In a post-#MeToo world where women resort to changing walking routes or walking quickly to avoid becoming the target of harassment, we have to be mindful of our behaviors and language (including body language), especially in the workplace.
Passive-aggressive comments or unwanted touching in micro-interactions can create tension and may even have an impact on the productivity of workers who are under stress.
One of these micro-aggressions is one of the oldest comments in the book toward women: telling them to smile.
On the surface, the comments can seem polite and kind; however, there is a glaring double standard here: men are rarely asked to smile, as this comment is mostly always directed toward women.
A new survey found that 98% of women reported being told to smile at work at some point in their lives, with 15% noting the occurrence happens weekly, if not more frequently. The study, conducted by direct-to-consumer dental alignment company Byte Me, polled over 500 women and discovered inequalities in how women are treated in the workplace, even by other women.
How telling a woman to smile can affect their work performance
Responses to being told to smile are a range of negative emotions, from anger to annoyance, but the most common occurrence was feeling demeaned and underappreciated. Feeling unwelcome in the workplace can bring about feelings of negativity, which could result in poor performance and even put someone's professional life in jeopardy.
Women deal with the consequences of this behavior every day, resulting in the following admissions from the survey:
37% of women who report being told to smile say it happened most recently in the workplace
Senior and executive-level position holders were most at risk for comments about smiling, with 36% reporting this experience
Being told to smile had a direct impact on feeling underappreciated at work, especially when the advice comes from a female boss.
Additionally, telling a woman to smile can hurt their ability to communicate and present themselves directly.
When women are commanded to smile (especially by their superiors or coworkers), they often experience a loss in the control of their own presentation of themselves in the workplace.
A significant number of respondents in the Byte Me survey reported having to adjust their digital language to be more conversational, a process known as "softening" language. This tactic is employed by:
59% of senior-level employees and executives
58% of women in their 20s
47% of women 50+ years old
Historically, the way women portray themselves in the workplace has been a point of contention for ages: ambitious women aren't considered leaders: they are seen as bossy or overly-assertive while men who display the same qualities are "go-getters" or highly driven and inspirational candidates for upper management.
As a result, women have adapted their language to be less confrontational and more easy-going. As 70% of millennial executives and senior-level women who were surveyed reported wanting to be "well-liked" at work, the desire to come off as less aggressive has the potential to dictate how much time someone devotes to intentional digital communication.
Creating equal opportunity for success
The abnormally high shared experience of women who are told to smile under inappropriate circumstances warrants a bigger discussion about how language can impact our quality of work. Instead of telling a woman to smile, begin a conversation with a productive talking point, such as a recent client success or workplace achievement. With more control over our language, the greater the chance of stimulating a positive work environment.