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To Smile or Not to Smile? A Very Important Question for Public Servants

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
May 6, 2022

Friendly, courteous treatment by first line public servants is important. To be treated respectfully and amicably by street level bureaucrats is something everyone aspires for. It also has a positive impact on how citizens perceive the performance of their government at large. A positive perception of government is often times correlated with the ease of obtaining public services, and the courteous reception bestowed by government employees on asking citizens.

However, it appears that smiling does not always happen naturally. Ads are all over the internet for consulting and training agencies that offer customer service training, in person and online, focusing on how to get employees to smile. Large sums of money are also asked for in order to deliver tailored programs in all possible formats: one on one, group sessions, full day, half day, ‘power hour’ sessions and more. Getting employees to smile requires exerting effort.

For example, two years ago, the Government of Egypt tried to train its government employees to smile. This led to many sarcastic jokes on social media, some exaggerating and saying that the only way to get the government employees to smile is to break their jaws!

More seriously, smiling is considered to be an important skill that first line government employees should acquire. However, the issue is not that straightforward. For example, questions how genuine a smile appears, as well as, what type of body language should accompany it are key to the topic. Studies, specifically from the hospitality industry, point to the importance of delivering an authentic smile, as customers can easily distinguish between fake and real smiles. For example, waiters have been found to earn more money in tips when greeting their customers with genuine smiles. In turn, if the server genuinely does not feel like smiling, “deep acting” is needed—where through training and practice, true authenticity is found in the smile they offer.

Details from smile training highlight the importance of the so-called “Duchenne smile”, in which your smile reaches your eyes, allowing one’s cheeks to raise and crow’s feet wrinkles to show. If you solely purse your lips and smile politely, people may suspect a lack of authenticity. It is not as easy as it may seem.

Concerns also arise when having to ask employees to force a smile at all times. Forcing such behavior can take a toll on their overall wellbeing. This is especially true for government employees already working under sub-optimal conditions, such as those who are overworked, underpaid, stressed out or just unsatisfied with their job overall. The greater the dissonance between what is felt and what is displayed, the greater the potential negative impact on wellbeing. What should be done? Besides smile training, steps can be taken to improve the overall work conditions of employee, while also enhancing their motivation levels.

While smiling may be expected of first line service employees, it is not the same for employee at other level within a company hierarchy. For top-level officials, it may be that smiling for no reason is not called for. It is also a cultural thing. When observing top governmental meetings in our part of the world in the Middle East, there is a tendency by all people present to put on a “poker face.” This may be their way of hiding their reactions so that no one can interpret what they are truly thinking. In other contexts, where there is less “power distance”—Hofstede’s terminology for describing dimensions of global work culture—and the extent to which employees accept differences in power and authority based on the hierarchy of the organization, employees and government officials may have less relaxed facial expressions. The less power distance, the more employees feel they are equal in rights and the more capable they are of expressing their real emotions.

To conclude, there are a number of points to emphasize:

  • A smile from a service employee is important
  • A smiling service employee will be appreciated by citizens
  • Citizens’ perception of government may be impacted positively by the mere presence of a smiling public service employee
  • Governments should train their public service employees to not only smile, but also to display an authentic smile.
  • The smiling training offered to government service employees should be paralleled by a true concern for their wellbeing, so that we do not just end up with fake smiles and burnt-out employees
  • The cultural context matters especially for top-level employees, but in general, it is healthier to have freedom to decide on the appropriate facial expression and suitable reaction—not to be obligated to hide behind blank expressions for any reason. Freedom is life.

Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at The American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is the director of the MPA Program and is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. El Baradei directs the Public Policy HUB which trains graduate students on public policy research and advocacy and links them with policymakers. ­­­Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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