I really am sincere. Help me look sincere.
April 26, 2009 6:43 AM   Subscribe

My facial expressions don't match my emotions. Sometimes when I think I'm being friendly and warm, I actually look condescending, anxious or just weird. As far as I know I'm neither crazy nor autistic. How can I fix this?

While preparing for a big job interview, I tried practising my responses in front of the mirror and noticed something odd:

The way my facial expressions feel is completely different to how they look. When I think I'm giving a warm, sincere smile, my eyebrows head skywards and I end up looking either condescending or anxious. When I intend to portray cheerful enthusiasm, my eyes open too wide and I end up looking fearful. I've also seen video footage of myself pulling these faces in social situations when I had no reason to be condescending, anxious or fearful, and I have no memory of actually feeling those emotions. The facial expressions really do seem to be coming from nowhere.

I have no trouble interpreting facial expressions in others or knowing which ones are appropriate. I don't have autism or Aspergers, although I occasionally have some difficulty with recognising faces. I've had CBT for depression, but I'm currently doing just fine.

I was raised in a multicultural family - one culture is known for being facially expressive, the other tends to be socially very blunt and not particularly smiley. It's possible that I absorbed a strange, hybrid lexicon of facial expressions as a child that doesn't quite work as an adult in a western culture.

As far as I know, there's nothing else unusual about me.

Has anyone experienced similar problems? Is there any way I can retrain myself to look sincere when I really am sincere? Should I do acting classes or biofeedback or meditation or something else? Is there a website that can help me? All I want to do is to look as sincere as I actually am.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I can't offer any advice, but I can let you know that you're not alone. When I'm focused on a task, my work colleagues often ask what the matter is, and tend to assume I'm angry. Apparently, I frown a lot, without realising.

Have you considered that you may be trying too hard? When you're sitting in front of a mirror practising, you're expressions aren't spontaneous or natural. Try getting a friend to film you without you realising, and see what your expressions look like when you aren't trying to consciously control them. It might be that you're getting in your own way.

OK, maybe I can offer you some advice, lol. :)
posted by Solomon at 7:10 AM on April 26, 2009

You should note that expressions are not completely universal. Every person expresses emotions slightly differently and there is a sort of charm in that.
For example, when i play piano and im improvising and think i look spaced out, i actually look very concentrated. But why change that? thats the way i look when im being sincere about something.
Any attempt to change this would actually eliminate the sincereity.
posted by freddymetz at 7:20 AM on April 26, 2009

Maybe you could try taking some acting lessons?
posted by oceano at 7:25 AM on April 26, 2009

Interesting question. I doubt the hypothesis that you've learned facial behaviors from your family contrary to the feedback of your age-peers. I assume you grew up in the culture you are now interviewing in and had the typical amount of peer interaction.

The autonomic facial expressions you note (condescending, anxious, fearful) all sound like expressions of genuine anxiety, especially if you translate "condescending" as "aloof" which are easily confused by even astute observers. I say autonomic because it has been shown that there are a set of facial expressions that are extremely difficult to fake (e.g. a genuine smile compared to a "flight attendant" smile).

And why not be anxious? Selling yourself in an interview is one of the most anxiety inducing situations we play in. So I'll assume anxiety and ignore less likely things such as organic brain disorder. How to be less anxious in an interview? Role-play the scene, preferably with a friend who can play a little tough. Solicit and experience more interviews thus desensitizing yourself. If cognitive therapy was useful to you, go back and explore whether you are really anxious. At the extreme end of the spectrum would be anxiolytic drugs, but only for treatment of chronic anxiety - using them for acute interview anxiety might bite you later as you may sell an employer a product he isn't getting.

To reiterate, all these recommendations are based on hypothetical anxiety which only you and a counselor can properly determine.
posted by fydfyd at 7:27 AM on April 26, 2009

I can't help much on the look / feel issue (on these not being aligned), but I wanted to chime in and say you're definitely not alone on this. I tend to scowl when I'm thinking, which automatically makes other people (usually, the people running my grad seminars) stop and ask me what's the matter.

Rather than trying to change it, I usually just break out into a totally different expression (a smile, in this case) or explain that I have an angry resting face, that I've tried to change it, and that there's nothing much I can do to remedy the situation. Then we laugh about it, and move on.
posted by puckish at 7:41 AM on April 26, 2009

I think it has to do with "trying." I've been told similar things over the years. I believe the faux facial representation occurs when I "try" to look a certain way. Until recently, I worked in retail and was greeting hundreds of strangers every day. I "tried" to put on that smiley, happy to see you face, and it probably looked fake. If I "tried" to look thoughtful, i.e. considering what the customer is saying to me, it sometimes came off as stern instead.

What I've found is that if I just relax and be myself, facial interactions will occur normally and spontaneously and be more genuine. My suggestion, stop "trying" to look a certain way, be natural, and all your best characteristics will naturally flow.
posted by netbros at 7:45 AM on April 26, 2009

I have the problem (and so does my mom) of everyone thinking we're angry all the time, especially when we're focused on something. I've been working on a more neutral face as best I can, and it's helped a lot, socially speaking. So I think practising some of the usual faces can help.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:26 AM on April 26, 2009

Stay with me, I have practical advice...

I have wrestled with this my whole life. I don't think that there is anything wrong with you or that there is anything that you can do about this.

It's just who you are. If you were an actor, the fact that emotions come so readily to your face would be a gift, an asset. If you were a counselor, your empathy and understanding would read on your face--a gift, an asset.

So, now what? It's sub-conscious, right? It is.

So, (I'm not crazy) I have considered Botox (just for the frowny bits between my eyes) in the past and in a situation like yours, a big job interview where I was nervous and afraid that my face was betraying me... I'd totally do it. That's the only practical advice I can give. It's subconscious--you can't help it, I can't help it, we can't help it.
posted by Toto_tot at 9:32 AM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

To follow up on the acting lessons, improv classes can help with this. You learn a lot about how facial expressions and body language can express emotions. Because in an improv scene, when a new player enters the scene he or she has to quickly express to both their scene partners as well as the audience what kind of person they are in the scene and how they're going to change the tone and direction of the scene.
posted by sweetkid at 9:34 AM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd start with the idea that the facial expressions are expressing how you feel and it is your mind which is decieving you as to how you feel.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:46 AM on April 26, 2009

In chimps, a grin indicates fear. The two expressions aren't that far apart.
posted by salvia at 10:14 AM on April 26, 2009

Paul Ekman has done a lot of research on the relationship between emotions and facial expression: http://mambo.ucsc.edu/psl/ekman.html

You say you "occasionally have some difficulty recognising faces." How often, and whose faces? Do you have difficulty remembering who the person in question is, or simply remembering his or her name? Wikipedia gives a citation to research that seems to suggest there may be a "light" form of congenital prosopagnosia that affects some significant percentage of the general population.
posted by holympus at 10:28 AM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

People say such things to me all the time. I am constantly getting the "What's wrong?" question because I don't smile all the time. I tend to tell people that I am a "smiling on the inside" kind of girl. My roommate suggested that I need a tail. If it wagged when I was happy, no one would ever question my mood again. It's a shame that's not feasible.
posted by AlliKat75 at 12:10 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't offer any advice, but I can let you know that you're not alone. When I'm focused on a task, my work colleagues often ask what the matter is, and tend to assume I'm angry.

You know, it is one of the wonderful things about the internet, knowing you are not alone.

But I have never thought of this as anything more than my personality. Never looked at it as a disorder or syndrome...just accepted that this is me and found other ways to show my sincerity and empathy, mostly through very clear verbal communication.

Though now you all have me thinking about my own potential disorders... I won't sleep tonight...prosopagnosia + swine flu...omg, that's 3 nights of no sleep minimum.
posted by sundri at 12:25 PM on April 26, 2009

I've been told I roll my eyes when I could swear I was paying rapt attention, it's really annoying because obviously I am rolling my eyes, but I have no idea I'm doing it.
posted by doobiedoo at 12:38 PM on April 26, 2009


Ok. This is actual practical advice. You will need a digital camera.

Make a face. Take a picture. Review face. Change your face from what you are doing to what you want to represent. This is the hard part. What your face is doing is not concious, so you will need to reinforce the action in real life situations.

In short, observe, review, and adapt.

posted by willhslade at 2:42 PM on April 26, 2009

a bit of a smile can soften any expression - maybe you could practice that - not enough of a smile to denote amusement or mockery, but just a pleasantly interested smile. Even if your eyes are doing their own thing, that might help get your positive intentions across.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:42 PM on April 26, 2009

Wait a minute, wait a minute ... you say you practiced in front of a mirror. Are you also getting other people telling you about this?

If it's JUST the mirror, I wouldn't worry as much as you are. You are ACTING when you're looking at yourself in front of the mirror, so your facial expressions are not natural. What you see in a mirror is not what other people see ... let's start with the fact that it's backward...

I mean, it's like someone standing in front of a mirror thinking their hair is all out of whack, when really it's not nearly as bad as they think.

Ask close friends about this before you run off the deep end with this. You need more data than you standing alone in front of a mirror freaking yourself out.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:08 PM on April 26, 2009

The OP writes:
I've also seen video footage of myself pulling these faces in social situations when I had no reason to be condescending, anxious or fearful, and I have no memory of actually feeling those emotions. The facial expressions really do seem to be coming from nowhere.
so I don't think it's just the anxiety of an interview, or the fact that making faces in a mirror usually doesn't look natural.

Anyway, I don't think the basic situation is at all weird; many of my friends, and I as well, have quirks of expression that one has to learn to interpret correctly, some larger and some smaller. In a continuing relationship (coworkers, friends, etc) it's not really a problem. But the OP is asking about situations where there isn't a chance for his interlocutor to learn his expressions— job interviews and the like.

This topic always makes me think of a line from Wuthering Heights: “He turned, as he spoke, a peculiar look in her direction: a look of hatred; unless he has a most perverse set of facial muscles that will not, like those of other people, interpret the language of his soul.”

The only advice I can offer is that sometimes the confusion is not due to a completely odd expression, but a single habit that transforms an otherwise culturally-normal reaction into an unexpected one, and in that case, you can probably fairly easily train yourself out of it, once you figure out what it is.
posted by hattifattener at 4:00 PM on April 26, 2009

+1 holympus's recommendation of Paul Ekman. Paul Ekman is the person to go to for learning about facial expressions.

Some facial expressions - I believe 22 - are universal & found in every culture throughout the world. Find the Ekman photos of those expressions and practice them. Learn which muscles are involved & consciously move them. Do it in front of a mirror & try to match the photograph.

Paul Ekman also has software you can use to recognize facial expressions, it may be expensive, though.
posted by MesoFilter at 9:44 PM on April 26, 2009

The way my facial expressions feel is completely different to how they look. When I think I'm giving a warm, sincere smile, my eyebrows head skywards and I end up looking either condescending or anxious.

Rather than your emotional feelings, focus on the physical feelings of how your face is moving. Move your eyebrows up and down. Notice the physical sensation in your face when your eyebrows are up. Practice noticing this sensation when you are practicing your smile, make checking for it part of the routine of smiling.

If you are having trouble telling whether your eyebrows are up or down without looking at them, sticking tape on your forehead will make it more obvious and help you get out of the habit of wrinkling up your brow. Only try this alone or with close friends, even clear tape will be very visible.

Learn what your facial muscles feel like when you are making an expression, and consciously decide what expression you want. Expect to practice a lot before you can get this down, just doing it before job interviews isn't going to cut it.
posted by yohko at 4:14 PM on April 29, 2009

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