The Real Value of a Fake Smile
As a child, I found it very difficult to strike up a conversation with people. Whether I was ordering food at a restaurant or trying to locate something in a store, I couldn’t find the courage to go up to someone and ask a question. Now, I can approach almost anyone without much hesitation. The reason? I work at Whole Foods Market.
Many people will say that everyone should work in the retail or food service industry once in their lives. I agree, but not for common reasons (i.e. people will see how rude others can be, how standing for eight hours can be tiring, etc.). Sure, working in retail I find some lack of consideration on the customer’s part — I am a human being and would rather not be ignored — but customer services workers learn one key lesson that I think would benefit mankind: faking it.
I greet a number of people every day in the front-end department of Whole Foods. For the most part, eye contact is made, a small conversation is had, and then the customer is on his or her way. There are some customers, on the other hand, who refuse to answer the simple question “How are you today?” Rather, they cast their eyes low and remain silent. It’s a horrible feeling, of course, but after weeks of encounters, I have learned to deal with many personalities — anything from the genuinely pleasant to the misogynistic. Would I normally take kindly to being told that energetic women need to be taken care of by men? Do I want to be the girlfriend of a mysterious older Russian man? No, but smiling got these guys out the door faster.
How would this translate outside of work? Imagine being at a party and running into a particularly unlikeable classmate or ex-partner. There are two options. First: avoid and ignore. Second: confront for 30 seconds with fake, nice small talk. The first scenario requires active concentration on that unlikable person, and no one wants that. The second lasts less than a minute and results in a lovely party. I’d much rather close my eyes and think of England for those few seconds and then move on.
The detectability of my fakeness is debatable. Judging from customer reactions, it seems like they can’t tell the difference. In 2006, Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, conducted an experiment at the New Zealand International Science Festival. Wiseman was curious to see if people can tell the difference between a fake and a genuine smile. After looking at 10 pairs of photographs, participants could only choose the real smiles 72 percent of the time, meaning that a good portion of the time those people had no clue and reacted to the pictures as if they were real smiles.
As for the off-chance that someone does detect a faux nice disposition, I hold the suspicion that in this city, even a fake smile would be regarded higher than the usual effort towards kindness. In any event, the service industry forces people to deal with those whom they may not like, acting polite and pretending to care, because we are paid to do so. Imagine how great a day without rudeness would feel. No doubt the day would run smoother if we were all paid to be nice. Perhaps that’s the true aim of those steadfast individuals who ask us all to spare a minute for [tk tk cause]. Now that would be a good reason to talk to the panderers on the street. A few minutes listening to rambles in exchange for a few bucks! My kind of win-win.
From my experience, retail, or really any kind of customer service job, is the fastest way to develop this skill. If more people followed suit, we’d have more people putting forward a little more effort to be kind, even if it’s all an act.