The Smile Factor and International Business

For busy businesspeople, flying off to some foreign country to conduct a deal, the things that are most on their minds are their upcoming meetings, their PowerPoint presentations and, in that zone of the brain that does not forget threats, the soft somber voice of their boss who intoned, "Come back with results." Their crowded brains have little space for pondering about how they should or should not smile upon landing. Even less room is available for wondering about how they will consciously or unconsciously react to their foreign partner's smile -- or lack of one.

Yet how to interpret a smile when doing business is vital because the difference between smiling or not may be the difference between doing successful business or not. For this reason alone it is crucial to learn about what a smile means in which situation and to which person in which culture.

Many people, for example, those from relationship-oriented regions (such as Asia, the Middle East, Southern Europe, Latin America, parts of the U.S., India, etc.) who live or do business in task-oriented countries (much of Scandinavia and the German speaking lands, for instance) often share a common complaint: "Nobody smiles here!"

"But we do smile!" protest task-oriented people. Surely, the observations of relationship-oriented people must be right. And certainly task-oriented people smile. How can a smile -- that delightful, seemingly innocent gesture gracing every baby's face on earth -- be such a complex thing?

The challenge lies in how to "read" a smile as well as how to know when and why it is "given" or sent out, and how it is "received."

There are many possible positive meanings contained in a smile: friendliness, openness, liking, politeness, happiness, relief, a wish for contact, an invitation, a welcome. In business it often means, "Let's build a relationship based on trust." Conversely, however, a smile may signal fear, insecurity, sadness, nervousness, insincerity, sneakiness, evil intent or even madness -- which may explain why many of my task-oriented clients tell me, "I don't like working with Asians. They smile too much."

In a nation such as the U.S., smiles -- open, warm and friendly -- are given and returned freely. But this custom confuses many foreigners coming to visiting or working there because contrary to what they may think, the U.S. American smile does not necessarily mean, "I want to be your friend" or "I like you." It normally simply means, "Hi!" or "Greetings!" It is, however, a gesture of trust, like an extended hand or an open door. In this case, an unreturned smile by a confused foreigner may be interpreted by the U.S. American as a signal of distance, mistrust, anger or unfriendliness. In business, this could close doors.

In other cultures, such as many in Eastern Europe, smiles are not given on first contact. But once the ice has been broken, people will beam with warmth; it just takes a bit of time for them to figure out your intentions. In classic task-oriented countries, people rarely consider smiling at someone they do not know, and thus do not trust. Smiles are for family, co-workers and friends. Why would they smile at a stranger? Crooks and crazy people do that. Thus, a big, toothy, pearly white U.S. American smile on first contact might be "read" as either the smirk of a con artist or the grin of a lunatic -- and instead of smiling back, people may stare warily at or even step away from the person beaming at them for no good reason.

The trouble is, for people from countries where smiles are readily sent out, this behavior in turn is often interpreted negatively. For them, an unsmiling face is akin to a frown of disapproval, coldness, unhappiness or anger. And thus does the wheel of interpretation and misinterpretation spin on and on. Indeed, from a smile or the lack of one relationships can be created or killed off at the very start, intentions correctly or incorrectly signaled, and business made or destroyed in a subtle yet significance flash of an instant during that all important first impression.

Worse, destructive stereotypes -- "I hate the Swiss," "Americans are superficial," "Never trust the Chinese" -- often find their origins in how a smiling or unsmiling face is "read." And such clichés are, as every globalized businessperson knows, bad for business.

What does this mean for you, the over-worked, stressed-out international businessperson? Well, before leaving on your next foreign assignment, take a brief but wise moment to investigate the "smile factor" in your target culture. Knowing when, where, why and to whom to give your smile could be the subtle key element in winning a deal -- and even producing a grin on your boss' face.