagh" and "ewwwwww" noises if you like. Or do some exaggerated singing/lip syncing into a hairbrush, the more over-the-top the better. This will both loosen up your facial muscles and make you feel a little goofy so you'll be more inclined to smile anyway.

Once you've got a smile that feels genuine, pay attention to what parts of your face feel engaged. Then try and do an obviously-fake smile and observe the difference. For me, the difference is that with a real smile, I can feel my cheeks lift up.

A good thing to practice when you're out and about is just keeping your eyes open. Not so wide that you look shocked or bug-eyed, just so you look alert and engaged. Almost all of the grumpy/tired default expression is carried in the eyes and eyebrows.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:26 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like tackypink, I've found that taking a moment at the start of an interaction to think "why am I happy to see this person?" and let that make me smile is the best way to start an interaction on a good foot. So, yes, you do have to work at smiling when you greet people, but only because you have to work out why you're happy.
posted by ambrosen at 4:42 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your mirror smiles probably look fake because they are fake. I think you're right that the more you get in the habit of smiling a lot the easier it will get. And on the off chance that your first few attempts do seem fake, I don't think people analyze other peoples expressions to that degree. If your words and your tone of voice are sincere I think you should be fine.
posted by bleep at 4:44 PM on June 21, 2014

Think of someone you love, or a happy memory when you're fake smiling and it'll turn into a real smile. You'll be able to tell by the way your eyes move/feel.
posted by katypickle at 5:01 PM on June 21, 2014

Hold a pencil between your teeth. This 'task' creates such a real smile that it is used in research on smiling. (For a variety of reasons that are pretty off topic)

Try it!
posted by bilabial at 5:07 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm embarassed to say this...

But on america's Next Top Model Tyra Banks is always talking about smizing - smiling with your eyes. It's how you can see joy on a model even if their mouth is not in the ad. The thing is, it's not just a modeling trick - when you genuinely smile it involves your whole face, not just your mouth. So practice using your whole face. You'll feel dumb, but that's because you aren't used to conciously using those muscles.
posted by Aranquis at 5:33 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Method acting. You need to figure out how to feel the rush of happy that goes with a smile. So think of something that never fails to make you feel good and smile while thinking that thought. Your face will feel different then when you are shooting a placatory smile or an unhappy smile. Remember the difference in sensations, practice it a little bit before you even use it on someone.

Think positive thoughts: Oh good, a customer! Here's my chance to have a brief positive social interaction all while staying on easy predictable topics. I'm gaining good karma by being nice to people and it's fun!

That sounds awful, but it really is something like the semi-formed thought at the beginning of an encounter. Ah! A chance to make someone smile!

If you are not too scary and scruffy you can practice this while playing a game, walking down the sidewalk with on coming pedestrian traffic. Make eye contact and smile with each person without breaking step in any way and see how many people you can get to smile back. A placatory smile will probably get ignored or get a cool judgmental look but the warm smile will often get a slightly startled smile back. Sometimes though you will hit the jackpot and the person walking towards you will brighten up visibly as if you had just handed them a hundred dollar bill.

When I lived in Montreal I used to be able to get an up to 70% response rate while walking through the downtown.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:16 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Try smile practice! It's a great way to warm up to smiling at intriguing humans. You start by just smiling at inanimate objects, the lamp, a guitar, a fire hydrant. Then you smile at animals, children, non threatening humans, and finally the humans who you're trying to engage and befriend.
posted by whalebreath at 7:37 PM on June 21, 2014

I had this problem! I couldn't even make eye contact for the first 17 or so years of my life, and my parents would get so angry with me for what seemed my sullen and angry demeanor. But I was just really shy, and had so much affection and joy to give, and was really worried I'd never learn to let it out.

Now the very first thing people tend to comment on, when meeting me, is my smile. I haven't gotten less shy, however. I've just practiced. And not in front of a mirror, though no doubt that will help you get used to those muscles. The way that I practiced was by paying really close attention to what my face and eyes and gestures were doing every time I felt happy without warning. So, all the times I laughed because something was funny, or quirked my lips because something was cute. These were few and far in between at first, but they weren't nonexistent. This is how I learned what I look like (or feel like) when my reactions are totally spontaneous, and therefore totally genuine.

You can also speed up the process by consistently putting yourself in delightful situations. Visit a pet store, if you like animals. Play with children you know, if you like kids. Spend lots of time with your closest friends and ask them to tell you funny stories. Tell funny stories yourself! What does your face do? How do your mouth, cheeks, and eyes feel in particular? Freeze the moment just a little bit, just long enough to realize what your body does all by itself.

Then, as I got better at noticing what I was doing naturally, I focused on doing it more. Letting my happiness express itself more, and more physically, while I was in my comfort zones. So, if you feel yourself smiling, what does it feel like to make that smile bigger? What does it feel like to turn that smile into a giggle? How about a laugh?

Finally, once I'd got a good sense of what my full range of smiles felt like, I started to work on smiling at strangers, or in strange places. In order to do this, I a) looked for something about the stranger or place that I genuinely liked, b) used this feeling of genuine liking to trigger my natural impulse to smile, and c) made the baby smile into a full reaction by remembering what my face feels like when I'm happy and pushing it gently in that direction. I chose my moments, working my way up from things that were hugely happy-making in strange(r) situations, to things that were much smaller (the color of a wall, the sparkle of light reflected off of someone's wristwatch, a person's voice or hair).

Every single time I smile now, it is still a major choice against my shyness (I still have to trust that the interaction will be a positive one), but it is also a completely genuine reaction because I am responding with my real smile (i.e. the way my face actually moves) to something real in my environment that makes me happy. I've just gotten really fast at finding wonderful things, and responding to them. I don't think, "Here is a person, I need to smile." I think, "Oh, this person's shirt is such a pretty shade of blue!" Or, "Oh, this person has such beautiful eyes!" And I smile in spite of myself (sometimes I will even say the compliment out loud, which can really help), and the person notices and feels good. And absolutely, the more you do it, the easier it will become.

This is a wonderful question, and I wish you the best of luck! I have every confidence you'll get there, and it will be one of the best things you've ever done for yourself, I promise.
posted by trainsurfing at 7:52 PM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Think of something funny and/or cute.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:20 PM on June 21, 2014

I agree with thinking of something funny and / or cute when you want a genuine smile. There is nothing that makes my smile more real than remembering my dogs doing silly and hilarious things when they were puppies.

Also, practice smiling slowly. Let the smile form slowly as you think of something that amuses or pleases you, rather than just plastering on a huge grin instantly. A slow smile has more impact.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 8:43 PM on June 21, 2014

Smiling is not done with the eyebrows, except incidentally. If you smile with just your mouth and your eyebrows you will look insane. Scary insane, not fun insane.

The best way to smile genuinely is to be genuinely happy. I think practicing could actually help you feel happy more easily :)
posted by amtho at 8:59 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I read this book called 'The Charisma Myth' by Olivia Fox Cabane. Great book. She got into a situation in a new high school where she was really socially excluded for a number of years by the kids around her and began withdrawing and questioning her ability to interact successfully. She began studying charisma from the standpoint of being a set of behaviors she could emulate and create for herself in order to be more successful socially. I think she's right on the money with her book.

I can't honestly say I know how your problem expresses, or other people who say they have social anxiety. I've had my problems for a number of years and had no real solution until I read this book. I think of this problem as learned behavior that is ineffective. When we move out into the world there's a natural need to be a bit defensive, perhaps protective of one's personal space. The problem is when that nervousness or bit of agitation begins to commandeer one's social behavior in all realms, even when you get into friendly environments of people you know and want to know better. The more the behavior interferes with social interaction, the worse it gets, a self-defeating loop.

Cabane talks a lot about setting up your physiology so a social interaction is successful. For example, sometimes I will draw an inner smile, just a bowl shaped curve on the inside of my body or face when I think I'm about to see or meet someone. Just that brief flash of a smile shape in your mind changes your physiology to a more positive one.

Likewise, standing with your arms raised in the victory 'v', or in the Wonder Woman pose with hands on hips. Powerful physiology changers. I do this every morning as part of my morning exercise routine, another physiology changer. When you add enough physiology changers to your routines, the ones that are harming your social life start to drop away. Don't try to stop your ineffective behaviors, replace them with something better.

Good luck!
posted by diode at 9:29 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience at doing public service at work...very few people (I can count 'em on one hand) have noticed that I wasn't "smizing." I fake smile constantly because I have to. I honestly don't think most people give a shit if it's fake or not. Especially if you pair that up with talking chirpily and cheerfully instead of being quiet and shy. I find it disturbing how many people "buy it," but apparently that works.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:55 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Smiling and being open is taking a risk and you know this and thus do it cautiously. You should explore why you find being happy such a vulnerable position to be in.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:18 AM on June 22, 2014

Or, to summarize: Fake it till you make it.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:37 AM on June 22, 2014

Start by smiling at dogs. I'm not kidding. Then plants, then people. Practice, practice, practice!
posted by Ironmouth at 11:48 AM on June 23, 2014

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