We talk a lot here on the Personal Branding Blog about how to project a personal brand effectively.  But, what about the messages we unconsciously project? In the last couple years, I’ve lived in some very different environments – and it’s incredibly interesting to see how I needed to change simple automatic behaviors just to keep my personal brand consistent. One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make is how I relate to strangers when I pass by them on the street.

You wouldn’t think that something as commonplace as a smile could have a big effect on someone’s personal brand – but it does!

I grew up in a suburb of St Paul, Minnesota.  Where I live, people are very nice to each other – we’ll happily smile at perfect strangers and strike up conversations.  But if someone doesn’t feel like talking to strangers, all they need to do is avoid eye contact and they’re not considered rude. We wait to judge a personal brand until we get to know someone a bit.

When I went to a small town in Iowa for college though, I had to start smiling more.  My college had around 2500 students with most living on campus.  So, if I walked by someone on the sidewalk and didn’t smile or say hi… they’d think that I was either (A) mad at them or (B) a 5-letter word that rhymes with glitch!  Simply neglecting to smile had a negative effect on my personal brand – especially since everyone talked to each other.

After college, I went to Europe for graduate school. When I got there, I had to completely reverse all the overt friendliness I learned in college.  In America, it’s fairly common to smile at complete strangers.  In Europe, not so much.

Smiling at strangers was a big mistake in Malta.  Once, while waiting for a friend, I inadvertently smiled at a young man driving by. He slammed on the brakes, pulled over and asked me out.  I declined… and he proceeded to drive past 5 more times, honking, and leaning out the window. Another smiling incident resulted in an uncomfortable 20 minutes at a deserted bus stop with a driver who wanted to take me to go to a bar with him.  (Of course, I can only speak from the female perspective.)

In that case, my simple act of being “nice” projected that I was looking for a date. Not the image I wanted to project at all, and it got in the way of my other personal branding efforts.

In northern Germany, the friendliness I picked-up at college didn’t go over well either. People gave me suspicious glances when I smiled at them – because they couldn’t remember where they had seen me before.  In one sobering incident, I nearly killed an 80-year old woman when I gave her a big smile as I walked by… and she fell off the sidewalk when she jumped backwards in shock!

In Germany, if I wanted to make a good first impression, I needed to tone down the overt friendliness to strangers.  If I didn’t, people didn’t know what to make of me, and they were suspicious of my motives.  Of course, once I got to know someone, the northern Germans were incredibly nice.

In London, smiling wasn’t an option. Despite the hundreds of people on the streets and the Underground, it was extremely rare to make eye contact with anyone. (A prerequisite to being friendly.)  People rarely engaged with strangers.  They weren’t rude, it was just a way of coping with the high population densityI quickly realized that smiling at strangers made me stand out as an outsider.  Even worse, it branded me as a naive TOURIST!


When I actually was a tourist in a resort area of Turkey, I learned quickly to avoid eye contact and smiling on the streets. Any display of friendliness was enough to inspire an outpouring of affection from a shop keeper, and an invitation for apple tea.  Then came the sales pitch!  And for a friendly American, it’s a lot of work to get out of that situation without buying anything or being rude!  Especially since “I’m not interested” comes across as bargaining.

Simply being an American tourist labeled me as a potential buyer, and when I gave off signs of being friendly, the shopkeepers did their best to reel me in.  I never got a chance to advance my personal brand, I was too busy trying to defend my pocketbook!

In each of those situations, I’ve been surprised by the drastically different results of a simple smile (or lack of one.)
Each culture has a slightly different way of relating to each other, and I had to learn the normal behavior in order to project the image I wanted.

If you’re trying to advance your personal brand, you need to be aware of how different groups and cultures could view how you act so you can adjust your behavior appropriately. There are even differences between different regions of the US – so it’s worth being aware even if you’re only trying to appeal to a domestic audience.  After all, you don’t want to waste hours and hours of effort creating your personal brand, only to start off on a bad foot because of a minor cultural difference!


Katie Konrath writes about “ideas so fresh… they should be slapped” at getFreshMinds.com, a top innovation blog.