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Why do some people smirk when announcing bad news or being confronted with a serious error? What does it mean?

Posted - February 14


  • 46201
    Please be more specific.  

    Who, what and where would help a lot.  
      February 14, 2020 10:09 AM MST

  • 4283
    My Ari sometimes smirks when I confront him with the evidence of a mistake and I ask him to please explain how it happened.
    I remembered seeing the exact same expression on the naughtiest boy in first year at primary school when the teacher had him up in front of the class to explain why his behaviour was so disruptive for the class.
    And I've been wondering why anyone could smile during an unpleasant experience.
    I went searching for answers and in the process came across this article - which describes just how bad it can get but gives no explanation.


    The Deadly Inappropriate Smile: When facial expressions are deeply disturbing.

    By Alan Goldman, Ph.D.

    "The heart surgeon smiled broadly. It was bad news, dreadful news. With a smirk on his face the head of cardiology told the wife and kids that their dad had just died on the surgical table. The patient, Mr. Saul Sherman, was now officially a casualty. Through his broad, toothy grin, Dr. Purvis assured the family that 'despite our very best efforts some patients do not survive open-heart surgery.'  The family was speechless, stunned and in utter disbelief. It was later revealed that Mrs. Sherman’s shock and highly emotional response to the failed surgery was 25% due to the unexpected death and 75% due to the inappropriate smile on Dr. Purvis’ face.

     Inappropriate smiles are deadly at times. A smile crazily out of place was a caustic blow to the just deceased patient’s wife and children. This nonverbal means of expression, the smile, can be a source of happiness, bonding, good will, appreciation and love. But in response to a surgery gone bad the misplaced smile created deep turmoil and anger. We hardly need a lecture on facial expression to know that a grim, expressionless and saddened face typically delivers very bad news. It is etched in our minds, hearts and culture that there is some synchronicity between events, words, and the look in one’s eyes and the expression on the mouth and lips. A broad smile at a time of despair, disappointment and death is disjointed and deadly. Consequences follow.  

     It should not be surprising that the shaken wife proceeded to file a medical malpractice lawsuit again Dr. Purvis, his surgical team and the hospital. In depositions it was revealed that the trigger for the pursuit of negligence and plans for retaliation was Dr. Purvis’ “chilling, horrifying smile accompanying his news of the patient’s death.” When questioned, Mrs. Sherman admitted that she was “somewhat clueless as to the level of medical care or the rigor of the surgical procedure.” It was rather that the out-of-place smile on the doctor’s face told the wife that something was terribly wrong. The wife was convinced that “only an evil doctor could smile moments after his patient’s death.”

    An inappropriate smile is hardly limited to a heart surgeon. I recently coached a COO at a U.S. Fortune 100 company who was the subject of accusations of bullying and abuse from his subordinates. The reports on the COO included 'a pattern of grossly inappropriate and toxic behavior.' The COO was astute, even brilliant, but had almost zero tolerance for subordinates who were in his words, 'slow, sluggish and unable to make quick synapses on the firing line.' In response to sluggishness the COO was repeatedly nasty to employees, frequently humiliating and demeaning them in public. This destructive behavior triggering public loss of face was his alleged means of whipping lax employees into shape. The humiliations spread throughout the division and went viral as workplace attitudes soured, black humor rose, and abusive behavior among coworkers became commonplace. When grievances mounted against the COO, the human resources director pointed out an overwhelmingly toxic pattern of 'deadly demeaning, disrespectful relationships.' This bullying behavior by the COO was accompanied by a repeated pattern of rolling his eyes and “condescending smirks and smiles” targeted at his subordinates when they were in the midst of being verbally abused and degraded.  

    The dastardly smile at the time of the COOs lashing out at employees was described as: scary; ghastly; devilish; chilling; smug; from hell; a demonic grin; Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” and the Smirk of Hades.” Somehow, in the midst his bad language, harassing verbiage and public threats there was something that resonated ever louder. It was the inappropriate smile that jumped out as the most threatening and deadly means of expression.

    In the world of politics I was recently caught off guard by a candidate smiling when she was being verbally attacked by her opponent. Her smile was off cue and inappropriate. I wondered whether she was unaware or providing us a glimpse into her inner world of deception. On the surface she was responding to a full-throttle attack on her character, demeanor and past. When repeatedly called 'a liar' she just smiled incredulously and out-of-context. In my experience voters have an intuitive radar and what some call a belly logic. People have a gut level negative response to a candidate with an inappropriate paste-on smile. You kind of cringe and know something is wrong. How could a candidate smile when she was being verbally demeaned and demolished by her opponent? Was this a sign that she is an automaton? A phony? Internally torn? Discombobulated? Defensive?

     I wondered what this candidate had in common with the surgeon smiling after his patient’s death and the COO who smiled when publicly demeaning a subordinate. The origin of such wildly out-of-place, out-of-synch and dysfunctional smiles make for strange conjecture. Do these bizarre smiles originate out of a swampy marsh or altered state of consciousness where we lose control of our own faces and reflexes? Are there lurking medical or psychological issues? Or are some leaders being advised by their executive coaches that somehow they are belittling their opponents or colleagues with a nasty, irreverent smile?  A smile that has no place and does not fit the situation can be quite upsetting. It is strange. It can be viewed as an abomination. People turn around and look at each other in order to confirm what they have just witnessed. It appears to defy logic and the troubling behavior typically is in dire need of interpretation.

     The message I convey is a simple one. Destructive, disturbing behavior in the workplace, in surgical waiting rooms and in the international political arena may pivot around something as small and seemingly innocent as an inappropriate smile. 

    Moral of the story? We may need to conduct an inventory of our nonverbal behavior as it can go amok and astray. Is an inappropriate smile worth a medical malpractice lawsuit or the wrath of colleagues? Beyond spoken and written language, maybe facial expression, rolling eyes, lifting of eyebrows, hissing sounds, fidgeting hands and flashing inappropriate smiles are also fair game for sensitivity training.

     Intolerant, condescending, dismissive, impatient, abusive behavior is not limited to words. It is written all over the face and spews out from every appendage of human anatomy. Perhaps it is time for some managers, political candidates and public figures to take a closer look at their nonverbal communication. An appropriate, deeply felt smile can light up a room and make the day brighter. Whereas, a deadly smile can turn an easy-going spouse or voter into a disgruntled, angry adversary."

    (I think her use of the word "deadly" is an exaggeration - but she does show how serious the effects of an inappropriate facial expression can be.)


    This post was edited by inky at February 14, 2020 10:57 AM MST
      February 14, 2020 10:54 AM MST

  • Maybe he’s smirking Cos you’re annoying him. 

      February 14, 2020 11:02 AM MST

  • 46201
    You are 1000 percent right on.
      February 14, 2020 11:20 AM MST

  • 4283
    No question about it.
    He can't bear making a mistake. Dropping a piece of toast will cause him to fly into anger. He spends hours and days in self-recriminations. Often he'll go into denial.

    But there are times when I feel it's necessary to point things out when his behaviour suggests that perhaps he can't see something,
    like how dangerous it is to not pay attention to the tension on a chainsaw. If I can't get him to see it his life is at stake.
    The more serious the issue, the more likely he is to go into avoidance and resistance.

    The only option is to stay silent, avoid being his passenger in the car,
    refuse to be there to help when he's felling weed trees or cutting firewood, 
    and accept that I'll probably end up a widow much sooner than if he died of old age.

    But that doesn't answer why he smiles when annoyed.
    A smile expresses pleasure, and there's nothing pleasurable about being annoyed.
    Why smile when not pleased?

    Why be dishonest and inauthentic? It makes no sense to me. This post was edited by inky at February 14, 2020 1:06 PM MST
      February 14, 2020 11:52 AM MST

  • A smirk and a smile are not the same thing. When I smirk at someone, it’s more like saying FAAK YOU, with my face, Cos I can’t be bothered to waste my words on the person. Does that explain it?

      February 15, 2020 6:50 AM MST

  • 4283
    Not really.
    I can't understand why anyone would want to say faak you - because I can't understand why anyone couldn't be bothered to share their feelings and thoughts - especially when it's one's life-partner. 

    There are two kinds of mistakes he frequently makes which cause problems.
    The first is in communication - a tendency to extremes of vagueness and ambiguity, so that misunderstandings happen almost every day. This is combined with him flying into rage if I ask, "What do you mean?"
    The second is practical - driving way above the speed limit, not obeying road signs and warnings, rushing in front of other cars when entering highways or changing lanes, etc. He's already written off one car and narrowly escaped with his life. With poor maintenance of machinery, it's constantly breaking down and costing money to repair and frequently in conditions too dangerous to operate. His habits with chainsaws have twice brought tree-trunks down on top of him: one grazed his back, the other bruised his head as, both times, his reflexes helped him twist out of the way in the nick of time. I saw it. Only minutes before I had warned him and explained how to work safely from the side of the trunk. I used to be a sculptor in wood and used chainsaws for over twenty years, but they were electric and I do not have the strength to handle the weight of petrol-driven machines. He wants me there to hand him the water flask, pick up the logs and load them in the back of the Landcruiser.
    Maybe I'm more different than I realise. When I discover I've made a mistake, I have an absolute compulsion to understand how I went wrong and how to avoid making the same mistake again. I may feel shame, but I see that as necessary. Shame shows me my limits and motivates me to make the efforts to change and grow. I accept it.

    But perhaps my problem is that I've been expecting Ari to be the same in this regard. He isn't. He can't bear shame and has an arsenal of tactics for avoiding it.

    So, thinking about it in this way, it becomes evident that it's futile to point out mistakes, even if one of them will kill him one day, and others can and do harm me.

    On the other hand, there have been times when I did experiment with saying nothing.
    An error occurs which is so flamingly obvious that no one could deny it, and then he says, "Why didn't you warn me?"

    This post was edited by inky at February 15, 2020 2:03 PM MST
      February 15, 2020 1:36 PM MST

  • Some people don’t always feel like sharing their feelings about everything. They also don’t like being constantly criticized so that’s where the ”faak you” look is coming from. Your husband is a grown azz man and doesn’t need you to tell him constantly what he’s doing wrong. If his driving makes you nervous then you could tell him that and ask if he could drive slower when you are in the car...because it bothers you. Not because everything he does is wrong. I don’t know that that is exactly your situation, but if I was in his shoes I’d be giving you the “faak you” look too.  This post was edited by Benedict Arnold at February 15, 2020 4:34 PM MST
      February 15, 2020 4:32 PM MST

  • 46201
    I'm gonna break this down a bit and answer one idea at a time.  Because I have the time to talk with you and I'm sick today  So, I'm home.  And it is very pleasant to talk with you, and I'm always kicking myself because I'm giving you short answers because I don't have the time to spend, on comments that you deserve a lot of thought and good feedback to.  

    So, I will attempt, in my fashion, to do just that.  I know I left a dangler there in that last paragraph.  I know not to end with a dangling preposition.  But I need to focus on what I want to say, versus editing right now.  

    Okay.  I am going to give you my observation now.  I am very good at laser-ing on the exact reasons.  By this, I mean, I can get to the root of the question and the problem, I THINK.  Here is what I am guessing to be the reason for this question.  Your Ari, has a habit of doing this.  Smirking and disappointing you by doing so.    His reasons are never satisfactory.  You cannot understand why he thinks it is kind of cute to have made this mistake.  Like he is making light of it.     Then, you need to jump into one other incident that enforces your belief that is not pleasant either.  That bratty kid in school.  

    I mean does your husband have a chance here?  Or does he like to argue about nuances?  You know him a lot better than I do.  So, I am not discounting the fact that he may be doing something far worse than you describe.    Since you did not describe it much.    But just having a smirk is not something I would deem hurtful unless you know him and his intent was to be hurtful.  Like he doesn't want the truth dragged out of him.  

    This poor man. I feel like I am dissecting him and I don't even know if I am in the right ballpark.  

    Here is my observation.  I want to know what you think about it before I go ahead and continue on.  

      February 14, 2020 11:20 AM MST

  • 4283
    So sorry you're not well. Since I have no doubt that your lifestyle is healthy, I hope it's nothing worse than a cold and that you get well soon.

    But how wonderful to have the luxury of free time for a while!   :)

    Dangling prepositions - they're no longer considered a grammatic faux pas but many still consider them poor style. There's do's and don'ts for how and when they can work well. Certainly, I never worry about them in the context of informal conversations like we Muggers share here.

    I will admit that one of my worst faults is being critical in my relationship with Ari.  I want to dissect both myself and him on this issue - because I need to know how to respond appropriately.
    When I understand someone the feeling of forgiveness almost always pours forth automatically.

    I've discovered recently (last September) that Ari has ADD.
    When I first discovered it, it was like a blinding flash of the obvious.
    Suddenly a zillion previously inexplicable things fell into place.
    It was a huge relief to finally understand and, initially, forgiveness for everything just flowed. It was obvious he couldn't help it.
    It's the major cause of most of his mistakes. He doesn't know he's made the mistake or taken a risk because his consciousness erratically flips on and off. He is literally unaware in the moment an error occurs, and therefore can't remember later exactly what happened. He only sees the results, knows something went wrong and is totally perplexed by it.

    My problem re-emerged when I discovered there are programs for helping people with ADD to get better organised and develop helpful habits and routines.
    Actually, it's the same stuff that his friends, family, teachers and I have tried to encourage all his life - just condensed into a nice neat package - 21 strategies. I downloaded the lists and gave them to Ari. He seemed at first to be relieved and happy about the tremendous possibilities.

    Unfortunately, it has turned out that even though he now sees how serious the impact is on himself and everyone around him, he's made it clear that doesn't want to get better organised.
    He sees it as making a set of rules for himself and forcing himself to conform to them.
    He prefers spontaneity. He prefers the freedom of doing what he wants, when and how he wants, irrespective of the results.

    In the process of learning about ADD, I've also discovered how frustrating it is for spouses and relatives.
    Apparently the shrinks and specialists have known about this for scores of years, since the 1980s when it first began to be studied.

    I don't bother to raise minor issues, things that have no serious or long term effects or things that are a matter of taste or opinion.
    But when it concerns actions that affect his or my health and well-being or that of our animals, I think it's important to discuss and get resolved.
    It's never easy because he has an arsenal of tactics for resistance, and it's one of the major reasons we go to a weekly session of NVC training.
    NVC provides a specific way to say things that someone else is unlikely to be happy to hear.

    "I need to say something and I'm anxious because I don't think you'll like it." - (Wait for response and expression of willingness to listen.) - "When such-&-such happened, I felt fear (or whatever the emotion was), because (name the result or impact of the action), and in order to feel safe, I need some way to ensure that this is unlikely to happen again." The conversation needs to happen when there are no other pressing needs or distractions. The tone of voice needs to be calm. If the feeling is anger, it's best to leave it and take time out.

    My trouble is I too often speak when I'm still in the grip of anxiety or anger - and then my tone makes even the right words sound like criticism.

    This is turning out to be a useful conversation.
    It started with me feeling bothered by a smirk - and it's turned into a realisation that I'm not coping well, not communicating in the right way.
    It's not his smirk that I need to deal with; rather, it's my anxiety and frustration, my fear and anger.
    I have to stop myself speaking while in the grip of a strong impulse to speak, and wait 'til I'm much calmer.

    Sharonna, I can't thank you enough. :)

    This post was edited by inky at February 14, 2020 3:42 PM MST
      February 14, 2020 12:28 PM MST

  • 1199
    It might just be a reaction to your criticism, a defence mechanism,  or it may just be done out of sarcasm because they feel criticised, or they might not care about the mistake as much as you do so it's more of a "meh!" There's plenty of reasons, but it's how you react that matters, don't take it to heart, you've spoken your piece, you made yourself clear, don't let them live rent free in your head, let it go. This post was edited by kjames at February 14, 2020 12:57 PM MST
      February 14, 2020 11:36 AM MST

  • 4283
    Coming to the conclusion that it is a defence, a sign that I need to back off, go more gently, or shut up at least until I'm calmer.

    Thanks. :)
      February 14, 2020 3:33 PM MST

  • 6173
    I think its just a nervous reaction. Cheers and happy weekend!
      February 14, 2020 11:36 AM MST

  • Its just a coping mechanism for an uncomfortable situation when you might not be prepared or known what to say about it.  Or maybe your holding back because you kinda want to yell the person to get over it. Sometimes people just blindside with this emotional dump out if nowhere and they expect you to just be ready to.take it all in and have something to say about it.  You don't and the only thing you can really do is grin at the awkwardness.
    There's a lot of reasons . But it comes down to.sometimes people come at you with problems and emotions.and are obligated to deal with them there and then on their terms.  That's selfish and incorrect.

    This post was edited by Benedict Arnold at February 15, 2020 4:41 PM MST
      February 15, 2020 4:38 PM MST