RBF problems
October 6, 2022 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I have the infamous Resting Bitch Face. I am concerned that people at work think I am unhappy as a result (with good reason). Suggestions for how to offset my RBF?

I have always had RBF. It's a running joke between me and several of my friends. In my early days as a musician, my RBF on stage made me look like I hated my instrument, performing, and music itself. Photos from back then are retrospectively hilarious - we're playing a rockin' Stones song and I look like I'm at a funeral.

But I am actually not a bitch! And while my personal life is a bit bumpy now, my work life is amazing. I WFH and love it, my colleagues are great, my supervisor is great, my department head is great, and everyone is impressed with my performance!

However, being that I WFH, in Zoom meetings with the department all anyone can see is my face, and my mic is on mute unless I need to speak. And while I am listening (especially if I am really attentively listening), there I am, looking... well... bitchy.

When I do speak, I do so in a friendly way, even if I'm delivering bad or tough news. I laugh at jokes, and even if I'm on mute you can see I'm smiling or laughing. I have great rapport with my colleagues one on one.

However last week the employees local to our home office (me being one of them) were in the office for a meeting. My supervisor was on vacation. The department head pulled me into his office after the meeting and asked me... if I was ok?

I was very confused.

He said that this wasn't a "coaching moment" nor was it a behavioral or disciplinary moment. He was genuinely worried that I was unhappy with my job and not speaking up, based on our last few meetings over Zoom, and I guess seeing my RBF in person made him extra concerned. He wanted to make sure that I wasn't looking to leave or secretly resenting my work.

I assured him that he had nothing to worry about - I love my job, it's the best job of my career by far, and my face is just fairly serious as a default setting. He seemed relieved and fine with this explanation.

But I am worried now that maybe other people I interact with on Zoom have these same thoughts or concerns. I can't magically change my face - this is my face, and it's been this way for 37 years. I can make sure to pay attention to my tone in speaking and maybe joke around a bit more (which isn't really my nature but I'm a musician, I know how to perform). My email communication is always respectful, friendly, and in good faith. Is there anything else I can do to offset my RBF so people don't think I'm a miserable human being who hates work and life and the universe?

(I am also aware that there is a deep undercurrent or in all likelihood unintentional sexism in my department head having raised this with me; I doubt he'd be pulling one of the men in the department aside to talk about their serious facial expressions. I really like my department head but I'm a bit annoyed that this is how a Thing I'm going to worry about - my anxious brain has more than enough to be anxious about, thank you very much.)
posted by nayantara to Work & Money (29 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: posters request -- frimble

Best answer: As someone who not usually, but sometimes can tend to actually be bored and unhappy at work and has had to work on masking that, I have a different problem, but the tricks I use might be of use.

I focus on sending positive reactions via facial expressions on video calls, as though I am pantomiming my involvement. I nod to show agreement or understanding, I tilt my head to show interest/thoughtfulness, and I smile and shake my head a little to show when things are funny. I have a multi-monitor setup and I've learned to be careful to keep the meeting on the screen adjacent to my camera, so it's always clear I am looking at people.

I think of myself as a silent film actor and my role is "Involved employee who is glad to be here," even though in my case, this is not always precisely true,
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:13 AM on October 6, 2022 [20 favorites]

Did the manager say anything about your face? It sounds like they were more concerned about your engagement during meetings, which is an area that's much easier to change.

Can you make sure you're cultivating a relatively friendly demeanour when you do end up talking to people, even if your face doesn't change?
posted by sagc at 11:15 AM on October 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: He did call out my facial expression specifically. He said I looked unhappy and was worried. He leads our weekly Zoom meeting and we are a big team so we have a policy of no cross-talk to make them go smoothly. In person we do the same bc the locals were in the conference room and the out of state employees were still on Zoom. When I am called on to speak, I am always prepared and friendly in my tone. I am always engaged, I don't bring my phone into meetings and am always taking notes. This is 100% a RBF problem.
posted by nayantara at 11:23 AM on October 6, 2022

Best answer: I have a very angry-looking Thinking Face apparently, and I resent all the ableism inherent in "lady refuses to make nicenice face for other people's comfort" but I also know that some people are for their own neurodivergence/cultural reasons very dependent on face/body language.

So my compromise is to practice Resting Rest Face, as in un-knitting my brows and trying to at least get the corners of my mouth pointing slightly upward. My "primer" move is to look up at the ceiling, which seems to help me I guess uplift my expression. I often do this as part of a neck-stretching process - left, right, then up - with a deep breath for each move. Then, if necessary, I can explain it's part of my ergonomics practice.

That, along with minding my posture (which prevents back pain anyway) seems to make my expression acceptable to most others. I do remind myself to look interested (often a bit of a head-cock helps with this) and nod occasionally, in a vaguely agreeable way.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:38 AM on October 6, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I specifically don't turn my camera on unless required for much of the same reason. So that's my number one advice, if you have that flexibility available. This is why I make sure to use a photo avatar for all of my work applications (incl zoom), so everyone can see that version of my face whenever they want to.

I have a thing I can do to try to "lift" my face and re-align my jaw a little better, which I do when I'm on camera; it's draining and occassionally wreaks havoc on my jaw nerves, but unfortunately it gets the job done. I developed this by spending some time in front of the zoom camera trying different things with my face. Because you're a performer, this might be a helpful exercise for you as well.
posted by bleep at 11:46 AM on October 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

A couple suggestions- keep your camera turned off when you can and have a smiling photo avatar. You can claim weak internet signal as an excuse. Also, maybe start occasionally using the Zoom reaction buttons (thumbs up, applause, etc) as a low-key way to signal positive engagement, if you think appropriate? Or add some lighthearted comments in the Zoom chat. That being said, I'd try not to dwell on it- I think it was weird (and likely sexist) for the department head to speak with you about this, and you told him you were fine and happy. You have good rapport with colleagues 1:1 which is key- they like you and know you're not a bitch. I have a natural scowl and tend to squint when reading a screen, so I feel you. But I'm also the ringleader when it comes to lighthearted banter (due to my personality, not a recommendation) and get along with colleagues 1:1 so I try not to dwell on my Zoom meeting face. Sometimes I do slightly arch my eyebrows or sip on a coffee or water to break up my scowl, though.
posted by emd3737 at 12:25 PM on October 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

I actively choose to smile. I resent that I have to put in the effort, but have gotten used to it over the years.
posted by metasarah at 12:27 PM on October 6, 2022 [6 favorites]

I have RBF (I love masks in part for this reason).
On zoom, I check how I look and adjust my expression appropriately a few times a minute.
posted by signal at 12:28 PM on October 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

As a point of reference, a co-worker here was spoken to about "looking disengaged" and started attending video calls with camera off and that was seen as further deterioration of involvement. I'm not at all saying that is a fair conclusion, only that it is one that might be arrived at.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:28 PM on October 6, 2022 [8 favorites]

My natural grumpy look is worsened by anything that emphasizes my eyebrows—certain styles of glasses, any eyebrow products that are darker than the lightest shade, any kind of severe lines at all in the brow area make me look like Joan Crawford on the verge of a hanger rampage. Your eyebrows may vary.
posted by corey flood at 12:32 PM on October 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A: UGH I am dismayed that your boss felt the need to comment on your facial expression I am so sorry.

B: I talk/vocalize to myself a LOT, and wonder if that might engage you physically and emotionally on calls, given that you’re muted. I.e., verbalizing the “hmmmms” and “mmm-hmmms”, or even “yeah, that makes sense”s, as if you were having a 1-on-1 conversation with the presenter or panelists, so that you’re literally no longer at rest. (I very much enjoy talking to my podcasts and plants and pets as well!).
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:37 PM on October 6, 2022

There may be a combination of lighting, camera placement, and background color that makes you look less unhappy and more neutral. For example, I have glasses with a very high rx that make my eyes look squished and cast deep shadows, but if I have some uplighting and my camera is a bit lower than comfy laptop height it’s a lot better on camera. I also have very dark hair so it’s good for me to have a light background and brightly colored top so my silhouette is clear, instead of something busy like a bookcase.

Play around with lighting, placement of a dedicated video call webcam, and background, and take a bunch of screenshots. Compare them and ask friends to help you pick the best combinations. A lot of people are flattered by a slightly higher camera than expected and soft lighting with multiple source points. A slight 3/4 angle, with your head a bit to one side so the plane of one of your cheeks is more visible, might also work better to make you seem less severe.
posted by Mizu at 12:42 PM on October 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Another tip: ask a warm, friendly, interested question or offer a helpful, positive-vibed contribution to the conversation early on in a call to help people jump to the conclusion that you're a friendly presence. Then, you can retreat back into a less performative posture, secure in the knowledge that people will stick to that assessment.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:08 PM on October 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: How is this "100% a RBF problem" when your worried department head took you aside to make absolutely sure you weren't quitting?
Ask for a raise and treat your genius, go-getter of a visage to a facial.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:11 PM on October 6, 2022 [5 favorites]

I was just this weekend sharing a story with a friend about an old boss who said to me, "wow, you look like shit," one morning.

It is absolutely ok to respond to comments like that with some version of, "I'm perfectly fine thanks, this is just my face."
posted by phunniemee at 1:13 PM on October 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

For me, this is all about eyebrows. I have gotten this note from directors in shows in addition to real-life stuff.

If you're open to reducing the visual impact of your eyebrows (thinner, lighter), that may help.

I am trying to retrain my brain to go "eyebrows up" for thinking instead of eyebrows down. It's utter performative bullshit, but it helps.
posted by DebetEsse at 1:36 PM on October 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I hesitate even mentioning this because I think it stinks and is unfair that you have to worry about how your natural facial expression impacts your work--but a friend of mine with notoriously severe facial expressions started getting some strategically applied Botox injections a few years ago and the difference was remarkable.
posted by mjcon at 1:41 PM on October 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

so people don't think I'm a miserable human being who hates work and life and the universe?

since it's been cleared up with your superiors already, what is the potential bad consequence of non-superiors thinking this that you are worried about? like why do people not in a position to promote or demote you need to think you're personally happy? asking as a miserable human being who hates work and life and the universe.

as a woman who always is tired and ill-tempered, I admit that I am peculiarly ill-suited to read insult into anybody noticing it, because when they notice it in me they are invariably correct. not that I don't read insult in anyway, because of my perpetual ill temper. but while I can understand and support taking offense at overly personal remarks, I can't see that there is a career threat there. a lot of the things people say women "have to" worry about that men do not are their own special wastes of time. it's true people may imagine all kinds of things about a woman who isn't always smiling at work, but it's not true that this has to be important to you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:36 PM on October 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

That is fucked up. What a kind of gendered awful nonsense. I am angry for you.

You do nothing. And only act confused that someone above you would comment on your face and make inferences on your emotional state. Any men called in to discuss their fucking faces?

Brush it off. Respect. I have an off putting face sometimes too. Not sorry.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:19 PM on October 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

okay so I JUST did this spiral, after *I think* (no one else thinks) I ruined all my sister's wedding photos with my RBF.

The internet tells me, and I believe it, that RBF is actually bad facial posture. When I start thinking about this, it seems true. (makes sense: I also have terrible everything-else-posture.) I tend to hang my bottom jaw loosely which then has to engage the muscles around my mouth to keep my lips closed, so I end up with lips sort of pursed disapprovingly. Then I slightly engage the muscles around my eyebrows for some reason, so I'm also furrowing my brow!? No wonder I always look upset.

Proper facial posture (off the top of my head, this is kinda new to me) is to engage your bottom jaw and close it so your teeth touch. Relax the muscles around your mouth. (look up a facial muscle map, it helps for some reason) Press your tongue lightly into your palette. slightly engage your cheeks. Relax your furrowed brow. Relax your scalp. Open your eyes slightly and extend your neck slightly.

I do this in the mirror and I look.. pleasant.

So I'm just practicing making it my default facial posture, and if not that, I'm trying to have it on my face when people are looking at it or taking pictures of me.
posted by euphoria066 at 7:08 PM on October 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

I didn't mean to imply that you should change your face in any way and I agree that it's awful when people comment on facial expressions.

I operated from my own feelings on my own RBF - it's not a thing I feel is part of me, and I don't particularly like that I do it. I think it gives a really different impression than my intention. So when I learned it could be facial posture that causes it, it felt the same as when I realized that the slouchy way I sit in my chair is what causes my upper back pain, or when I was told I am not using my arms properly when I run so I could correct it and run faster.

But I read the rest of the comments and now I feel like I came off a bit stepford wife! If you feel less dispassionate about this than me, I really apologize and support you continuing to rest your face in the most comfortable position and ignoring comments!
posted by euphoria066 at 8:09 PM on October 6, 2022

Best answer: That is fucked up. What a kind of gendered awful nonsense.

Eh, that certainly may be in your case (I'm not there) but doesn't have to be. Of the two of my people I've had to discuss that with, both have been male. I had to say something and try to help them brainstorm a way for that not to be the perception, without judging the person. In their cases, they were supervisors and it was affecting their employees to think the supervisor was always mad at them and too grumpy to ask a question.

When I do speak, I do so in a friendly way, even if I'm delivering bad or tough news. I laugh at jokes, and even if I'm on mute you can see I'm smiling or laughing. I have great rapport with my colleagues one on one.

Same, and that was the solution. Not fake-smiling, just talking more. Interjecting more when it wasn't strictly necessary, "me too"-ing sometimes in online meetings, having some unnecessary small talk. Especially up front, let that set the tone for the meeting or interaction. Because their verbal interactions had the "reminder, no I'm not mad" effect on people, they could safely not worry about RBF for a while.
posted by ctmf at 11:10 PM on October 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have VERY Bitchy Resting Face and when I'm thinking, I look like I want to murder someone. I have handled this by just telling people right off in meetings, "don't freak out if I look pissed, this is just my thinking face." It pretty much works. (I also get Botox and love it but just for my wrinkles. I still look bitchy, just more like the bitchy me of ten years ago.)
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:17 PM on October 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have found it helps to switch out of "thinking" mode into "interacting" mode - I've noticed if I tab away from or stop looking at the videos it's fairly obvious on my face that I'm in the Computer Thinking Zone (if you know what that looks like, anyway). If I'm looking at (coworker I like) when she's talking, though, I'll naturally nod along, smile when she says something a little funny or refers to my project, etc.
posted by Lady Li at 11:33 PM on October 6, 2022

In a "real world" meeting around a table, no one would be looking at you so often - whoever's talking is usually the focus of attention. And I imagine that if someone addresses you in a meeting, or you talk, then you "turn on" and don't have so much RBF.

But in Zoom meetings you can't tell when someone is looking at you, as opposed to someone else. People are, or could be, looking at you more frequently in your standard RBF mode, more than they would in a real meeting. You're "off" but they're expecting "on".

Consequently I try and look "on" a bit more in (my thankfully very rare) Zoom meetings. I imagine that I'm always the one being spoken to. It could just be consciously turning the corners of my mouth up slightly, but something other than my default.
posted by fabius at 5:28 AM on October 7, 2022

Eh, that certainly may be in your case (I'm not there) but doesn't have to be.

True, of course. Also more likely to be gendered nonsense.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:12 AM on October 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If it even needs to be said, while the folks pointing out that this is essentially unfair bullshit are 100% correct and you are 100% justified if you opt to call that out and push back against it, it is also fair if, based on your own feelings/comfort level, you'd rather sidestep/diffuse that than challenge it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:41 AM on October 7, 2022

OH, I just remembered another thing I've done, and it's partially out of how much I hate the particular Zoom aesthetic in which someone is staring down into a laptop camera that appears to be...I don't even know, on the floor? They look like they're in an undisclosed location and are only allowed to show their ceilings. They look like the view up from a dog's water bowl. It's not a flattering look to anybody jowly, and tends to shadow the eyes so they look kinda sinister.

Anyway, I eventually got an aftermarket camera and it either goes on top of my big monitor or on a selfie stick tripod thingy at a good angle so that I'm looking up just a bit at it or just towards it but not making eye contact with it.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:26 AM on October 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Almost every time the "resting bitch face" concept is raised, I come away with the distinct impression that it is a subtle form of sex-based discrimination. Of course, it's possible that your boss was actually concerned and just wanted to make sure you were okay, but when I had a similar interaction with a (former, thankfully) supervisor it was definitely some weird sexist bullshit.

I don't know how exactly the scenario you described went down, but I think it's worth considering that if you were male, the topic might have been broached differently.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:24 PM on October 7, 2022

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