Like all things dealing with nonverbal communication, it is always culturally specific, so we can interpret a smile in different ways around the world.
But for North America, Americans smile wider and more often than any other people, and that’s validated by research. So, be sure to smile when giving recognition to people in the U.S. and Canada.
And apparently, according to writer Olga Khazan from The Atlantic, a Finnish individual posited on Reddit that, “When a stranger on the street smiles at you:
a. You assume he is drunk.
b. He is insane.
c. He’s an American.”
People in some countries smile less frequently and mistrust those that smile a lot. Some research suggests that, depending on the level of instability in a country, they view people who are happy as foolish.
For most of us in North America, we see smiling as a sign of warmth and respect. It also portrays a level of confidence and certainty in the attitudes of the person smiling at you.
J. O’Doherty and his team investigated the neural correlates of facial attractiveness in the brain. They hypothesized attractive faces would stimulate the brain’s reward circuits.
They used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate regions of the brain that respond to attractive faces. These manifested either a neutral or mildly happy facial expression. Attractive faces produced activation of the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) a region involved in representing stimulus-reward value.
Responses in this region of the brain were further enhanced by a smiling facial expression. This suggests that the reward value of an attractive face is indexed by medial OFC activity as modulated by a perceiver directed smile.
At least you know for most North Americans that smiling while you express recognition to them, or while presenting an award, you are going to trigger a rewarding stimulation within their brains.
One reason Americans may smile so much is because of their rich cultural diversity. Countries with high immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication to get along with one another. So, people smile more.
Consider places like Canada and the United States, which are highly diverse, with 63 and 83 source countries, respectively, that make up their populations. Now compare them with countries such as China or Zimbabwe, which are fairly homogenous, with just a few nationalities represented in their populations.
People in these latter and similar countries, stereotypically, don’t have smiling as a strong social expressive skill. It’s not part of their nature.
Louis Putterman, an economics professor, and his research team out of Brown University, studied respondents from 32 countries to learn how much they felt various feelings should be expressed openly. Their findings revealed that emotional expressiveness was correlated with the diversity of their country of origin. When countries comprise a lot of immigrants, then people are more likely to smile more in order to build trust and cooperation. They used the nonverbal method of smiling more since they can’t communicate well with one another by the spoken word.
Then throw in a pandemic with more virtual communication and an era of mask wearing and our smiles are rarely visible.
Like most things with employee recognition, there is never a cookie-cutter approach for how you give it to people. Be yourself and express recognition the best way you know how.
Always give recognition to people from your heart and from your mind and they will always receive well it no matter where a person is from ethnically.
1. Ensure you use specific language to tell someone exactly what they did you want to commend them for.
2. Also share with them the impact their actions have had on others, so they know their work makes a difference to people.
3. If you are a person who is more inclined to smile and is known for this, then continue your normal pattern of behavior.
4. Be mindful that depending on a person’s country of origin that you might not get a smile in return, and that’s okay.
5. Keep in mind other nonverbal communication traits that might not be as universal as you think, such as making eye contact.
Recognition Reflection: Are you knowledgeable and respectful of the verbal and nonverbal communication practices from other countries?
Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.