Body Language

Convert ‘Resting Bitch Face’ to ‘Neutral Alert’

By | Aug.10.15 | Communicating, Daily Dispatch, Professional Development

The New York Times brought the pop culture term and Internet meme “resting bitch face” (RBF) to the mainstream media with “I’m Not Mad. That’s Just My RBF.” Lots of discussion has ensued about the label, especially since it employs the word “bitch” and is directed at women.

Controversy and gender focus aside, it is a given that facial expressions are a critical part of your demeanor. The article points out that “as science has long proved, humans make judgments based on facial cues. Studies have found that people are less likely to find friendly looking faces guilty of crimes; people who look ‛happy’ are generally deemed more trustworthy, too.”

While it is entertaining to explore the links that come up when you Google “RBF” (here’s one of my favorites), there is a serious lesson in this for lawyers. What messages are your furrowed brow or pursed lips sending to your clients, judges or juries? And what can you do to ensure your face — male or female — stays in “neutral alert” rather than RBF? People focus on your face as they listen, and you must be aware of your demeanor as you speak.

Your Mouth

Consider your mouth and lips. It is common for people under pressure to reveal their anxiety by tensing their lips. Some people press the lips tightly together. Others tuck one lip inside and gently chew on it. This tension looks peculiar. Instead, your face should look at ease and comfortable with no visible tension, a look best described as “neutral alert.” In neutral alert you appear attentive without revealing obvious emotion; you are neither smiling nor frowning. To achieve neutral alert, part your lips slightly — no more than a quarter of an inch—and breathe through both your mouth and nose. When your lips are slightly parted, they cannot tense, scowl or tuck.

Your Furrowed Brow

Another area of potential tension is the forehead and brow. When people concentrate, they often tense muscles in the upper part of the face above and between the eyebrows, drawing the eyebrows together. This furrowed brow of concentration can make you seem angry and annoyed. To fix the problem, gently move the muscles in your forehead in opposite directions. When you lift your eyebrows slightly, the tension disappears. Lift your brows whenever you sense that your forehead and brows are tense. Look in a mirror to see this subtle effect. By moving your mouth and your forehead slightly, your face looks alert yet neutral — neither scowling nor artificially happy.

Your Listeners

Turn the tables and think about your listeners’ faces, and RBF offers a different (and somewhat contradictory) lesson: You can’t judge listeners by their expressions.

The stoic facial expressions of listeners in legal proceedings can be off-putting to say the least. In conversation, you get regular, subtle feedback from people. They nod, raise their eyebrows, smile, frown, and make those reassuring noises that indicate they are listening. We expect and need some type of physical or verbal indication we are being listened to. Yet when you are speaking to a judge, jury or arbitrator, almost all of that feedback vanishes. Stone-faced jurors offer few clues about what they are thinking. You may find these stoic expressions intimidating and distracting, yet they are natural for jurors listening to you. They may look unfriendly, even hostile. Don’t let this throw you. Your job is to soldier on and even make eye contact with these listeners, no matter how difficult it sometimes may be.

Watch this video for some tips on focusing your eyes to focus your brain.

Whether you find humor in the “resting bitch face” meme or not, think about your own facial demeanor and how to respond to others with RBF in the courtroom.

Marsha Hunter is a principal in Johnson & Hunter, Inc. She teaches attorneys how to speak persuasively and spontaneously. Co-author of “The Articulate Advocate” and “The Articulate Attorney,” her specialty is human factors — the science of human performance in high-stakes environments. Marsha teaches communication skills for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, the Department of Justice and upper-echelon law firms. Follow her on LinkedIn and on Twitter @bjohnsonmhunter.

Image © nickpo / istockphoto

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2 Responses to “Convert ‘Resting Bitch Face’ to ‘Neutral Alert’”

  1. Sheila
    29 August 2015 at 8:48 pm #

    At the start of your article, you address your audience as “male or female,” but if you article has “resting bitch face” in the title it is clearly targeted at women.

    I have never read an article telling men how to adjust their faces or how to make their faces more pleasant. In the past, women have been in secretarial or secondary positions to men, which meant that appearing pleasant was in their job interest. Fortunately, women are now (very slowly) obtaining positions of power.

    Women no longer need to make minute adjustments to their faces to get the job. It’s a shame that you are catering to this patriarchal idea, in the guise of helping build job skills. I wish you had instead challenged the notion altogether.

  2. Marsha Hunter
    31 August 2015 at 11:21 am #

    Sheila, as you point out, “women are now (very slowly) obtaining positions of power.” Unfortunately, “very slowly” is still an issue. I wish that women could ignore all patriarchal ideas, or as with RBF, all spoofs of patriarchal ideas. I am not endorsing the idea that women should put on a happy face to succeed. Far from it—I hope to help people decide for themselves what an appropriate demeanor is for any given situation. You can’t decide if you don’t know what you look like.

    Everyone should examine their own facial expressions as a matter of professional behavior. Women still fall prey to feeling they need to act cheery much more often than men. My opinion about the word “bitch” is that bitch is an attitude you might need occasionally, so keep it in reserve. Best to know what it looks like.