Smile Study: Women More Likely To Accept Condescending Remarks Delivered With A Smile

Portrait of a happy young couple having fun at the sea shore
Portrait of a happy young couple having fun at the sea shore

For every man who gets called out by a Kat Stratford and Sandra Fluke, there are probably many more men who get away with it. Ever wondered how? It turns out that dominant posture and a big smile can take a guy a long way.

New research suggests that women consider condescending remarks less offensive when men in an authoritative stance deliver them with a smile and some macho body language. The study, led by social scientist Soledad de Lemus at the University of Granada, looked at how a man's social status, physical posture and attitude affected women's responses to and evaluations of him.

The researchers asked college-age women to watch a video featuring a male instructor who gave the viewers a storytelling task to complete. The male instructor assumed a "wide" and "dominant" posture -- sitting up straight, legs apart, taking up a lot of physical space -- in all videos, but other factors varied: His facial expression was either smiling or unsmiling, and he either made a sexist remark or did not.

Researchers noted if and how the women changed their posture during the task and how they evaluated the instructor afterward. They found that women were more likely to take on a "narrow and submissive" posture when confronted by a dominant man and were also more likely to downplay a sexist remark if it was delivered by a smiling man.

The study, published in the November 2012 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, concluded that a man who smiled while delivering a sexist remark was seen as less patronizing than a man who delivered a sexist remark without smiling. The comment was also seen as more harmless. In the research paper, de Lemus and her colleagues suggested that the presence of a smile increased the likelihood that a man's sexist remark would be seen as humorous or ironic and thus less offensive. This result stems from the man's "perceived warmth," Christine Hsu wrote in Medical Daily. "It's a tricky situation and one that underscores just how subtly sexism can intrude in interactions."

Body language expert Patti Wood told the Daily Mail that women pay more attention to body language than men do, which may explain the phenomenon: "Even if there’s dissonance between what’s been said and what [a man's] body is doing, women will look to the body ... If they see a smile, then the interaction seems more friendly."

The power of a smile is well-documented. Previous research has found that men smile less than women overall but, unlike women, are not seen as submissive when they do smile. Smiles are also more likely to generate leniency in strangers than a neutral facial expression, and individuals are more likely to cooperate with a stranger who is smiling.

The new study seems to confirm those findings and reinforce some advice for women as old as the hills: Be careful not to let a man’s swagger distract you from what he is actually saying and whether you’re okay with it.