Smiling can win you a better bargain in life

According to a recent study, our facial expressions give away how rich or poor we are

Illustration by Gary Clement
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Ever hidden your expensive watch or bling ring, thinking that if the person you’re about to talk to sees it, they might overcharge you – because they would assume you are loaded?

Dressing up or down deliberately – to convey ‘I have money’ or ‘I’m not made of money’ - is something I’m sure many do. It could be to slip in to a venue that’s out of your social/money bracket and you want to look the part. Or because you don’t want to be fleeced when going to negotiate a transaction – be it for a rug, or something that needs doing around the house for example.

I’ve often wondered how tradespeople decide – in an instant – what to charge a potential client. I've also marvelled at how they must be exceptional people-readers.

I’m not far off. Instinctive face-readers is what they are. You see, there’s a good chance you can tell whether someone is rich or poor – just by looking at them.

This is the conclusion that a University of Toronto arrived at. Associate Professor Nicholas Rule nailed it with this: “Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences," he wrote. "Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

In other words: the worry lines, the downward turned corner of your mouth – their shadows lurk on your face, even if those times have passed. Frequent happiness is given as an example of being wealthy and satisfied. Smiles and laughter lines signal your social class. People making decisions about you feed off of them, and either offer you a job, accept your membership application or charge you more.

Leaving the tradesman issue aside, these cues mean that the ‘haves’ keep getting more, because they are literally the chosen ones.

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2017, the study had volunteers split into two  groups – those whose families earn less than the nation’s average, and those who earn significantly more.

The volunteers had photos taken of them with neutral faces – no expression.


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A second group was shown these photographs and was tasked with deciding who was rich or poor – based on gut instinct.

This group was able to determine the correct answer in a way that could not be correlated with random chance. In other words, they were right too often for it to be a fluke.

The striking thing for me isn’t just this point. It’s also that the volunteers who posed for photos were university students – aged 18 to 22. They haven’t gone through the mill of work/ debt/ paying bills yet – but their faces betrayed the turmoil or tranquillity that their parents and families lived. Wow.

This is how Mr Rule puts it: “What we’re seeing is students, who are just 18-22 years old, have already accumulated enough life experience that it has visibly changed and shaped their face to the point you can tell what their socio-economic standing or social class is,”

The results were not affected by race, gender, or how long the photo was stared at. But there is one thing that can mask what’s written on your face – which must be a good thing, no?

Very few are born into zero money-worries, so how do we boost our chances of being chosen over the happy, worry-free competitor? The answer is to smile. The research showed that you are not transparent when you display emotions. Smiling is a great thing to do. Not only does it conceal money-history, it starts a little party in your head, and you feel better. This happens because the brain releases chemicals that calm your nervous system by lowering the heart rate and blood pressure.

It’s not about what you wear, it is about how you look. I’ve been deliberately smiling more often recently – the party in my head is a great one – and now that I know the findings of this research, I’ll be doing it even more. It’s a win-win situation. I won’t be broadcasting my money situation to the world plus I will be undoing whatever worries have etched themselves on my face, and flooding my insides with happy chemicals.

So, along with aligning your trinkets and dressing with whatever message you want to convey, take a leaf out of my book and get your smile on. That first impression might have you pay quite the price.

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on