The problem with looking happy at work

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Boris is the wise ol’ founder of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

There’s a Seinfeld episode where George explains how he ‘works’ without actually doing anything. When Elaine and Jerry ask him how he gets away with doing nothing, he shares his simple trick: look serious and annoyed, and people will assume you’re busy.

We then see a few scenes of George looking angry, shaking his head, and mumbling as he paces around the office, while his coworkers treat his dedication with great reverence.

Not a bad tactic, George, although I completely disagree with it.

I recently met up with a friend over drinks and vented about a stressful project I was dealing with. I was slightly more open about my feelings than usual and at one point he remarked: “Wow, you always look and act so happy that I never realized you would feel stressed too.”

I was surprised for a moment and also oddly proud that I could hide my feelings well, but also aware of the cons of this tendency. There have been moments in the past where I’ve literally had to tell people, “don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.”

I’m a friendly fellow, which sometimes gives people the false impression that it means I’m also gullible or easy to take advantage of. So I guess it’s time I’ll have to add another warning to my collection, “just because I’m smiling doesn’t mean I’m not serious.”

I wish I wouldn’t have to do that, but it seems George was right about how people perceive ‘doing business.’

For me though, I’ve always believed in doing it with a smile, in being optimistic, and in acting friendly. The upsides of that are probably obvious, but the downsides are that we do think people have to look annoyed or brooding to be serious and think deeply about important things… while people who smile a lot must be a bit dumb.

I think that’s why it can seem attractive to some people to act more concerned or say they’re stressed about certain projects as it’s the only way we know how to interpret importance. And it’s understandable, as you’re not really allowed to deviate from that path.

If someone asks you how you’re doing and you say ‘great!’ with a smile, they might think you’re crazy. Haven’t you read the news? The world is going to shit! So why aren’t we all depressed?

Maybe that’s a fair question. In the face of doom, in the middle of a crisis, and with an uncertain future, it would be easy to lose your faith and stay optimistic. But there are people, more than you think, who are naturally optimistic and perk up when a challenge is presented.

They’ll smile comfortingly when you cry. They puff their chests up and laugh in the face of evil. They might go down in flames along with everyone else, but they’ll do it proudly and optimistically — and I feel that’s completely fine.

You shouldn’t need to act like George Costanza to be taken seriously at your job. You can be serious and dedicated while smiling and be quick to laugh. You don’t need to fake unhappiness to show you care about important issues — you should just be yourself.

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