When I lived in Los Angeles it felt like some stranger or another was constantly ordering me to “smile!” I was a criminal defense lawyer with the Los Angeles Public Defender which meant I regularly struggled with seeing people at their worst, seeing tragedy, and incredible ugliness. Not exactly the kind of working world that makes one smile from ear to ear.

At the time, some judges had juries fill out evaluations after trial. The last day I read the jury evaluations was the day that I read one from a juror who wrote “the defense lawyer should smile more.” That “advice” still confuses me. What exactly should I be smiling about? My client being charged with a crime? The prosecutor calling witnesses that have nothing good to say about my client? My client getting convicted? My client getting sentenced to years in prison? But, the New York Times offers a possible answer. I’m betting that what that juror objected to was my “resting bitch face.” Yes, this is a term. Those in the know (which I wasn’t) refer to it as RBF.

According to the New York Times, this is a problem almost exclusively for women. We are, it seems, supposed to always have some happy expression plastered on our faces. Celebrities caught with the dreaded RBF are accused of looking “absolutely miserable” in the midst of events where they are supposed to be smiling and happy. But, it isn’t only celebrities who are told to smile and look happy. The article quoted Rachel Simmons who said:

“When a man looks stern, or serious, or grumpy, it’s simply the default…we don’t inherently judge the moodiness of a male face. But as women, we are almost expected to put on a smile, so if we don’t, it’s deemed ‘bitchy.'”

We all know that non-verbal communication matters and the article points out that looking too serious at the wrong times can be off-putting (which is sometimes a good thing).

But, what the article misses is that this is not universal. One of the many joys of living in Eastern Europe for all the years that I did is the no one said to me “smile.” Not once. Walking around with a vapid smile plastered on one’s face is not a cultural value for women (or men) in many other countries. In my experience, people seem to understand that everyone isn’t happy all the time. There seems to be a greater understanding that sometimes life is boring or serious and that smiles are not always appropriate. There is also a recognition that not smiling doesn’t mean you aren’t happy or content or friendly or helpful. It just means you aren’t smiling.

Unfortunately, back here in the USA, it seems that we women have to focus on not having a RBF, at least not when photographed. And, as much as it isn’t easy for all of us, I do recognize that the RBF probably doesn’t do dispute resolution professionals any favors as it can be off-putting. But, as the article asked, “who has the energy to smile to strangers all day, anyway?” The challenge is figuring out when to put it on and when not. At least for those of us who aren’t blessed with a resting smiley face.

3 thoughts on “Smile!??”

  1. I am listening to Daniel Kahneman’s “thinking fast and slow” this summer. He talks about a pencil experiment in which folks are asked to put a pencil in their mouth horizontally, causing the mouth to smile. Those people tended to show more empathy than those with a pencil in mouth eraser first, lips pursed, causing a frown. There may be something to this. Just sayin…(from Los Angeles).

  2. Smiles and Culture
    Cultural expectations about smiling create a real potential for miscommunication. I remember attending a concert in the United States by a symphony orchestra from Eastern Europe. The performance was stupendous and at the end the audience erupted with enthusiastic appreciation. None of the musicians smiled or showed any sign of pleasure in response; they just bowed seriously. It felt as if our appreciation was not acknowledged or appreciated. I’m sure that was not the case, but a disconnect like this on a personal level could lead to misunderstandings. What must others think of grinning Americans?

  3. Ellen,

    Yes, the smiling or no smiling issue is one I’ve seen all kinds of miscommunication over. Although, I have to say, I never saw a lack of smiles at the end of a ballet or other live performance in Eastern Europe–the audience and performers alike seemed to appreciate each other and were usually very enthusiastic.

    I heard no shortage of Europeans (East and West) complaining about Americans smiling too much and what that means about our relative intelligence, competence, and understanding of the situation (and then I was assured, I was different so it was ok).


    Interesting study. I hadn’t seen it before. It is interesting to think about what smiling may do to how we think and react to things along with thinking about how smiling impacts how people perceive us (the RBF problem).

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