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December 21, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Your Smile: Dominance and Submission

By Anne Christen More Blogs by This Author

Studies reveal that smiling can boost happiness and health, while life coaches encourage those who feel less than confident to smile and walk tall. But new findings suggest this friendly gesture may not always be what it appears, especially in the workplace.

What Your Boss's Smile Really Means

A beaming boss, according to researchers at the University of California, may be inadvertently telling you of your underling status. Rather than indicating happiness with your work performance, a manager’s smile can mean you lack authority. This is believed to be an act of pity, in which bosses feel they need to be kind to the “little people” in some small way.

Conversely, those who don’t receive smiles in the workplace are perceived to be important or powerful. People in positions of power thus often remain sober when looking at their equals.

Mechanism of Mimicry

This information is based on a study of 55 young men and women and their imitation of others’ behaviors in group situations. The mechanism of mimicry is crucial to bonding, and its unconscious employment with regard to power and status were of particular interest to the study’s authors.

To gauge this phenomenon, volunteers were asked to watch videos of either prestigious people, such as doctors or business leaders, or low-status people, like restaurant employees or refuse collectors. Prior to the exercise, participants had been split into groups and prepared to feel either more or less powerful by writing an essay about a particularly good or bad event in their lives. That writing was expected to be the catalyst for reactions to the videos.

While the videos played, researchers measured the volunteers’ activity of two facial muscles: the zygomaticus major, which raises the corners of the mouth, and the corrugator supercilii, which creases the brow. The results showed volunteers were more likely to mimic a frown from a person of high-status, and these frowns were of intense natures.

Responses to smiling faces, on the other hand, told a much different story. Male and female study participants who felt powerful did not mimic smiles from prestigious people, but they did return the smiles of those perceived as lower in rank. Moreover, their smiles were bigger.

Submission and Dominance

Researchers discovered another interesting point as well. Those who felt no power at all smiled at everyone, regardless of their rank. This suggests people use smiling as a way to please others, and that a smile itself is a submissive gesture.

Researchers believe people who feel powerful try to show their dominance by remaining aloof with those who might be a threat. But they don’t hesitate to appear approachable to those who lack clout.

The study’s researchers used a facial electromyography, which records minute electrical currents with each muscle twitch, to measure activity in volunteers’ faces. This technique is sophisticated enough to gauge and record activity that is undetected by the human eye. By using facial electromyography, researchers were able to capture the volunteers’ true reactions, even when they appeared to have neutral expressions while watching the videos.

Social mimicry, which is performed every day in all sorts of occasions, seems to occur subconsciously. Many people, for instance, lean forward while talking when their companion does the same. Smiling, however, appears to be a gesture that conveys peoples’ perceptions in social gatherings and is not automatically simulated. When trying to read one’s smile, you may therefore need to think twice.


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