We fake it in meetings. We fake it over email. We fake it when we’re envious of someone else’s success. We fake it in the elevator when we ask Kyle if he has any weekend plans. The professional world’s a stage, and we’re all actors pretending to care about how Kyle spends his free time.
The question is: How much do the roles in which you cast yourself differ from who you actually are? Because if they differ a lot, you’re going to cause more problems for yourself than if you’d just behave authentically. But if they differ just a little -- if you can fake it in a way that tempers your real feelings and allows you to present yourself as calm or deliberate or enthusiastic or charged up or any other situationally virtuous behavior (SVB, as no one but me refers to it) -- then you are giving yourself time to let the negative feelings pass. And they will pass.
A few words on self-presentation
You think that’s you going to work? Heading into a meeting with a client? That’s not you. That’s you, plus your self-presentation tactics.
Self-presentation is the behavior and information we offer to others, almost always so that we can show ourselves in a favorable light. It’s how we shake a hand, smile, make eye contact. It’s the information we provide -- and don’t provide. Self-presentation involves “tactics.” And those tactics often involve fakery: We smile when we’re not happy; we act interested when we’re bored; we stay awake when we’d like to crawl up on the table in the conference room and go to sleep. To be quite honest, we lie.
But there is honor in those lies. Because you’re trying. You’re trying to overcome your annoyance or insecurity or fear for the sake of a larger goal.
But enough about such lofty things. Let’s get to the tactics.
How to fake confidence at a meeting
Research shows that the key to faking is to do it early, when impressions are being made. To that end, let’s have a remedial course in body language.
You might not feel like you should smile, but you should smile. (More on that later.) You might not want to maintain eye contact, but you should lock in. What researchers call the “gaze” is key. You want a lot of gaze. You know the eye contact is working if you feel slightly uncomfortable. (Slight discomfort is underrated in business.) You might not want to sit up straight, but sit up straight. You’ll seem assertive, social, in control. Basically, you want to act like a news anchor. National news -- not local.
Also: Raise your eyebrows every now and then. The eyebrows don’t get enough credit when it comes to body language. Draw some circles with a couple of dots for eyes. Draw some lines above the eyes and see how the expression changes.
How to seem happy for someone when you’re not
Seeming happy when you aren’t is a useful tool. Sometimes you’re blindsided by news that might be good for the company but disappointing to you. A colleague is promoted, for instance. Sometimes you have to seem gracious. The key to seeming happy goes beyond faking a smile.
They key is digging deep. You have a lot of resentment and envy to get through before you get to the good stuff. This requires real acting, says Sean Kavanagh, CEO of The Ariel Group, an international training and coaching company that puts acting techniques to work. I’ll let Sean have the stage. Take it away, Sean.
“To be a really good actor, you have to authentically take on the role. So it’s more than just pretending.” [Polite applause. From me at least.] “Before they go on, actors will do breathing techniques that keep the breath deep into the diaphragm and not up in the shoulders. It makes them focus, it allows them to speak more clearly and it relaxes them.” [Even more polite applause.]
“The next thing they do is they focus on their intention. What does this audience need of me? What do my fellow actors need of me? What is my intention as I walk on stage?” [From the wings I shout: “The audience is your associate! The stage is probably your associate’s office or something!”]
“The allegory for the meeting is, How can I empathize with them? How can I walk in the shoes of the audience and bring the appropriate part of me to bear? The third thing they consider is: What is the purpose behind this soliloquy I’m about deliver?” [The soliloquy is your words of congratulations!]
“Now you know what your purpose is, and you can deliver news that might feel uncomfortable to you with a level of confidence, warning, inspiration, support or whatever it is you need to convey.” [Bravo, Sean. Bravo.]
How to ‘can’ when you ‘can’t even’
There are times when you can’t (like at a networking event or celebrating somebody’s success). And then there are times when you can’t even. If you can’t even, and you need to seem like you can, here’s what you should do. Fix your eyes, which will want to roll involuntarily, upon an object. Any object will do. Just make sure the object is at eye level or below. Raise the corners of your mouth so that instead of exhibiting dumbfoundedness, you seem … founded.
Now it seems like you merely can’t. If you close your mouth, which opened when your jaw dropped, it might even seem like you can. Up to you.
How to smile when you do not feel like smiling
The main thing to remember is: Unhappy smiling is worse than not smiling at all. People who smile when they’re not actually happy look like county-level pageant contestants. So think of something that makes you happy. Embroidery? Archery? Origami? Whatever. Consider the point of all this, which is to do good work. And doing good requires pushing through the things that make you want to scream so that your authentic reaction doesn’t create even more problems—for you and a lot of other people.
Anyway, what are your weekend plans?!
When faking goes too far
A Michigan State University professor studied a group of bus drivers, whose jobs require them to be polite to commuters. The research found that bus drivers who faked a good mood with only a smile, or “surface acting,” ended up in a worse mood and with diminished productivity. However, those who faked happiness by smiling and thinking positive thoughts, or “deep acting,” found themselves in a better mood with increased productivity.
So, if you want to seem happy, get happy. Real happy.