Expert Reveals How Facial Expressions Influence a Job Interview

Facial expressions and job interviews

Your facial expressions can help determine the outcome of a job interview. I advise my clients of this, telling them to work on developing a sincere smile for the initial greeting, for example.  But some are skeptical. So I decided to speak with an expert on this subject. Author Daniel McNeill wrote The Face (Little, Brown, 1998), a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and a nominee for the National Book Award. He confirms that facial expressions can help sway an interview.

Q: How much does facial expression matter in a job interview? 

A: It becomes a part of all your answers to questions. It merges with them on a deep subconscious level in the brain.

A key reason is that we tend to trust facial expressions, since most of them are automatic and involuntary. When you feel surprise, for instance, your face simply shows it. You don't even realize your face is changing. That's why, to a large extent, the face is a mirror of the soul.

And trustworthy signals really matter in a job interview.

Q: But it's possible to fake facial expressions? 

A: Yes, indeed. And it's not necessarily a bad thing. A good example is the “social smile,” that willed smile that basically says, “Good.” The fact that it's deliberate doesn't make the message false. A high-five is also deliberate. Actually, these smiles are an essential social lubricant.

Smiles are extremely potent, by the way. They are the expression we recognize from the furthest distance away. We tend to respond to them by smiling ourselves, without even realizing it. And when you smile, you actually feel better. The expression causes the emotion, a very counterintuitive fact.

Q: So making a face can help you get a job? 

A: Absolutely. Smiles convey thumbs up. They suggest good will. They suggest you like the person you are talking to, and that you are pleasant to work with.

But there are some obvious caveats. You can't simply keep the smile on your face - unless you are one of those few, good-hearted souls for whom it seems natural. Let your smile come and go. You also have to smile at the right time. Don't discuss serious business issues with a grin on your face. A lot of this is common sense, but people can get so nervous before a job interview that they ignore these things.

Q: Any business people you can think of with great smiles? 

A: Martha Stewart has a terrific one.

Q: Who has the best smile in business? 

A: Probably someone I've never heard of.

Q: Are there certain kinds of facial expressions for certain kinds of jobs? For instance, is there a blue-collar smile? 

A: Smiles are pretty much the same everywhere. Of course, people have different faces, different mouth sizes, so smiles can look physically different. We all know people with huge smiles that show lots of teeth and scientists have found that a big smile makes women seem better looking. Think of Julia Roberts.

Q: Is there a management material smile? 

A: Not really. You convey that with other things. A sense of confidence.

Q: Can a facial expression show confidence? 

A: The answer is tricky. Scientists have used still photos to do most of this research. And photos haven't yielded any expression of confidence, though there is one for contempt. But photos don't capture the effect of eye movement and we know it's very expressive. I suspect there are a lot of expressions scientists haven't nailed down.

Q: But some people seem more confident from their expression? 

A: To me, yes. But there are many possible pitfalls. Our minds may create the sense of confidence by merging a variety of other expressions. We also often assume that other kinds of cues, like vocal tone or body language, come from the face because the face is where we look to see the person's mind.

Q: Are there facial expressions of trustworthiness? 

A: No. There's no expression that reliably tells others, “I deserve your trust.”

In fact, I doubt it could ever evolve. If it did, the ability to fake it would suddenly become extremely valuable. People with the genes for faking it would out-reproduce rivals over the generations, the skill would spread, and the expression would no longer be reliable.

For trust, we rely on smiles with their implied promise of good will. We also respond well to people with highly expressive faces, people whose emotional landscape we can see in detail. We feel we know them better, since most expressions are automatic, and so they are less likely to deceive us.

Overall, we are surprisingly bad at detecting lies using the face alone. Even people who think they excel at it, like judges and psychologists, do little better than chance. The only people who are really good are prisoners - probably because their physical well-being depends on it - and people with training.

Q: So it is trainable? 

A: Yes. Certain subtle cues will give away lies, like micro-expressions. A micro of anger, say, will flash across your face in maybe a tenth of a second and vanish. Most people won't notice it, but the trained will, and they'll know what's going on inside the person they're talking to.

Q: Is there a facial expression that demonstrates competence? 

A: If only there were. The best thing you can do is to relax. Your facial expressions will occur naturally and spontaneously. If you're uptight in a job interview, you will seem less competent. It's a little unfair, since you can be nervous for many reasons, but that's the message.

Relaxation is one of the secrets of good acting. That's why actors will regularly do exercises that seem silly to you and me, like shaking their arms and wobbling their faces. But these things help their bodies relax.

It's like walking. If you think consciously about doing it, you get awkward. The body is set up to do this well.

I'm not saying don't think about facial expressions at all. For instance, be sure to smile when you meet the interviewer. If you don't smile much in daily life, try doing it more and getting used to it. If it becomes a habit, it will seem natural. It's a good habit to have.

Q: What's the impact of facial expression in business? 

A: A good smile can be a great asset.  It can help close a deal, for instance, by its assurance of good will.

And if you are a boss, one useful expression is a small step toward anger. The anger expression is a threat and like other expressions it comes in degrees. And a small dose of it conveys authority. It says: I can make you feel pain and you can't reciprocate. And it's effective. Look at Ronald Reagan. He smiled all the time. He was an actor and did it well. But he could also mobilize that semi-anger expression very well too, as when he talked tough about the Soviet Union.

Q: Can you tell when you won't get the job? 

A: Generally, I think not. In some cases you might see displeasure on the interviewer's face, but even here you have to be careful not to confuse this expression with the critical consideration you are receiving as a serious candidate.

And people have a wide variety of interviewing styles and personalities. The interviewer can be extremely relaxed and friendly precisely because she thinks you're not going to get the job. You can't know these things.

You also can't know who you're competing with. The interviewer's face may register complete satisfaction with you, and you may not get the job because another person is marginally better qualified.

Regardless, the fact that they've invited you in for an interview means you've already impressed them. That's the thing to keep in mind. If you come in second in the Kentucky Derby, you've done extremely well. And the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes are still ahead.

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