Recently I was asked an odd question in the middle of a conversation: “When you were a prosecutor in trial, and the other attorney was up doing their thing, as you sat at your table … what did you do with your face?”
The answer: nothing … as in I intentionally maintained a neutral face that revealed nothing. My resting face goal was to have the ultimate poker face, revealing no information to the jury as to how I felt things were going except for what I said or did when it was my turn to do so: no faces of reassurance to my witnesses undergoing cross examination, no expressions of satisfaction when a rhetorical point unexpectedly went in my favor, and most definitely no visible frustration when the judge’s ruling didn’t go my way.
Fast forward several years, and move me out of the courtroom and into the boardroom, and what I thought was a neutral, expressionless face was anything but. My “neutral” face formed within the stress and gravity of matters of literal life and death unwittingly carried with it the subtle but unmistakable markers of those very serious pressures. My supposedly blank-slate face was really giving off non-verbal notes of intensity and unpleasantness. As the person who asked me this strange question put it, “as I’m talking, I find myself wondering if you are angry with me, or if you like me, or if I have pissed you off somehow.”
Rarely do people interpret intense uncertainty in a positive light.
There is more to this than me simply being able to say to Kristen Stewart, Kanye West, and Grumpy Cat: “I feel you. I, too, have ‘bitchy resting face.'”
All laughs aside, there is genuine science going on studying this facial phenomenon. According to researchers using a sophisticated face reading software program, the explanation comes down to traces of an emotion just visible enough to be detected by the viewer even if not actually being felt at the moment by the person behind the face. That emotion is contempt.
Both static images and running videos were processed through FaceReader 6.1, one of the most sophisticated tools for automatically measuring facial emotional expression. What emerged rather quickly was that across faces the amount of anger, sadness, and fear displayed were highly variable…but to the surprise of the research team, one emotion continued to rear its ugly head: the dreaded contempt. As shown in Figure 1, contempt measures very low on 10 “normal” faces, only accounting for approximately 3% of the overall emotional expression. On 10 faces displaying RBF, however, the percentage of contempt is significantly higher, almost doubling to 5.76% of the total emotion.
This is a fundamental and key point. FaceReader is not detecting enough contempt to reflect true contempt, because these faces are not actually displaying contempt. It just looks like contempt to the viewer. Thus, it is the perception of that unconscious, subtle contempt expression that defines RBF. Although that face may not be intentional, the viewer’s brain is wired to analyze, and recognize, when a face is displaying even minute traces of contempt. Because contempt is based upon elements of comparison and judgment, viewing this in someone’s face creates a feeling of uneasiness, or uncomfortableness, for the person viewing that face.
The importance for understanding this as Leaders cannot be overstated. Simply put: research shows that people are less likely to trust someone whose face gives off these subtle nonverbal cues of contempt, anger, or disgust. As Harvard social psychologist and TED Talk rock star Amy Cuddy lays out in her new book, Presence, people quickly and subconsciously decide to give you Trust and Respect after making subconscious snap judgments about your “warmth” and “competence” in that order. Says Cuddy:
A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.
To successfully lead anyone anywhere, the people you wish to lead must trust you. In order to give yourself the best chance at getting and keeping that trust, don’t overlook the importance of putting your best face forward. Otherwise, this is what the people around you will tend to think is going on behind your “neutral” face:
[Header image credit: http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1113034941/facial-recognition-gene-oxytocin-receptor-122413/]