Penny Hunt's blog coffee conversationsAs smoke and dust and wailing seems to rise physically from the newspaper stand, spreading that empty feeling of sorrow and impotence, it would surely be a human and understandable reaction to look for some lightness, a flutter of a hint of hope at the bottom of the jar, a reason to be cheerful, a way to remember to feel glad to be alive. And not fleeing from Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, the Ukraine…….

You’d think a smile would do it.

So wielding an apparently pessimistic mallet of such proportions that we fear for the wholesale smashing of all things good, I would like to talk about not smiling. Yep. Not smiling.

I’ve been writing up a client session that was very, very, hard in which – I still think – the truth eluded us. I just did not do a good enough job.

It was the smiling.

Could the arrangement of between 20 and 50 facial muscles have brought failure? Well yes, and no. It might depend on which arrangement. The smile repertoire is pretty wide – literally.  I’ve been collecting smile thought-disguisers over the years and have quite a list now. They’re surprisingly different. Here are just a few:

  • ‘I can’t believe you are telling that joke again to your team. I am a good person. Smile.’
  • ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. Perhaps you’re an actual weirdo. Smile.’
  • ‘I’m so glad I’ m not you. Head on one side. Smile.’
  • ‘No one here must know that I slept with her / him last night. Smile.’
  • ‘Thank god my child hasn’t screwed up like yours. Smile.’
  • ‘Everyone likes me. You will like me. Smile.’

But the one that floored me this week was….

‘I am my role. My heart is breaking. I am a professional without weakness. I handle everything. Everything. I handle everything with a smile. Smile.


And golly was it a smile. It was the smiliest smile that ever there was, smilier even than a cat from Cheshire. It endured and stayed fixed regardless of what was being discussed. It’s hard to describe how difficult this made conversation, how hard to find meaning. Luckily someone incredibly clever has described it – a proper philosopher.

Jean Paul Sartre called this ‘mauvaise foi’, or ‘bad faith’. He describes in ‘Being and Nothingness’ how we adopt social roles and often value systems, that are just not true to our real natures. We are trying to be our best idea of what that role is – rather than ourselves. What interests Sartre is that this is all about self-deception, a sort of playacting that ends up betraying our true selves. It’s a sort of abuse of our human power to make our own choices.

I think what interests me is how exhausting it is, and how effectively it gets in the way of any growth or progress.


The news is too sad, and it’s far too hot to spend any unnecessary energy on pretending.

It’s you, not a social or professional role that matters.

If you don’t feel like smiling, don’t.

Penny works with senior people who want change.

Her approach is unconventional, and fun.

By challenging perceptions, creatively re-framing situations, and reclaiming their energy and bravery, her clients create new options and successes for themselves and their businesses.

If you’re feeling stuck and want to get moving again, contact Penny:


Penny Hunt and Change Chemistry logo imageIf you’re sitting comfortably, then…don’t.

Discomfort, in small doses, is your friend. Mine involved rubber and bells. (Now you’re worried). It started with a message colliding with a coffee cup.

The message read,  “Am in a lecture about Pavlov. It’s not very believable. Ah, that’s the lunch bell – must go”.

The coffee cup was made of rubber. It elegantly undermined any Pavlovian response to an espresso by gently collapsing between finger and thumb. And so a change of café – to a self consciously groovy café with lovely touches, like rubber cups and saucy saucers – started something.

Will new tools reinvigorate a familiar task? Can discomfort pay dividends?

Playing with an inePenny Hunt's new pen in her story "Ergonomic excitement"xpensive new fountain pen. Inky fingers. The pleasure of feeling the ink flow forms a kind of positive feedback loop. Swooping lettering – nothing to do with me – begins to appear.

That café, that day, seems to be showing that doing something with a different set of muscles, and kit, instantly energises what we do and create. It seems to change the old thinking grooves. The thing about those old grooves (ruts?) is that we may not even know how deeply we are in them, how ingrained and automatic are our expectations and behaviour patterns. It can feel so good to be hauled out of them.

I was in a cinema where the audience mood was just beginning to turn ugly. The start of the film was now very overdue. The mood/ behaviour curve in this sort of situation is predictable, no? (Just to be clear: this was SW19, so for ‘turn ugly’ read perhaps ‘cough’). A shadowy female figure from the young and friendly staff loitered at the door to speak to the restive audience. She hypnotised that antsy lot as if by magic. The completely unexpected, gently seductive, French voice was so effective that whimpers of pleasure could be heard from the front row. Charm to disarm.

At the other end of the severity and danger spectrum: the Ukraine. Could different kit, different muscles help leaders defuse that situation? If Putin and Kerry and Hague found themselves sitting at a café table where a cup demanded two hands and gentleness, or the saucer squeaked if handled too roughly, might a different thinking groove appear? That situation is becoming so serious. War seems so possible and real. But how tempting to imagine ways to defuse things – soldiers armed with ukuleles or cut flowers, or those leaders offering each other cake.

Kerry Putin and Hague might just stop for cake in Penny Hunt's drawing of her cafeChina breaks, rubber bends- the brain works differently.

Or use a different way to communicate? A colleague sent a link to another way to make the familiar seem new, a clever new app that will help turn words into short video messages – . Different kit, different thinking, different outcome.

Had Putin and Kerry come into the café at that moment they might have overheard something so simple and so helpful.

I had nearly mastered the coffee cup (other hand, gentle grip). But at another table, a groove had been moved as the group laughed at a strangely bendy knife.

Those scones were going to be tricky to share.

Let’s see if there’s another way of going about this

they said to each other.