There’s a human condition that’s gained notoriety in celebrity circles, in recent years, and it’s commonly known as Resting Bitch Face (RBF).
A person is said to be afflicted with RBF, when to the outside observer, their natural facial expression projects a look of anger, annoyance, or irritation. It’s not that they can’t, or don’t, smile, it’s just that their default look appears a tad sullen to the onlooker.
Some of the earliest documented cases identify females, but the condition also affects the males of our species. There have been token attempts to coin a distinctive name – with suitable anatomical references – for males, but as I see it, Resting Bitch Face adequately describes a condition that applies equally to the sexes and for the purpose of this discussion, the term RBF is gender neutral.
We are all familiar with the more famous owners of a Resting Bitch Face. Just conjure up an image of Kristen Stewart, Johnny Depp, January Jones in Madmen, or Kayne West, anywhere, and you will have a fairly accurate picture of an RBF.
In the world of television and big screen film, RBF actors tend to be cast for the role of villain or an otherwise troubled character. They may fill comedic roles, but more likely as some kind of ‘straight-man’. Pat Paulsen or Rodney Dangerfield come to mind, or the gum-chewing Carol Burnett as Mrs. Wiggins.
So what’s the big deal about the subject of Resting Bitch Face, for me? Well, after some serious reflection, I’m pretty sure that somewhere along the way, I came to own one.
I’m not convinced RBF is something inborn. By most accounts, I wore a perma-smile in my early childhood years. In fact, as a kid, I was brought to knee-buckling, pant-peein’ laughter, with such ease, my parents could be forgiven if they had the occasional doubt over the prospects for my academic and employment future.
It’s not that I no longer laugh, or that I somehow lost touch with my sense of humour. I am very much the same quipster and class clown I’ve always been. It’s just that for some of us, the physical impact of aging, coupled with the normal stresses of career and worries of family, manifest as a furrowed brow and reticent mouth line, souring our default countenance.
You see, Resting Bitch Faces rarely know they are RBF’s. In our own mind’s eye, our natural look is warm and pleasant. There is a disconnect between the image we think we are transmitting and the one that’s actually being received. To the observer, that warm look is impassive, indifferent, or worse. We don’t realize our self-image is a sub-consciously photoshopped enhancement of the demeanor we truly project. An expression of concern is seen as dour and impatient. A broad grin delivered is a crack of a smile received.
Eventually, RBF’s come to recognize they have been stricken. One of the first clues for me was when a colleague, who reported to me, more-or-less accused me of throwing shade, in a one-on-one meeting. “Your face is always …,” finishing her thought with a hand swiping over her own mouth to form a frown, “you’re always so serious.”
“What? … Serious?” I asked with a chuckle (hint of a smile). “I’m the guy who pranced around the office in a full-body, sweat-stinking lion suit for a new product launch,” I protested, my chuckle dissolving into a wry smile (stern glare). “I allowed myself to be duct taped to a pillar, wearing a pink tutu, for a United Way fundraiser,” I offered, helpfully (asserted, defensively). “For Heaven’s sake, I even walked through a staff gauntlet in a wig, make-up, and womens’ clothing in the name of charity!” I clarified (fumed). “I’m too serious? … seriously?” I pleaded (pleaded).
When we first face the notion of being a Resting Bitch Face, it’s like hearing a recording of your own voice; it doesn’t seem possible. Once we accept it, however, there is a powerful compulsion to override our default look with something more pleasant. RBF’s should be warned that contriving an artificial resting face is fraught with peril.
It’s a fool’s errand to replace a look that, by it’s very definition, is involuntary. Bitch-faced holdouts will, at best, generate confusing inconsistencies. Worse still, is a surrogate expression that completely breaks context with the circumstances at hand. For example: in overriding a bovine resting face to comfort a staff member who is asking for a half day off on account of the passing of a longtime pet, a genuine attempt to lock in compassionate could accidentally present as a goofy grin – rightfully earning a “what the hell’s the matter with you?” challenge from the distraught employee.
There’s some truth in the bromide, ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression.’ First impressions in the working world come with challenges for the Resting Bitch Face: Teachers are automatically seen as tough; bosses are considered aloof or insensitive; employees, disengaged or negative.
There’s an interesting polarity of perception among colleagues and other relationships with an RBF and it has a lot to do with levels of exposure and familiarity. It seems most of an RBF’s contacts will, in time, be either solid supporters or stringent detractors. There are relatively few who settle in the middle.
But there is hope beyond the first impression, once an RBF is better understood, the condition disappears for that person. Close friends, family, and colleagues just don’t see it. They recognize the subtleties and effectively interpret the facial nuances and voice inflections that don’t register with others. These are the people who understand the authentic person behind the facade. “He’s like a Chiclet,” they might analogize to the more dubious, “A hard outer shell but soft underneath.”
Some people quickly see beyond a bitch face and some never do. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some bosses and many colleagues who effectively translated me, almost immediately. Maybe it’s their focus on substance over the superficial, or maybe they’ve had other RBF’s in their circles and adopt the old adage about books and covers.
There’s a lesser known, and arguably more insidious, flip-side to the Resting Bitch Face that I’ll refer to as the Resting Clown Face (RCF). Golf fans will recognize it in the Howdy Doody grins of Matt Kuchar and Phil Mickelson, as they miss a short putt or glance at a playing partner who just stepped on their line. They are furious, of course, but their expression never lets on.
Perhaps the most recognized and tragic RCF example is found in the death of comic genius, Robin Williams. The perpetual smile can also serve as a mask, hiding from the world the depths of despair its wearer is suffering in solitude.
RCF’s are every bit as pervasive in the working world and just as easy to misinterpret in terms of the truth behind the look. Smiling faces mistaken for happiness or approval and self-serving interest disguised as support and friendship.
In the end, there are likely just as many artificial grins as there are unintentional frowns and both can lead to unfortunate and costly misinterpretation. The RBF’s words taken too seriously, the RCF’s seriousness, underestimated. Happily, most of the population seems to fall somewhere in the middle.
To my colleagues and acquaintances who over the years took me, well, more seriously than was intended, I can assure you I enjoyed our times more and had better intentions than it may have appeared … It was just my Resting Bitch Face 🙂