Why Are You Smiling!?

Happy 2012! It’s good to be back.

We have moved through the holidays, and I am reflecting on the social interactions that have taken place in the last weeks.  I had an encounter that caused me pause, and I share it with you here…      

In one particular instance I was involved in a challenging exchange of ideas.  I held one point of view, and the other person, an older (in her eighties) woman, held the opposite position. When I voiced my opinion, she would listen and smile while doing so.

I found her facial expression to be REALLY annoying! Distracting… Off putting… I heard my vocal tone increase in volume. I felt I was being mocked! 

It was only later that I paused long enough to look at this exchange from various points of view. Basically, I was caught in a common habit: We interpret nonverbal messages through our own mental models. Sometimes what we see can mean something else.

The study of facial expressions goes way back.  Researchers analyze the smile as a universal sign of happiness. Smiles also can serve as emotional masks to such feelings as apologetic, appeasement, embarrassment, sympathy, awkwardness, etc. 

I think my friend’s smiling behavior was a product of her cultural upbringing, her age and her gender.  I think our conversation left her feeling uncomfortable. Rather than mocking me, I think she was (unconsciously) saying that the directness of our exchange was not in her comfort zone.

It’s 2012. I’m anticipating more incongruency in communication exchanges going forward. The world is more complex. My challenge will be to develop a new habit: Pause. Think. Ask, “What might I be missing?”

This entry was posted in Case Studies, Generations, Interpersonal Communication, Nonverbal Behavior. Bookmark the permalink.

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