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How much are we supposed to smile?

The question came up, as it always does, in my professional presence workshop for Shakti Rise and Create.

Women, in particular, worry that if they smile too much, they’ll look like lightweights. Colleagues, customers, the company bigwigs won’t take them seriously if they’re grinning all the time.

On the other hand, if they consistently walk around the office, or show up on a Zoom screen, looking ultra-serious, they’ll be considered cold, unfriendly, or supercilious.

It feels like a no-win situation.

Sadly, their concerns are not misplaced. People do judge us by our appearance, and they do it quickly. They decide in about seven seconds whether they like us, trust us, or want to know us better. And some say those impressions begin to form in the first second someone lays eyes on you.

Some of my Shakti friends wanted to know, “How do we strike the right balance?”

It’s a conundrum. How serious should they be—or appear? When is it better to lighten the mood with a smile? And how much of the time should they keep their face more neutral?

I wish I had a formula for that, I’m not sure there is one. I do know context counts – what you’re talking about, where, and with whom.

And then there’s your natural style; that matters too. Some of us come across as serious. We lead by inspiring deference or even fear in the people we hope to influence. Others are so warm and caring and likeable that people want to go along with their suggestions. 

The best communicators find a balance. I think of it as a dance between commanding a room and connecting with the people in the room. Or between strength and warmth.

Those two qualities, strength and warmth, are the main criteria by which we judge others, according to communication strategists John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut.

Strength is the will and the ability to shape the world around you. It invites respect and even compliance. Undiluted, strength can also look like intimidation or coercion. You may not be surprised to hear that biologically, strength is connected to testosterone.

Warmth is all about empathy and caring and making people comfortable. It invites affection and a sense of belonging. Taken to extremes, warmth can come across as submissive and people-pleasing. And yes, it’s associated with estrogen and oxytocin.

Good news. It is possible to have both, as Neffinger and Kohut explain in Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential:

“People who project both strength and warmth impress us as knowing what they are doing and having our best interests at heart, so we trust them and find them persuasive. They seem willing (warm) and able (strong) to look out for our interests, so we look to them for leadership and feel comfortable knowing they are in charge.”

Of course, it’s not always easy to hit that balance between strength and warmth. They’re in direct tension with each other! And most of us have a natural tendency toward one or the other. Whether that’s by nature or nurture, who knows? But generally, men are more likely to project strength and women are more likely to seem warm.

You may already be thinking about which quality feels most familiar to you. As people get to know you, are they struck by the strength they perceive? Or are they drawn to your warmth? Either way, you’ll have more influence if you cultivate the quality that’s less automatic for you.

If you’re thinking, “I’m good with that strength thing, but how the heck do I make myself warmer?” here are a few suggestions for creating a perception of warmth.

  • Yes, it may seem obvious, but smiling is one big way to demonstrate warmth.
  • Engage in conversation, with an emphasis on listening to the other person and validating their feelings.
  • Get physically close. Reducing the distance lets people know you’re comfortable with them and they can be comfortable with you. (Yes, Compelling People predates the era of #MeToo. Use your good judgement about physical proximity and especially touching.)
  • Tilt your head. Exposing your neck conveys vulnerability.

And if you need to shift in the opposite direction? To project more strength

  • Maintain an upright posture—spine straight, shoulders back and down, head up. Taking up more space makes you look larger; that’s associated with dominance.
  • Open up the space between you and them. Keeping a bit of distance, giving yourself room to use big gestures will convey strength.
  • Use crisp, direct sentences with no fillers like “um” or “uh.” The silent pause between thoughts makes you sound strong and sure of yourself.
  • State your case without qualifiers or apologies. “I think, maybe, if you don’t mind…” is much weaker than “Here’s what we should do…”

And then there’s this, from that master of influence, Al Capone. You might say he was ahead of his time on this business of blending strength and warmth. Capone said, “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.”

What about you? Are you already thinking about how you can do the strength-and-warmth dance? I’m not issuing a command, of course, but I’d be delighted if you’d connect with a comment here.