Service of a Smile

November 12th, 2009

Categories: Attitude, Positive Thinking

When a young policeman in a subway car made me smile, during an unhappy stretch, and he volunteered, “You look so much prettier when you smile,” he changed my life. Who doesn’t want to look prettier?

But there are exceptions to the smile thing. One was well after midnight in the elevator of a Chicago airport hotel. Three of us had bent over tables for hours filling almost 1,000 goody bags for a gargantuan weekend conference that we were producing for retailers. [There was no way we could hire our usual vendor to do this because we didn’t get the contents until the very last minute and there was no budget for additional on-site help.] I had the headache of a century, more work to do once I hit my room, huge hurdles yet to clear to ensure the event’s success and a 5 a.m. wakeup call in my future when I bumped into one of the clients in the elevator. [The client was an association, we reported to its marketing committee  which had 13 members.] I smiled in greeting best I could, which wasn’t good enough because he gave me a lecture about not looking jolly.

According to an article in BBC News, “Feeling Grumpy ‘is Good For You,'” [November 4, 2009], Professor Joe Forgas, an Australian researcher at the University of New South Wales claims that “being grumpy makes us think more clearly.” According to Forgas, the way a brain “promotes information processing strategies” means that irritable people can best cope with demanding situations. He said, “Negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world.”

This article was sent to me by one of the most pleasant, brightest, crackerjack problem solving women I know.

Coincidentally, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided, is also in the news in the likes of The New York Times Sunday Book Review section. The subhead in the November 8 review was “Barbara Ehrenreich examines the American love of positive thinking.”

According to the reviewer, Hanna Rosin, Ehrenreich began to question this inclination when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She was irritated, not inspired, by what she considered the false cheerful and cutesy culture around her and attitude expected of her. Rosin noted that Ehrenreich tracked the focus on positive thinking largely to Dale Carnegie-style corporate culture and celebrity pastors in megachurches.

Ehrenreich was also the subject of a post on The Daily Beast in an article by Megan Hustad [October 15, 2009], “Why are You So Damn Happy?”  From her telephone interview with the author, Hustad wrote:

“If there has been a decline in happiness in America, and we don’t shape up well compared to other countries, including, weirdly, Finland, which I always thought of as very dour,” Ehrenreich said, “it relates to all this work we do to make ourselves be more positive. Positive thinking is imposed on people in a lot of settings. If you’re in the typical corporate workplace, you are exhorted to be positive. You’re told nobody wants to be around a negative person-which could mean somebody who just raises questions now and then, questions like ‘Isn’t our subprime exposure dangerously large here?’ People were fired for that in ’05 and ’07, right up until the end of the housing boom. You just could not say something like that.”

I actually like to be and feel happy, in fact I’d say I have a positive outlook, but I don’t see that this in any way prevents me from questioning colleagues, clients, fellow board members or mentees. Clients pay me to counsel, critique and add value, not be a “yes” person. As a board member, adding my opinion, especially when it doesn’t match everyone else’s, is my fiduciary duty. Students I mentor look to me to advise them. The expected “good job” isn’t the answer I should give when I see a way to perfect an approach, résumé or cover letter.

You have every right to say, “But you work for yourself, what do you know about working for a big company?” I’ve worked for one and represented several.  Does that count?

If you are–or try to be–positive, have you simply bought into an American myth or do upbeat vibes have real benefits? Do you think you can question a boss, colleague or client and at the same time be considered constructive?


9 Responses to “Service of a Smile”

  1. Hank Goldman Said:

    There’s a conductress on my morning train who lights up the entire RR System with her warm and (seemingly) sincere SMILE! —-What a difference.

    Being pretty much an old grump myself, I have had to learn that having a positive outlook and putting your best smile out there, DOES make people listen more attentively, and act nicer, toward you.

  2. Deirdre Said:

    Has this happened to you? It happens to me: I’m walking along the street, thinking big or small thoughts, when suddenly a guy will yell, “Smile!” So far no homicides have resulted, but really. You know this guy wouldn’t yell that at, say Albert Einstein meandering the paths of Princeton. But some of the women he’s screaming at, interrupting, being incredibly rude to, could be mentally formulating a cure for cancer, or the opening lines of the Great American Novel. Oh, yeah, I’m grumpy now…

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Wow, a self-described “old grump” who smiles and a 100 percent positive, beautiful woman who gets grumpy at the thought of a man interrupting her contemplation with a suggestion that she smile.

    Maybe the look of despair is different from the look of contemplation…but the policeman who changed my life wasn’t flirting—he was at least 15 years younger than I was at the time—and I interpreted his comment far differently than Deirdre does the approaches to her. Yikes. Maybe I should review the instance in my mind!

  4. Zanade Said:

    Speaking from experience I must say it depends on the type of client you have.

    In my business of PR & Marketing you always must give some type of constructive criticism. For example, if a client suggests standing in Times Square with a huge sign that says “The recession is killing me, please buy my products!” and they will accept an alternate suggestion and there are times when I am working with very particular clients and saying certain things whether positive or not will set off a fuse. But overall I believe that everyone should be at liberty to speak their mind– it’s just how they put it that matters and if what they say yields results! (where I speak my mind lol)

  5. David Reich Said:

    Not to seem like a pollyanna, but most of the time I find it easier and more satisfying to be happy rather than mad or grumpy. There certainly are times and situations where grumpiness is 100% appropriate and can help let off steam. Being grumpy is better than hauling off and punching someone or throwing something at them or worse.

    When I’m grumpy, though, I find it weighs me down.

    Telling someone tactfully that they’re wrong or that they didn’t do a good job is not being grumpy, if you handle it right. Constructive criticism is good, as long as it’s well-delivered and well-received.

    Now… leave me alone while I do my work.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    I am giggling at David’s comment–because the world could be falling apart and he never says, “Leave me alone!” He makes time for everyone.

    Zanade points to a situation that usually ends up poorly–a client you can’t counsel. If you are a doctor, the person who ignores your suggestions will often remain ill. If you are in marketing, the client may not be a good match and you’ll soon break up. And when that happens, you usually wish it had happened earlier.

  7. JM Said:

    I Googled the song “Smile” written by Charlie Chaplin – I listened to Michael Jackson singing it while watching a series of Charlie Chaplin clips – it made me smile.

    I do like it sung by Nat King Cole better.

  8. Jeremiah Said:


    Interesting post. Two thoughts:

    After a difficult lunch today with an old and dear friend who is sadly fading away, I took a bus home. Across from me were a girl, four or five, her mother and grandmother. All three were quite striking because they did not look like New Yorkers, not pretty, but different: like charachters from a 1930’s movie about New England academics. I smiled with pleasure at the interplay between them. The mother ignored me; the child dismissed me, but the grandmother noticed my pleasure and her eyes wrinkled appreciatively. As they say, “They made my day.”

    When I had customers, a smile when you greeted one made all the difference, but only if it was genuine. The best business I have ever done in terms of the profits my employer made, was always with people I enjoyed enough to be able to truly smile with them.

    Yes, there are times to be tough, but a smile makes it all worth doing.


  9. Saul Waring Said:

    It is my opinion that an intelligent boss, colleague or client would respect honest,constructive and when necessary, controversial opinions and comments. Of course, there are tactful ways to communicate such thoughts. Real, long term relationships are built when two individuals establish mutual trust and respect.

    A key ingredient is truth…hopefully with intelligent perspective behind it.

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