What is RBF?
Resting Bitch Face. You already know about it; it’s been a meme for a couple of decades now. Here’s how you know if you have it: people tell you–or react to you as if–your face is expressing anger, sadness, contempt, etc, when you aren’t actually expressing anything.
It’s the guy who tells you to smile more; the customers at work who think you’re being rude when you’re being polite but not cheerful enough; your family that tells you you look so sad when you’re actually happy inside and just not showing it.
It is more commonly “diagnosed” in women, because women are culturally expected to be cheery, bubbly, etc, but studies show that we incorrectly interpret men’s expressions just as often.
It is a dangerous phenomenon, for women who get hurt or killed because they weren’t friendly enough, and for workers who can be fired for not smiling enough. Men, especially black men, are subject to violence based on “looking intimidating”.
Yet collectively we still expect people, especially women, to be “bubbly” at all times: smiling, high-pitched voice, energetic, performatively altruistic. If one thinks about it for even a second, it is clear that this is impossible to maintain, and an impossible standard by which to judge any human.
But who takes the time to examine this impulse? Before we ever evolved verbal language, we had standards for nonverbal communication. Even non-primate animals have bodily and facial languages; have you ever watched the subtle signals cats give each other when they fight? You can’t even catch them unless you are as quick as they are. It’s not fair to an animal that has evolved higher processing abilities, who is able to catch these innate prejudices and unlearn them. But we have to actually do that action to move forward.
By the way, this is not the same as a “flat affect”, which is a symptom of some neurological disorders. Anyone who tells you that you “not smiling enough” means you have any kind of mental disorder simply has incorrect information.
What Does RBF Look Like?
Here’s the case for my personal face: I have lips that turn down at the ends plus a full lower lip, which pushes them up in the middle, making the downturn at the ends more pronounced. That’s all it takes to make someone think you’re not happy. We think that a happy mouth turns up at the ends and a neutral mouth is straight across, but some mouths just aren’t built that way.
I inherited the lips from my mom, whose case has gotten more pronounced with aging, as I assume mine will. I also inherited her very low voice; even as a young kid, my voice was so low that people mistook me for her on the phone. My voice, as is the case for most people, actually has a large range of pitches, which I use unconsciously in different situations. But my neutral is much lower than most people seem to expect a female voice to be, especially in a customer service role. It’s just how my trachea was made.
I also have some scopophobia, or fear of being looked at, which means that I avoid eye contact instinctively. (For me, this comes directly from being shouted at in school for making eye contact, by the way; but it can also be a symptom of some neurological disorders.)
This also means that when I am forced to make eye contact — either by someone who thinks it’s necessary for me to be “listening”, or by myself when I know it’s polite — my gaze seems “intense” because I hold the contact too long, because I simply don’t have an instinctive grasp of how to do it appropriately. (Perhaps I also have an intense gaze because I am a Scorpio, but let’s stick to stuff we can study right now.)
And as an added difficulty, I have a “gummy smile” — which means nothing except that my gums show when I smile — for which I was teased as a child (along with the gap I had in my front teeth before orthodontia). This means that I get very uncomfortable when I smile, and some people get uncomfortable right back, because they’ve been taught that a smile like mine is disgusting.
I can force myself to smile showing only my teeth, but it’s very easily pegged as a fake smile, which is even worse as far as people misinterpreting whether you’re actually happy. But that smile is the best I can do, and I work on adding microexpressions around my eyes to make it more genuine. Note that I didn’t say “to make it *seem* more genuine”, because it is a genuine expression of happiness! But I acknowledge that it doesn’t read that way every time, and I keep working on it.
What Can You Do? What Do You Even Need to Do?
Facial expressions are interesting. We use them for communication, but they have an inward-facing effect as well. Making yourself smile does actually work to make yourself happier, as you may have heard; conversely, if your facial muscles are paralyzed, you do feel flatter, and you can even show a decreased understanding of other people’s expressions and language because we mimic each other. If your expressions can’t mimic another person’s, you are very literally missing a piece of the conversation.
It’s called mirroring. We learn to make expressions based on the expressions people make around us. When you are very “in tune” with someone, you unconsciously mimic their expressions and even their whole-body attitudes and positions. You can catch yourself doing these larger movements, but the microexpressions are changed by neurological processes.
And stopping yourself from doing this would be damaging socially. As well as imparting understanding and meaning, we also use mirroring to show each other that we relate, that we are part of the same group, that we understand each other. It makes us feel safer with one another. Even yawning’s contagiousness is connected to social cognition.
So if you intentionally stop yourself from having your natural facial expressions, out of anxiety or a learned behavior, that might be a habit to catch and stop, at least in situations where you want people to feel that you accept and understand them, and vice versa.
It’s not your fault that you have RBF. But it’s not anyone else’s fault that they interpret your face in a certain way, if they aren’t already aware of the fact that some faces are built that way. (If they are, then they need to be unlearning the judging instinct.) You’re up against a few million years of evolution, here. Let’s meet people halfway. We don’t have to fake, but we do have to make the effort to help them interpret us correctly when it’s needed.
The first thing you can do is be honest about it. Be honest with yourself first: you have a face that looks negative when it’s neutral. Despite what people may have told you, that’s not a personal moral failing. It’s just a fact you have to live with, like being short or blond; people will react in positive and negative ways to just about any physical feature. Their response is not your fault, but you can learn to work with it. How?
Well, the second step is to be honest with the people around you. When I worked in management in retail, occasionally people from other stores would come to help my staff with a big project such as inventory. After introducing myself and the project to them, one of the first things I would do would be to say, “By the way, I know my face sometimes looks frowny or mad or my voice sounds mad, but I’m not, I almost never am. It just looks that way.” And I’d smile and say it casually, easily. And they would look relieved–because I had been using a neutral, serious (i.e. mad-looking) face during the introduction, and managers can be inherently intimidating anyway. And after that, they felt much more at ease working with me!
It doesn’t work every time, and that’s simply because we are human and it’s hard to override the sense in one’s head that says “this person is angry or upset.” Or people just forget momentarily that I told them I’m not. In these cases, a reminder — again, with a smile — is helpful. You can notice when people are treating you as if you are angry, and you can get ahead of it and neutralize it. This means you need to be aware of and correctly interpret their expressions, too — if you have unlearning to do, get on it!
How to Practice
I don’t mean stand in front of a mirror and make faces — although you can if you want, it’s fun — because that’s not practicing. Practicing a skill like piano or a sport or communication involves knowing where you’re doing poorly and working to fix it.
So what you need is a coach. A friend who is good at reading nonverbal communication. Ask them to talk to you, face to face if possible or over face chat at least, and point out when you’re doing an expression that a less forgiving, non-friend person might find objectionable. Ask them to try to pick up subtle muscle movements, or lack thereof, around the eyes, in the cheeks, in the set of the shoulders.
Then, when they point these things out, work on them. Move your face until they say yes, that looks like you’re really happy. You can work with your tone of voice, too. Most people just don’t expect a woman to have a low voice — yes, stereotypes, but most of us don’t examine them. So if you want to meet those people halfway, you can try to keep your voice slightly higher, as well as adding more “bounce” to it. It is a lot like the “customer service voice”, but I don’t necessarily mean “bounce” as in “excessively cheery”; I just mean that your pitch becomes more dynamic, more high and low notes in contrast.
A sense of being more casual can also help, and honestly the easiest way for me to get that is deeper breathing to relax myself physically.
And for a while this practice will feel exaggerated. You’ll feel like you’re putting on a fake smile, and for you, that’s true. But for the people who accuse you of looking mad, this larger expression is required. (This only applies, by the way, if those people are, for example, your family or boss. Some guy on the street who says to smile more deserves absolutely nothing from you.)
Eventually you’ll have practiced enough that the more expressive expressions become habitual, and you’ll find that people you talk to are reading you better and understanding you more clearly in conversation.
In conclusion, your face is a land of contrasts. You can meet people halfway when they say you look sad or angry and you’re not; you can remind them that not everyone’s smile is two dots and a curve. And one day we’ll learn to listen to people instead of just looking at them.
Is your face “negative when neutral”? How have you convinced people to read your emotions accurately, instead of assuming based on prior faces? Talk to me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest!
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