You might say that chronically serious-looking faces—a “condition” recently dubbed “resting bitch face,” or RBF—is a maternal trait in my family. From my grandmother on down, the women in my family have suffered from the RBF stigma. We have now reached the fourth generation, as my niece tells me that friends and co-workers describe her naturally non-smiling face as angry or aggressive. Add to that an East Coast upbringing which blessed us with a talent for sarcasm and the communication disconnect takes on a new level.
RBF, as a label, has become the latest Internet craze. A historical review of the term indicates it originated in 2009, but Google trends show internet searches for the phrase really started to take off in the spring of 2013. RBF has since become the subject of countless memes, often featuring celebrity examples. The hype reached new heights of controversy when it was written up in The New York Times on Aug. 1.
The vast majority of coverage has so far focused on the disadvantages of RBF. But this narrative only tells part of the story. The women in my family are very successful in their careers—despite, or perhaps in part because of—their RBF. Indeed I chalk up my own company’s continued growth, even during the recession, to a culture of communication and collaboration drawn from years of experience dealing with my less-than-jolly visage.
Yes, that’s right. I view my RBF as much a blessing as a curse.
Dr. John Lund, a researcher and public speaker on interpersonal communication, is often quoted as saying: “instead of communicating to be understood you have to communicate to not be misunderstood.” As someone accused of having RBF on a regular basis, such misinterpretation is a common occurrence.
Research has shown that people rely heavily on facial expressions and body language. Psychologist Albert Mehrabian, of the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted famous studies in the 1960s that found that interpreting someone’s communication is based mostly on nonverbal cues, like facial expression, body language and tone. Women confronted by a world that automatically attaches negative attributes to their non-smiling face must quickly learn how to communicate and also hone a finely-tuned awareness of both our own emotions and the emotions of those around us.
We must also quickly develop a strong sense of self-awareness. This self-awareness allows you to adapt quickly in volatile or unfamiliar situations—an invaluable trait when presenting before a room full or strangers or superiors, for example.
And then there’s the empathy factor. Women used to being constantly misunderstood focus more on the words someone says, rather than their tone, body cues, or facial expressions, ensuring a more effective flow of information between both parties.
At my own company, I have worked hard to transform a negative into a positive, channeling my RBF to improve my leadership and strategic thinking skills while also building my tolerance to stress (all personality traits researchers at Caliper, a talent management company, have found endemic among high performing women).
Of course, it’s draining to have to constantly police your own facial expressions. I often find a two-hour meeting with strangers more exhausting than a 16-hour workday. It takes a lot of mental energy to have to remain constantly vigilant of my facial expression and tone.
Meanwhile the stigma is very real. Studies and anecdotal evidence (Jill Abramson, anyone?) have shown that serious or assertive behavior from women in the workplace can be perceived as a negative, while lighthearted behavior can erode credibility. Women, especially women in power, can feel caught in a catch-22 of gender norms.
Years ago my twin sister was sent to a conflict management course after a male employee was offended by her face—literally—and her direct communication style. Following an office disagreement my sister’s coworker filed a complaint to their superiors, calling her negative and aggressive. Human Resources suggested she attend a course on conflict management for women. Ironically, the course told participants they should aim to become more assertive. No training was suggested for the male employee.
So what did my sister learn from this experience? She learned that both men and women viewed her directness and her naturally serious-looking face as too aggressive. Since “one’s perception is their truth,” she forced herself to adapt.
I’m not saying that adopting an overly cheery persona will work for everyone. Slapping a silly smile on your face all day is exhausting, just as if we had to walk around with our arms above our heads all day. And obviously, women (and men for that matter) shouldn’t have to smile for the benefit of others. But neither should we be shamed for our RBF.
I guess what I’m saying is: learn to embrace your perennially unhappy faces, ladies; they may end up being one of your greatest assets.