“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 actually 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.
When the team “plugged in photos of RBF all-stars Kanye West, Kristen Stewart and Queen Elizabeth” into the computer, “suddenly, the level of emotion detected by the software doubled, reported the Washington Post.
And the software wasn’t sensing joy or surprise. “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 resting bitch face. 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 you answered yes to these questions, the problem isn’t all in your head, she reassures readers. Instead, it’s what she politely terms “resting cranky face.” Something about how you squint your eyes, hold your mouth, or crinkle your eyebrows conveys to others 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 entrepreneurs 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. 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 selling a candidate on your company, receiving feedback from a mentor, or hammering out a tricky deal.
Just remember that if you’re getting the feeling your face is giving others the wrong impression, you can always soften your expression simply by moving your hand.