A surprisingly common problem people have is when their neutral or resting facial expression sends the wrong message about how they're feeling. They may be told they often look:
- Angry / grouchy
- Sad / upset
- Worried / stunned
- Snobby / bitchy / quietly judging everyone
- Hostile / looking for a fight
- About to snap and hurt someone at any second / like they're about to kill someone
- Preoccupied / zoned out / spacey / lost in their head
- Expressionless / blank / impossible to read
Whatever the misleading facial expression is, it can cause a few problems: It can give people the wrong idea about you, and perhaps cause them to avoid you. It can lead a lot of annoying, intrusive comments, especially for women, such as, "Smile! It's not so bad!" or "What's wrong? You look so unhappy." On occasion it can even lead to conflicts, e.g., a man at a bar may unwittingly give out a vibe that he's looking for a fight. If someone is constantly being told about the false message their face gives off they may also become quite self-conscious about it.
The cause of misleading facial expressionsA few factors can cause someone's face portray a mood that's not in line with their actual mental state:
Natural facial features
- Slanting eyebrows, a heavy brow, a creased forehead, deep set or squinting eyes, or a naturally intense gaze can all make someone look angrier than they are.
- Large eyes can make people look more worried and startled.
- Naturally downturned lips can cause a person look like they're frowning.
StereotypesSomeone may be quicker to conclude a person is showing a certain emotion if it matches up with a stereotype they fit.
- A large, muscular guy may be more likely to be seen as angry and aggressive.
- A younger person who dresses in a Goth or Emo style may be assumed to be sad and brooding.
- People with a classically geeky or awkward look may be seen as nervous and uncomfortable in their own skin.
- People are quicker to believe an attractive, well put-together woman is bitchy and unfriendly.
- Middle-Eastern men are often painted as humorless conservatives.
- One stereotype of East Asians is that they're repressed and unemotional.
- People from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia are sometimes seen as dour, stoic, or overly reserved.
Cultural valuesIn North America the ideal is that people should always look friendly, smiley, and approachable. In many other parts of the world the appropriate default face is a more neutral expression (smiling too much may even be seen as odd or suspicious). North Americans mistakenly read people like that as unhappy, gloomy, and unsociable. People who immigrate to countries with a 'you should look friendly all the time' attitude are sometimes misunderstood.
A self-protective habitSome people adopt an angry or intimidating demeanor to protect themselves, but then can't break the habit when it's no longer useful. A woman with social anxiety may try to look unfriendly and unapproachable so she can ward off uncomfortable interactions. A guy with a history of being picked on may want to look tough or unhinged at all times so no one tries to mess with him.
Someone actually is feeling a negative emotion, and it's showing on their faceI covered a bunch of ways someone may look angry or sad or whatnot even when they're feeling fine. However, sometimes people think they feel okay, but if you were to really examine their thoughts and mood, you'd find that's not entirely accurate. There are a few ways this can play out:
- Depending on the person's face, their expression tends to look angry/sad/anxious etc., when they're generally feeling tense, preoccupied, and not perfectly happy. For example, someone who feels nervous and awkward at a party may outwardly come across as grouchy. A guy who often gets lost in his head and mentally berates himself for being so shy and awkward may end up looking depressed when he's thinking that way.
- Their facial expression may match the emotion they're feeling, but their actual mood isn't as intense as their face indicates. For example, someone at work may be told they look angry. At most they're slightly bored and irritated because they'd rather be at home. Or someone may be told they look sad while they're out at a club. They're not about to cry or anything, but they've had enough for the night, they're drained, and they want to go home, but they can't because their ride doesn't want to leave yet.
- Their expression and the emotion it signals actually match up, but they're not completely in touch with how they're feeling. To use anger as an example again, some people do spend a lot of their time feeling grumpy, stewing about all the ways they've been wronged, and angrily anticipating how others are going to screw them over in the future. But these thought patterns are so frequent and automatic they don't realize when they're having them. Similarly, someone may have so much background sad, anxious, or insecure noise in the their brains that it becomes the new normal and they don't think of themselves being as always feeling that way.
How to change your resting facial expression if it's sending the wrong signals
Possibly don't worry about it for nowIf you feel like you've mostly got things together socially, but your misleading neutral expression is one issue that's getting in the way, then by all means start working on it. However, if you've got a bunch of other social problems and anxieties, there may be more important things to address first. On top of everything else, you don't need to also be feeling self-conscious about how your face comes across.
It may be better to accept it for now. So your occasionally unrepresentative expression means you're not socially perfect? No one is. If you've got enough other good things going for you it shouldn't have a huge effect on your life. This is also an area where it's easy to get caught in a Catch-22: If you're self-conscious about your expression and think you must control it at all costs, you're going to feel worked up and agitated, and ironically more prone to showing the negative emotions you're trying to suppress. On the other hand, If you make peace with the fact that you may occasionally give the wrong impression of yourself, you'll be calmer, and your face will be more likely to look relaxed.
Work through any issues that may be contributing to your resting facial expressionIf you frequently feel nervous, insecure, angry, or sad, then your facial expression may come around on its own once your mood starts to improve. The site's section on dealing with negative thoughts and emotions has a lot of articles on those topics.
Make some tweaks to your appearanceIf your overall look is playing into your misleading expression, making some small adjustments may help. For example, a guy who naturally looks angry, but who also shaves his head and dresses like a wannabe UFC fighter, may want to switch to a less intimidating style. That advice could also apply to someone who's often mistaken for being cold and stuck up, and who also dresses in a very prim and proper way. If someone has naturally angry looking eyebrows a bit of plucking or reshaping might lessen their impact.
Practice wearing a new expressionIt is possible to consciously monitor and alter your facial expressions, but it's difficult and requires discipline. Often when people try to force changes to their body language they can keep it up for a few days, when their motivation is high, but before long they start thinking about other things and slip back into their old ways.
First, you need to get into a routine of frequently checking in on what expression your face is showing. You can do this by stealing glances at reflective surfaces while you're out and about, and by learning how your face feels when it's signalling a certain emotion (e.g., when you look angry your forehead and jaw is tensed). You'll need to do these checks during day to day life, but also during more stressful social situations.
Next, you'll need to develop a new resting expression you'd like to use. Don't try to make yourself look like a grinning salesman. Aim to look calm, content, and friendly in a more subtle way. Try to just loosen and relax your facial muscles. Maybe have a slight smile. If you've never been very expressive, or come from a background where it wasn't as necessary, you may need to practice certain expressions until you get the hang of them. Some people will say that even smiling can feel very strange and forced at first if you're not used to it.
After that you just need to practice wearing the more positive neutral expression, and quickly switching to it if you notice you've reverted to making your usual angry/nervous/sad face. Again, if just reading this section makes you feel stressed out, you probably want to go with the earlier suggestion of not worrying about how you look for now. You don't need to add one more item to the massive pile of things you already worry about in social situations.
Make changes to the rest of your body languageMost of the ideas under the previous heading apply to this one. Other aspects of your body language may be feeding into the impression your face creates, and it could help to change that as well. For example, someone who walks with an aggressive stride will look angrier. Someone with mopey body language will look sadder. Someone with cold, closed-off body language will look more snobby.
Handling inappropriate commentsRightly so, people are often annoyed when strangers come up to them and say things like, "You forgot to put your smile on today!" It's bad enough that the lines are usually corny and unoriginal, but they're also intrusive and presumptuous. Who's a stranger to tell someone else how they should look or feel? What if someone isn't smiling because they have a good reason for it? People often fantasize about having a clever comeback they can use to put the commenter in their place. Here are my thoughts on how to handle these remarks when they happen:
The main thing to do is to just accept the comments aren't going to stop any time soon. That's just the way some people are. They blurt out dumb statements without thinking. Also, realize that even though they are being insensitive and invasive, they often don't mean anything by it. They're actually concerned, or they may want to brighten your day by making a quick joke.
Don't get flustered and feel you have to explain or justify yourself. Don't think you did something wrong, and then feel embarrassed that you're being called out for your horrible breach of decorum. So your face gives off a certain impression. So what? People are allowed to feel and give off the signals of negative emotions.
You don't necessarily have to say anything. If you're walking down the street and a stranger comments that you don't look perky enough, you can ignore them and keep moving. Or just give them a little smile in acknowledgement and then continue on. If you do need to give a response, like if someone at a party asks you if you're feeling okay, be comfortable with yourself and just casually say something like, "Ha ha, yeah I'm fine. I get that all the time. It's just the way my face is." Leave it at that. If someone really seems to take your facial expression personally, that's their issue to deal with, not yours.