A nod is as good as a wink to a blind man
November 27, 2007 8:32 AM   Subscribe

My face often betrays my thoughts, what to do?

Without resorting to botox, what can I do to get a poker face?

I just had another stellar annual evaluation, but my boss let slip an interesting tidbit, that he could often tell when I found a decision irksome just by looking at my face. I had already noticed it myself, and reading Atlas Shrugged only heightened my awareness of this tick, but this is the first time I've had someone confirm it. I'm involved in too many decisions to always be wearing my opinion on my face!
posted by furtive to Human Relations (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This may sound obvious, but try playing poker. You get a lot of practice being in tense situations during which you need to stay stone-faced.

Other than that, try looking in the mirror while you're reacting to something. In general you have to first figure out how you're reacting, and then try to stop doing it.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:38 AM on November 27, 2007

I'm as easy to read as a book, too. I've often wondered if improv acting classes would make a difference, if one can draw analogies between improv and RL.
posted by not_on_display at 8:41 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Take an acting class and learn what you face is doing and how to make it do something different.
posted by gomichild at 8:42 AM on November 27, 2007

Start noticing other people's tells too. You won't feel so different and you'll get better at reading people.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:54 AM on November 27, 2007

Also, try turning this around a bit. This is not so much a tick as a way to be honest without having to use words or be explicit. Most people can't do that even with an entire repertoire of tools. It also shows you who's paying attention. The people who notice this "tick" are the ones who are sensitive and perceptive to others. Use what you have to your advantage. Hone it.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:58 AM on November 27, 2007

Maybe be willing ot be more open in your dealings?

So, the boss mentions in your review that he sees you sometimes read MF at work. Your face cramps up and he can see you are pissed off. You say "that irks me, because I get everything done promptly, and it doesn't feel fair that [blah blah blah]"

Straight up honesty is an uncommon trait, and I think it can be an effective fresh approach.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:59 AM on November 27, 2007

You could just decide to view it as a positive. I prefer interacting with people who aren't deceptive to interacting with people who conceal their reactions, even if they're negative or antithetical to whatever I'm advocating. It might be possible to view this as a benefit to forming longer-term working relationships and a reasonable sacrifice to make.

Or possibly not, if you're constantly involved in adversarial negotiations where information-hiding is key to maximizing your gain (ie, poker)... it's going to kill you.

To answer your question more directly though, you would approach it the same way you approach any body language issue, constant awareness and forcible correction. Next time you're giving directions, pay attention to what signals you're sending, next time you're in a bar, pay attention, etc.

Or you can allow continue communicating exactly what you feel, confident that in a non-adversarial relationship, your partners will be able to deal directly with your concerns because they actually know them.
posted by minedev at 9:00 AM on November 27, 2007

Relish the fact that there's some vestige of basic, unprompted human emotional expressiveness which hasn't been totally browbeaten out of you by the employment world?

Then celebrate another "stellar annual evaluation," wearing your pride on your face the whole time?

If anything, I'd say you should learn to take honesty beyond facial ticks. Since this apparently hasn't caused you trouble, you seem to be lucky enough to work in a place where you don't have to fall in lockstep with everyone. The irritating thing may be not that you have opinions but that you don't express them, which could be interpreted as bitterness.

Instead of practicing repression, practice tactful, friendly and flexible honesty. Unless your work environment is really unhealthy, my guess is you'll find people often get respect just on the basis of courage to be who they actually are. Assuming that who they are isn't Attilla the Hun.
posted by poweredbybeard at 9:02 AM on November 27, 2007 [6 favorites]

Best answer: In playing poker - I personally try (and often fail!) to act exactly the same way when I get great cards as when I get awful ones.

Hopefully no poker buddies of mine are reading this, but here is my 'Poker Cards Reaction Move' that you could apply (obviously not exactly) to these situations at work:
Look at cards for 3 seconds.
Count the 3 seconds out in your head.
Place cards back onto table with both hands.
Place hands together in a prayer mode with elbows on the table.
Thumbs touching your lips.
Stare down the other players.

Before this I would be trying to ellict the opposite reaction of what I was thinking..... that didn't work too well as people picked up on that within about 3 or 4 hands.

I suggest trying to have a 'reaction routine' when talking to your boss or anyone else. See how it goes trying the same face/posture/body language each time regardless of what you're being told.

If it doesn't work - I can think of worse afflictions in the work place. At least your job hasn't completely broken your spirit and your overly emotional face.

posted by redskythinking at 9:04 AM on November 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm the same way, and have been told before that everything I'm feeling shows immediately on my face. Regarding the poker suggestion above, I think that's a good way to practice pulling yourself together. Playing against others in person is probably a better approach, but I play online and make myself stay even-keeled, even though my opponents can't see me. I've asked my husband to, on occasion, watch me play for a few minutes and give me feedback on my poker face. I don't think I'll be playing poker with other people in person anytime soon -- I ask him to give me feedback because my main goal is to have more of a poker face in real life. I don't mind people seeing what I'm feeling, usually, but there are certainly times when you need to keep a straight face.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 9:05 AM on November 27, 2007

I too am a "broadcaster." When I'm happy and excited, everyone knows it -- and when I'm crabby and cranky, uh yeah, that too.

And while honesty and candor are wonderful virtues, I too sometimes wish I could turn down the volume.

Particularly when (as sometimes happens with irksome decision) I'm just having a negative initial response (what a friend calls a "blowfish moment"). With a few moments to consider, my response frequently softens.

What I do is to focus on noticing my response. I breathe, and consciously hold my face in a neutral expression, and focus on thinking "oh, I'm annoyed," or "wow, I'm feeling sad."

This helps me separate myself from that immediate emotional response and keep from spraying it around.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:13 AM on November 27, 2007

I have the exact same problem, and have even been in your shoes and had a boss call me out on it years ago. I truly feel your pain!

My suggestion would be to work with a friend on it, rather than work alone using a mirror. Often when our face contorts, it's a reaction to something unexpected, so it's better to have someone else giving you something to react to so you can learn how to control your response.

If you feel comfortable enough, let a few of your good friends know about it. Have a discussion over where to go for dinner, and try working on a poker face when they suggest... I don't know, McDonald's or something.

Over time, you'll hopefully start to catch yourself before your face reacts. Good luck -- I know how hard it can be to try and stop these tics. (And sometimes, when I'm tired or stressed, I still do them, sigh.)
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 9:22 AM on November 27, 2007

Learn to lie by practicing lying and committing to the lies. Make something completely outlandish up in your head and see how far you can take it. Not showing emotion or consciously expressing neutrality is pretty much lying, and lying is just another skill you can be good or bad at, one that gets better with practice. As has been mentioned, playing poker and acting/improv will help you hone the skill.

More advice: Actively train yourself to not react. Instead, observe and take action on your own terms. Practice your new skills to get good at them. Don't forget how to be honest and sincere.
posted by knowles at 9:38 AM on November 27, 2007

I'm like you -- and I'm a lawyer! I've learned to dampen down the appearance of some of my emotions, but I'll never be a "poker face." On the plus side, my deaf clients love me -- they always comment on my expressive face.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:46 AM on November 27, 2007

Don't worry about this for one second. I would more worry about whether or not you are making snap judgements. The expression you should go for is "I'm thinking this through" -- not because you're faking it, because you are! If your face then settles into "and I find it irksome" fine, then. If your boss values your opinion, and he sounds like he does, then he'll ask you to elaborate.
posted by Eringatang at 10:23 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm like this. My face is like a billboard / neon sign. I don't think there's anything you can do about it, except maybe work on maintaining equanimity in the thought department. Sort of like what ottereroticist had to say.
posted by pammo at 10:23 AM on November 27, 2007

Nthing the idea of actually being calmer/equanimious (word? sp?), rather than pretending to be calmer. That's what has worked for me.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:37 AM on November 27, 2007

If you are walking into something where it's important for you to not broadcast your opinion, thing about something negative first to keep an irked expression on your face. You can periodically revisit thoughts of things you are unhappy with in the world to keep this expression up during the meeting.

This is a terrible way to go through life, and I hope you don't have call to do this often.
posted by yohko at 11:26 AM on November 27, 2007

Why do you assume that a poker face is the logical way to go? You could just as easily try to hide your reactions in a flood of meaningless noise.

It's a bit of a half-baked principle that I think I at least half adhere to: that is, if your normal state of being is seen by others to be somewhat quirky & erratic, then they're less likely to notice when you're being generally erratic, for whatever reason.

Applying that to your meeting situation, that would mean doing the opposite of trying to look impassive. Throw a bunch of random expressions about. Nothing too extreme, but at times you might be staring into a corner of the room, as if concentrating on some point or other, at others you could look relaxed, slightly intense at others, looking your boss in the eye at others, etc etc. Transitioning from one expression to another can be a way to hide these tics. Feel a tic? How about a quirky, quizzical expression? A randomly raised eyebrow? A scratch behind the ear?

Of course, you run the risk of coming across as a complete psycho, but if people get used to you being weird while you're putting in a "stellar performance", day to day, they'll get used to it over time, and they'll start worrying if anything's wrong if you *do* put on a poker face: "hm, s/he seems distant & withdrawn..."
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:09 PM on November 27, 2007

Practice scrunching up your face and relaxing it. Then throughout your day, see if you can emulate the relaxed face feel. Set a goal of 10 times or whatever. Try it in the mirror so you don't look slack-jawed. Hopefully, the next time an emotion hits, you will have a "face" to put on.
posted by b33j at 12:11 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: That is an interesting problem. I think when I was younger I had issues with being too easy to read, and I since learned how to control my facial muscles.

I think like anything else, you can learn to control this if you feel the need. I happen to like the fact that people can't tell if I'm happy, sad, bored, etc, because my face doesn't move unless I want it to.

This comes in very handy if you need to give a bad review, receive bad news, have something exciting you don't want people to know about, etc.

I'm trying to think of how you can practice. I think the idea partially stems from the meditation idea where you slowly relax (and identify) each muscle in your body. Sit still, and feel that your face is not moving at all. Concentrate on that feeling. Then think of something happy / funny / sad, and keep concentrating on your facial muscles. If you smile, you should be able to feel your muscles tensing, and stop them from moving.

With enough practice, it becomes very natural. Any time I'm at work, it is very natural for me to not change my facial expression for anything negative. I do my best to still smile, laugh, etc for fun things, but negative/stressful events I have found work best if I don't outwardly react.

On a side note, I still can't control my tears in any way. I can be sitting perfectly calm without any facial expression, but my damn eyes start tearing up if I'm upset/mad/etc. It is terribly embarrassing, but nothing I can do about it. Heck, if I think I might tear up I usually do. Since my face is still relaxed, I usually can get away with cleaning my glasses, or rubbing my eyes as if tired, but it is certainly annoying :)
posted by ceberon at 12:45 PM on November 27, 2007

Inferring a bit from your description of what happened, it sounds like your boss is well aware that you don't always agree with his and others decisions, and does not see this as a major problem, or as you getting unreasonably pissed off or something. So I'm assuming he's a reasonable guy, and open to constructive criticism. So I would agree that instead of just holding in your concerns, and having them manifest as a telling expression, just share them. If you're concerned that some decision doesn't take into account x and y, just say so (constructively). It can also be helpful to add on, "so what will we do to make sure a,b, and c do/don't happen?" If you feel like you get the brush off, you can bring it up again later in a private discussion with your boss (or if you already were in private, you might let it go for now, and the next time you see him, bring it up again).
posted by gauchodaspampas at 12:52 PM on November 27, 2007

I do this a lot too. A few years ago, I had a boss who often jumped on it: if she announced something and my face scrunched up in confusion or frustration, she'd say something to the effect of, "You don't agree, Metroid Baby?"

It sounds like a bitchy move, I know, and I hated it at the time, but not only did it make me aware of my facial reactions, it got me to own up to them. I ended up vocalizing a lot of concerns that I would have kept bottled up otherwise.

Though it's probably not workable to ask your boss to call you out on your takes, maybe you could do something similar internally. When you feel yourself pulling a face, immediately try to verbalize your reaction, either mentally or out loud, whichever's more appropriate.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:03 PM on November 27, 2007

I'd recommend reading The Definitive Book of Body Language.

Ever since I've read that, I've controlled much more of my expressions to gain the effect I want at work. I've also been much more aware of just how poorly my co-workers express themselves in front of superiors, and now I'm no longer surprised when they get feedback that says they're aloof, disagreeable, elitist, and condescending.

From my experience, understanding body language and learning to control yours doesn't make you a cog in the machine. At work, if you want to get your ideas implemented, sitting there looking frustrated is a passive-aggressive way of doing so. Biting you lip and waiting for the right opportunities to speak, when people are receptive, is much smarter.

As for poker faces, a couple things I've kept in mind:
- If you're a man, don't cross your legs like a girl. That makes you seem closed-off. If you're standing, don't cross your legs either.
- Don't cross your arms, or put them behind your back, or clasp your hands together. These are also off-putting gestures. Fiddling with items on the desk is a sign of anxiety or impatience.
- Generally don't touch your face. Touching your mouth, ears, or eyes is a sign that you either don't like what is being said, heard, or seen (either by you or others), and as such is a common sign that you're lying or that you disagree with something.
- Scratching the back of your neck or head is a sign that someone or something is a pain in the neck.

These and more I've read from that book.
posted by philosophistry at 6:23 AM on November 28, 2007

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