What Your Facial Expression is Really Saying

Ever heard of the satirical syndrome Bitchy Resting Face? Google it. The Internet has had a good run lampooning that disinterested, judgmental look we sometimes wear on our faces without meaning to.

It turns out that’s a real thing.

The look we have on our faces when we aren’t actively engaged in conversation is called our neutral face. Your facial expression might be telling someone that you’re disinterested, worried or disapproving, even though you’re none of those things.

So, how big a deal is it? That depends on how it’s affecting you and the people you spend time with. Are you often told you look unhappy, angry or worried, even when you aren’t feeling those emotions? Do friends and coworkers frequently tell you to “just smile?” Do people seem to not trust you? This all might add up to a neutral expression that isn’t at all neutral.

According to an article published on HelpGuide.com, by Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A., Greg Boose and Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D., “Oftentimes, what comes out of our mouths and what we communicate through our body language are two totally different things. When faced with these mixed signals, the listener has to choose whether to believe your verbal or nonverbal message, and, in most cases, they’re going to choose the nonverbal because it’s a natural, unconscious language that broadcasts our true feelings and intentions in any given moment.”

Dr. Albert Mehrabian is famous for determining that 7 percent of communication is verbal, 38 percent is vocal elements (not words, but the sighs and “ums”), and 55 percent is nonverbal elements (facial expressions and gestures). On the website “The Nonverbal Group,” they note that the actual percentage breakdown is less important than the fact that scientists agree that most communication is nonverbal.

So, you suspect your face is saying things you don’t mean. Start to fix it by taking measure of your emotional awareness. How are you feeling, generally? Your facial expression could be relaying misinformation by telegraphing feelings you have on a different topic. Spend time addressing your larger concerns so that your nonverbal communication can reflect the conversation at hand, not broadcast how you’re feeling about your mother-in-law coming to live with you.

You’ll also need to tune your emotional awareness to the people around you. What do their nonverbal cues tell you about how they are feeling? Do they seem turned off by what you’re saying? Do they refuse to make eye contact? These might be signs that you’re projecting negative expressions. That’s a good thing if you’re annoyed that your friend asked you to watch her cat for the weekend—again. But it’s a bad thing when your boss asks you to be on an exciting project and the set of your jaw and squint in your eye is telling him to get stuffed.

Forget about that “just smile” advice. Trying to be more cognizant of your emotional state and that of those around you is a better solution than plastering on a fake grin. The most successful nonverbal cues are those that are genuine. If people get prickly because they are telling you about a medical woe and the look on your face says, “get over it,” a Cheshire Cat grin isn’t going to improve your relationship.


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