Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
The science behind "resting bitch face" and a simple solution. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I did a video meeting last week in which someone I was talking with asked if something was the matter, based on the apparently angry or upset look I was giving off. No, I assured her, I just have “resting still-have-a-headache-from-COVID-face.”
That reminded me of an article my colleague Jessica Stillman, wrote about the concept of accidentally giving off negative vibes due to “resting bitch face,” and a simple way to reverse it. I asked her if I could share her advice. Here’s Jessica:
What's called “resting bitch face” has been the subject of millions of memes, parody videos, celebrity zingers, and feminist complaints. But always looking grumpy even when you're not isn't just another very online joke.
According to science, it's a real phenomenon, and one that's relevant to business leaders.
The science of RBF
When researchers from Noldus Information Technology ran images of people with a neutral facial expression through a sophisticated software program designed to objectively detect emotions, the computer confirmed what we've all observed.
Some people just can't help but look perpetually grumpy.
The team plugged photos of well-known “RBF all-stars” into the computer: Kanye West, Kristen Stewart, and I hate to admit it given that her funeral was just this week, but Queen Elizabeth.
"The big change in percentage came from 'contempt,'" researcher Abbe Macbeth told the paper.
Cue more online snickering. But as fun as it may be to poke fun at other people's mean expressions, there is a serious side to RBF. Seeming angry or contemptuous all the time can be a real problem when you're trying to lead a team.
"Has anyone ever seemed nervous around you and you couldn't understand why? Do people often think you disapprove of them even when you don't?" UC Berkeley Haas School of Business psychologist Dana R. Carney asks in an award-winning paper on body language improvements for managers.
If so, perhaps something about how you squint your eyes, hold your mouth, or crinkle your eyebrows likely conveys to others that you are intimidating, judgmental, or disapproving—even when you're no such thing.
RBF may be on brand when you're an egotistical rapper or a haughty fashion designer, but if you're trying to lure top talent, inspire a team, or win over a room, looking like you're super-not-impressed with your audience can be an issue.
This can be a particular problem for women leaders, who are culturally expected to be warmer and more nurturing, as this anecdote-filled New York Times article on what it's like to suffer from RBF illustrates.
Short of surgery there's little you can do about your facial features (though one of the women in the article above swears by Botox), and even expressions that are theoretically controllable are incredibly hard to unlearn as an adult.
But, Carney insists there is something you can do if you're worried about coming across as cranky in a specific situation. Instead of trying to change what you do with your face, change what you do with your hands.
The solution is an arm's length away.
Scientists recently showed study participants two pictures of the same squinting, grumpy-looking man. In one, he just stares straight at the camera. In the other he channels the famous sculpture, The Thinker, and clasps his chin with his thumb and forefinger as if pondering deep thoughts.
The man in the first picture with full-on RBF was rated as dumber, meaner, and more judgmental by the participants. But when he moved his hand to his chin, he appeared "nicer, more thoughtful, less judgmental, higher on self-control, and more intelligent," reports Carney.
Takeaway: Simply moving your hand to your chin instantly transforms how others read your facial expression from “bitchy” to “thoughtful.”
Of course, if you're a resting cranky face sufferer, you can't go around with your hand glued to your face 24/7. But this strategy is useful for those occasions when you want to be sure you're not coming across as cold—for instance when you're selling a candidate on your company, receiving feedback from a mentor, or hammering out a tricky deal.
Thoughts? Do you have RBF? (It sounds so much worse when we just refer to it by the letters, but I’m trying not to say “bitch” more than necessary.) Let us know what you think in the comments.
7 other things worth knowing today
In its devastating path of destruction, Hurricane Fiona has killed at least five people across the Caribbean, cut power and water service for most of Puerto Rico’s 3.1 million residents and left more than 1 million without running water in the Dominican Republic. The storm was threatening more deadly flooding Tuesday as it slammed the Turks and Caicos islands. (CNN)
New York City's subways will get security cameras in every train car in order to reassure riders about safety in the wake of high-profile shootings. "You think Big Brother is watching you on the subway?" Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said. "You’re absolutely right. That is our intent." (NYT)
Kristen Bell has a message to all parents in the world about her 2013 movie and song: “I would like to say that I'm sorry to every parent who has had to listen to Frozen on a loop. I feel you, I see you, I am you. I get it." (Scary Mommy)
Roseanne Barr, whose 2018 reboot of the massively successful ABC sitcom that made her famous was canceled following a string of her racist tweets targeting Barack Obama's adviser Valerie Jarrett, is mounting a comeback, starting with a comedy special, on Fox News's digital streaming platform. (People)
Every U.S. adult under the age of 65 should be screened for anxiety disorders and all adults should be checked for depression, a U.S. government task force recommended Tuesday. The move comes months after the task force issued similar draft guidance for children and adolescents. (WSJ)
Happiest state in America: Hawaii. But number-5? New Jersey! Thus spake Wallethub. (Fox5NY)
The U.S. Space Force now has an official song. (Twitter)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: A version of Jessica’s essay appeared previously at Inc.com.