My Attempts to Elicit Authentic Smiles at the Post Office

All complaints carry within them a request for help. One of the most effective ways to elicit help from others is to flash them an authentic smile (for a full explanation of why this is so, see my blog on Psychology Today). Authentic smiles (also called Duchenne smiles after the French physician who first described them) involve not just our mouth and lips but also our cheek muscles and eyes. True smiles, by definition, must create crow’s feet. Manufacturing a convincing Duchenne smile is not necessarily simple. Give it a few tries in the mirror and you will quickly realize how easy it is to appear constipated rather than joyful. The only way to be sure we’ve produced a true Duchenne smile is if we get one in return, crow’s feet and all. I wanted to try out my own Duchenne skills, so I headed out into the urban jungle.

I could have gone the easy route, headed straight to a day spa and flashed a Duchenne at the receptionist. But getting an authentic smile out of someone surrounded by potpourri, miniature waterfalls and Enya is practically cheating. I decided to go for the highest level of difficulty I could think of—my local Manhattan Post Office at lunch hour. Besides, I had a package to send.

My Post Office branch has twelve customer windows only one or two of which are usually open during lunch hour. The fact that lunch hour also happens to be when most customers are free to come to the post office makes for long lines, much grumbling and widespread irritability on both sides of the counter. Indeed, such was the case when I arrived. But much to my dismay, one of the two open windows was occupied by the most intimidating postal worker in the entire branch.

This postal clerk was at least six feet tall and looked like she could take most men her size in a fight. I had seen her bark at customers for the slightest mistakes, like sealing priority mail packages incorrectly, “The top of the envelope has to reach the blue line!” I never saw anyone argue with her or voice any kind of complaint. Most customers approached her window like they were stepping up to Seinfeld’s soup Nazi.

Thirty minutes later, with only one man ahead of me in line, I heard her familiar voice bark “Window two!” The man in front of me, who had been busy texting on his phone, looked up, took one look at her, quickly began patting his jacket as if looking for something and waved me past. I knew he was faking and hesitated. “Window two!” she barked, glaring at me directly. There was no turning back.

I walked up to her window. She was gripping a thick roll of priority mail stickers with her meaty hand. She could swat me with it and knock me out cold. For science! I said to myself, do it for science! I took a deep breath and gave her the most authentic smile I could muster. Not a muscle on her face moved. Damn! Was she immune to the powers of a Duchenne smile or did I just look constipated? Of course, I realized. I couldn’t go from zero to Duchenne in one second flat with someone like her. I had to establish some kind of rapport first. I had an idea but it would be risky. I glanced behind to make sure I could make a run for it if necessary and took the plunge.

“Each time I come here during lunch hour there are only two windows open out of twelve,” I began. Her eyebrows narrowed and she leaned forward, as if daring me to complain. “And you’re always in one of them.” I placed my package on her scale. “So…?” she said challengingly as her grip on the priority mail sticker roll tightened. “So, I was wondering,” I continued casually, “who exactly did you piss off?”

She didn’t even look up! She just entered the weight of my package in her computer. But then I saw her shoulders give a slight shudder. “Who did I piss off?” she muttered as her shoulders shuddered some more, “Who did I piss off?” Now she was in full out chuckle. She looked up and handed me the receipt and I quickly flashed my best Duchenne yet.

And this time—I had her! Before she knew what was happening, her lips opened and her cheek muscles pushed upward creating crow’s feet around her eyes.

It was magical!

It was also brief. Her facial muscles quickly snapped back into their scowl-like repose. After all, she was in sight of other customers and she did have a reputation to uphold. But I felt triumphant nonetheless.

Using authentic smiles in complaint situations can make our complaints much more effective. But doing so just to brighten someone’s day can have its own rewards. The next time you see a stressed employee at the supermarket checkout, a harried sales associate or yes, even a gruff postal worker, give them an authentic smile and see a twinkle return to their eye. Doing so will put a twinkle in your eye as well.