my boss keeps telling me I “have a face on”

A reader writes:

My boss frequently tells me I “have a face on” while he is conversing with me about issues that have arisen in meetings. Obviously I’m not doing this on purpose, and I keep my face as neutral as I can. But I’m young, I’m extremely busy/stressed at work, and he is often incredibly unhelpful.

There is also a small part of me that feels like he says it to belittle me. Because I honestly have no idea what my response should be, and I don’t know what it achieves to point out that my face is showing frustration (or whatever it is he’s seeing).

How would you respond? Is there a secret way to keep everything I’m feeling off my face?

I wrote back and asked: “Do you think that your face does look frustrated? Are you feeling frustrated/stressed during these conversations (and is it believable that it might be showing)? Or is it just like your normal face and he’s mis-reading you?” The letter-writer’s response:

I’m often stressed during the meetings, so yes it’s entirely possible I’m pulling a face. But definitely not on purpose.

Okay. So, if in fact your face is showing frustration, your boss is making a reasonable point (although using rather juvenilizing language to do it).

If he’s giving you feedback or delegating work or having any of the other routine conversations that a manager will have with you, it is a problem if you regularly look frustrated. With most professional jobs, you’re expected to manage your emotions so that you’re not injecting negativity into these sorts of interactions. Regularly looking pissed off while talking with your manager isn’t good; you’ve just got to have more of a poker face than that.

Obviously that’s easier said than done, but a lot of it stems from mindset. Ideally in these conversations your mindset would be open/collaborative/problem-solving. You want to come across as if you’re seeking to understand your boss’s point of view more than feeling resistant to it. It’s not that you can’t disagree, but you’re going to get the best results if you listen to him with an open mind, even if after mulling it over later, you decide you totally disagree.

It also might help to simply practice keeping your face in a reasonably neutral position. You don’t need to have a rah-rah expression, but there’s a difference between “I’m calmly taking in what you’re saying” and “I hate what you’re saying.”

There’s more advice on developing a poker face here.

Meanwhile, assuming that you’re not going to master this overnight, if he says something about it again, I’d say something like, “Hmmm, I don’t mean to. I’m focusing on listening to what you’re saying/trying to figure out X/working with you to address Y.” If relevant, you can add, “I’ll admit that I am pretty stressed because of X” or “I’m having trouble understanding Y — can we talk more about that?” or whatever makes sense in the context.

But all that said, it sounds like the bigger issue is: What’s going on that has you so frequently stressed and unhappy in your conversations with your boss? Are the two of you regularly out of sync on how work should be done? Is he just a jerk? Not good at his job? Giving you lots of critical feedback? Giving you an unrealistic workload? Ideally, with whatever’s at the root of it, you’d either discuss it head-on, or decide that he’s not going to change and that you need to decide if you can work there reasonably happily knowing that this is part of the package.

But continuing to work there while looking obviously upset a lot isn’t a good option. That’s going to impact how others perceive you and over time will impact your reputation.

{ 161 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Julia

    Now I’m scared my feelings may actually be a lot more easy to read on my face than I think they are. Do I frown every time my boss says something unreasonable? Argh!

    Reply
    1. Green

      This could be one of the times when “tricking yourself” and sometimes even saying things out loud helps. It can help change your attitude. I actually say things like “How can I help?” when someone asks if I have a minute or “Great! I’m excited to hear their feedback” or “Thanks for the feedback; I’ll see how we can work that in to make the project better.” I feel like it helps my attitude (my natural introvert inclination is to think “Go away and just send me an e-mail!”) and probably helps my face and other people’s perception of my helpfulness/engagement or the interaction.

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      1. WildLandLover

        Hahaha! That’s funny. Just earlier today, I had someone at my desk talking about a work project, my desk phone rang, then my cell rang, then my cell rang again. In frustration, I grabbed the cell and growled (without answering it), “Go away!” All in front of my colleague.

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  2. 42

    Echoing Alison’s mindset comment. Often our faces leak what we’re subconsciously feeling. They’re spontaneous and we can’t control them (microrexpressions). If the OP can try to address and then reset some pervasive feelings about meetings with the boss, it my help the facial expressions. And then work on the bigger picture that Alison speaks of.

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  3. SassyAAE

    A lot of the time a “face” is a furrowed brow and tightened mouth. Try widening your eyes a little, and while keeping your mouth closed, unclench your teeth. Sometimes I put my tongue between my front teeth and bite (lightly). It helps keep you looking neutral.

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    1. Michaela T

      Seconded, consciously keeping my teeth apart (behind closed lips), has helped me stay relaxed in meetings.

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      1. motherofdragons

        That’s what I do. My “I’m concentrating/listening intently” face is frowny, even if I’m not particularly mad. Consciously lifting my eyebrows helps me not look so angry.

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  4. LQ

    I’ve got a very easy to read face but at work I try to make sure that I can pull out the “Huh, that’s interesting I’m thinking about this really seriously face” a lot. It is easiest to do when actually seriously thinking about the subject. Sometimes that thinking isn’t always a positive thing, but it is always thoughtful. And then by the time I’m done listening/thinking I’m ready with a smile and a thank you or I’ll consider it or that’s interesting or it’ll take me x time do to it. Smiling at the end lets me get away with a less neutral face (it isn’t a stressed out or panicked face though it is sort of a relative of that face) while I’m processing.

    (Also I really hope this doesn’t turn into people shouldn’t ever have emotions at work because until we are actually automatons, which is a day I long for, we will have emotions.)

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  5. TootsNYC

    I also think that with some bosses, you might mitigate it by actually voicing the frustration–not the FEELING; the CAUSE:
    “I’m sorry to admit that I’m feeling frustrated by this assignment–I never feel like I know what the parameters for success here are, and though I’m doing what seems obvious, it’s hard to be confident I’m prioritizing correctly.”

    “I have to confess that this frustrates me….
    – I already have a lot on my plate”
    – I don’t feel comfortable subbing for you on this”

    I’m sort of hoping that a boss who’s willing to actually talk about emotions in the office (even if it’s this juvenile way to express it) might be willing to hear YOU talk about emotions–as long as you’re going to the business aspect (what’s the business problems that we can solve, which will then solve the emotions).

    Remember that your frustration, etc., is a symptom. Look at the cause, and see if you can bring that out into the open to get it solved.

    And then, if you truly think it can’t or won’t be solved, you’ll need to work on accepting the things you cannot change.

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    1. Rabbit

      I think your wording is great! Geez how I wish I could say that to my boss (““I never feel like I know what the parameters for success here are, and though I’m doing what seems obvious…””)!

      Unfortunately I worry that a boss that says “you’re pulling a face” is more accusing rather than looking for an answer or solution. I had a boss who would have said, “I’m sensing some frustration or uneasiness here–is everything OK with the timeline I gave you?” BIG difference. The first puts you on the defensiveness (at least for me!) and the second gives you a chance to voice any issue you might see at hand safely.

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    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’d been thinking it might be RBF when I first got the letter, which is why I wrote back and asked for more info. In the OP’s case, it sounds like she’s actually showing frustration on her face, rather than it just being RBF.

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      1. ToxicNudibranch

        If it had been RBF, what would you recommend? I’m really good at not letting my face lapse into its natural grump in meetings or when interacting, but my intently concentrating/working face looks stern and angry, and that’s not really the impression I want to given to people just walking by my desk. I’ve been given advice (and maybe it’s worth mentioning that it was from a very cheery coworker or two early on in my career, and never from a boss) to try holding my face more neutrally, but when I’m concentrating, I’m *concentrating*, and focusing on my face isn’t happening. Is this a thing I should stop worrying about?

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        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If it’s truly just her face, then “ah, no, this is just how my face looks at rest — sorry if I gave you a different impression — I’m listening with an open mind over here!” But for that to be credible, you need to really look like that the rest of the time too (when your face is at rest, that is).

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            1. Doriana Gray

              I too have RBF, but was stunned when I mentioned it to a colleague and she said, “Really? Every time I see you, you’re smiling.” When I thought about our interactions, I realized I wasn’t necessarily smiling to be smiling, but I was laughing on the inside about something. I frequently think about silly things that amuse me (in my line of work, you kind of have to), so apparently that helps to make others think my face is pleasant.

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            1. Koko

              Lindsay Stirling calls it “orchestra face” when she gets the furrowed brow/concentration look while performing with her violin. Back in high school show choir we called it “choreography face.”

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    2. Elizabeth

      Yeah, I was going to mention this, and how it’s related to the “Smile more!” thing that gets said to women. Alison mentioned OP is a woman, which makes me think that even if she is making some sort of face, it’s probably exacerbated by the weird expectations we have for women and what their faces are supposed to look like / do. Ugh, in any case.

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      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Maybe. But I’ve given feedback around this to men as much as to women (possibly more, actually), and I don’t want to encourage the OP to think it’s gendered without grounds for that.

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        1. Katie the Fed

          Yeah, I think the bigger difference is that women are more likely to hear about this as a reflection of their personality when it comes time for performance reviews. This type of conversation seems pretty standard for either gender. And I’d be failing at my job if I didn’t tell someone “your facial expressions are indicating that you’re disengaged or frustrated – what’s going on?”

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        2. Green

          I feel like culture can come into play there. People who are viewed as abrasive because of tone/facial expressions in a collaborative environment (in my experience) have been both men and women. People who were viewed as “overly” antagonistic in a competitive (and inherently antagonistic environment) were usually women.

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        3. Mookie

          Except that the studies disagree with you there. It’s a universal thing, a resting face that looks grumpy, but women are disproportionately punished for having one. Your experiences specifically are interesting, but they’re not supported by the evidence.

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          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            I don’t dispute the studies, but they’re talking about aggregate data. We’re not doing the OP any favors by encouraging her to think that this is gendered feedback when we have no evidence that in her case, it is. To the contrary, she says she does think her emotions are showing on her face in these conversations — she’s not saying that her manager is talking about her resting face.

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            1. Mookie

              Right, got it. No, I agree, that’s probably not the issue here, but your experience doesn’t suggest that the bias isn’t real but rather that men are less socialized to be accommodating and polite, which kind of amounts to the same thing.

              I don’t like the idea of anybody having to wage their own individual war against discrimination (that’s far too big a burden to shoulder alone and you can’t piecemeal to oblivion a culture’s deep-seated bigotry), either, but it’s useful for people who receive less-than-constructive feedback that may contain unconscious biases to recognize the bias and tailor their response accordingly (not by accusing anybody of discrimination or refusing to take on advice, but by recognizing which battles can be won and where one must capitulate).

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              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                I certainly didn’t intend to suggest my experience refutes the data! My point was only that aggregate data isn’t the same thing as individual experiences.

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      2. Rabbit

        I thought that might be the case as well, unfortunately. I have known people who have said I have RBF when I really don’t–I’m just not smiling like a maniac constantly.

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        1. Koko

          Jerry Seinfeld had a funny stand-up bit about a time he was in an elevator and some other folks got on a floor or two after him, and made some remark about how because he was a stand-up comic they expected him to be laughing or smiling. He asked the audience, “How creepy would that be though, if the doors opened and there I am, smiling straight at you?” and pantomimed with his hands doors parting and him having a wide-eyed maniac smile on his face.

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      3. Sophie

        I used to hear this a lot when I worked in a Pub – my go-to comment was always “Well go on then, do something funny! I think a song and dance will get me smiling”

        Soon shut them up, as generally they weren’t willing to do a jig for me – although if they did, I got a laugh at their expense.

        I also used to get the “Cheer up, it might never happen” line – I used to squish my eyes, try and look sad and on the verge of tears and say “It’s already happened, my dog died today” and turn around and do a few fake sobs. After they’d say ‘Oh no, I’m so sorry’ I’d turn around all smily and say ‘It’s okay, I don’t even have a dog, but you’re gonna stop and think the next time you tell someone to cheer up, eh!’

        Thankfully you can get away with this kinda thing working behind a bar!

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    3. Oh, I'll Answer The Phones.

      Yes. I inherited mine from my mom, but she doesn’t know she has it.
      My male cousin, who does not emote publicly at all, once shocked my mom when he got so frustrated he snapped at her, “Why are you making that face at me? It’s like Aunt C__ hates me.”
      She was completely caught off-guard, and a little offended because she genuinely could not understand his reaction. All I was thinking was, “Oh crap, I have to explain RBF to my mom, and tell her she has one.”

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    4. Elizabeth West

      That reminds me of something I read in reference to Ringo Starr (I can’t for the life of me remember where I saw this). Someone asked him why he looked so sad and he replied, “It’s just me face.”

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    5. Amy G. Golly

      I’m a public librarian, so I’m often sitting at a public desk while working. (i.e. staring at a computer screen.) At one job particularly, it was something about the position of one of our reference desks, people liked to comment ALL THE TIME on what my face was doing. If someone caught my eye, or looked like they were coming to talk to me, I would smile, but they’d often just comment in passing on their way past my desk. Usually “you look like you’re really concentrating!” or “you look so serious!” (I don’t know what everyone else looks like when they’re working, but I have to assume it would be pretty creepy if I just sat there grinning at my computer screen.)

      I don’t know how many times the OP’s boss has mentioned the face issue, but she makes it sound like it’s come up more than once. Unless she’s seriously unaware of what her face is doing – rolling her eyes, clenching her jaw, glaring – I have to wonder why he keeps bringing it up now that he knows she doesn’t mean anything by it.

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      1. AnotherAlison

        GRRR. I had a market analyst position for a while, and one particular guy thought it was his job to step into my office and say, “You look so serious,” or remind me to smile.

        What, exactly, is one supposed to look like when you’re reading a new EPA regulation or working on a spreadsheet? As you say, I’d look like an idiot smiling away at my on-screen data.

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  6. KathyGeiss

    I have this problem! I wear my emotions all over my face and have been fighting it my whole career. One thing that helps me is managing my expectations before I head into a meeting. I find its always worse when I’m expecting things to go smoothly and they don’t. So, I give myself a little pep talk around the worst case scenario: “alright. He might hate this. But that’s not the end of the world. Find out why he hates it and focus on how to move forward.” For me, this helps me accomplish what Allison recommends.

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    1. RVA Cat

      This. Also it might help OP if she doesn’t take it personally – “No, Tucker, Hillary doesn’t need to smile more…”

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      1. bridget

        Except that one time she recoiled in abject horror because Jack told her that Mark Wahlberg hates unicorns!

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  7. Jessie

    One of my first bosses ever (when I was right out of college) kept accusing me of looking at her mouth. It made me very uncomfortable and made me feel like I either needed to lock eyes with her the whole time or look at something else. Has anyone else ever been accused of this? Can you even tell if someone’s looking at your mouth vs. looking at your eyes/face in general?

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    1. Megs

      Oof, that’s weird. I have a hard time with eye contact myself, and once read to try looking at the triangle between and around people’s eyes and nose as a good neutral resting place. That works well for me, personally.

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    2. Katie the Fed

      That’s really weird for her to say. Even if you were and she felt absolutely compelled to say something, don’t keep harping on it.

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    3. Stranger than fiction

      Could it be she was insecure about her mouth for some reason? Some people really obsess over imperfections that aren’t even very obvious to other people. And in this Op’s case, I’m also wondering if it’s partially the bosses own insecurities? Like he feels a bit guilty about the workload or something?

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      1. Amy G. Golly

        I wondered this, too. I’m extremely sensitive to other people’s emotions, and I often have to remind myself to respond to what someone’s telling me and not the “vibe” I’m picking up on. They might be frustrated with what I’m asking, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they think I’m being unreasonable.

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    4. LQ

      I haven’t been accused of it but I’ve done it. I apparently do a bit of lip reading to help me understand people because when someone’s mouth was covered because of where they stood I said I couldn’t hear them when I couldn’t see their mouth. I don’t stare at people’s lips, but I know that I’m absolutely taking that information in, because when I don’t have it I don’t understand as well. So I don’t think it’s that weird to do.

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      1. Lily in NYC

        Same here! I don’t think I have hearing loss but it’s amazing how I don’t understand some people if I can’t see their mouth when they speak. .

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        1. the gold digger

          I speak Spanish, but I have a very hard time understanding someone in Spanish over the phone, ie, when I cannot see her mouth. I never realized what a huge part of communication seeing someone is.

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        2. Rana

          Yeah, I find it hard to understand people when I’m not wearing my glasses (I’m very nearsighted). I’ve even caught myself saying, “Wait, I can’t hear you; let me put my glasses on first.”

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      2. Sigrid

        Same here! I know that people can usually tell when someone is staring at their mouth vs. their eyes, so I’ve been trying to consciously look at people’s eyes instead of their mouth (my norm), but I find I understand people a lot less well when I’m not looking at their mouth. Apparently I’ve been supplementing hearing with lip reading for most of my life!

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    5. Dangerfield

      I don’t always hear very well in a loud or busy room, so I quite often look at people’s mouths for extra clues about what they’re saying. I’ve never had anyone complain!

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    6. Sadsack

      Ha, that’s kind of funny. I mean, I suppose I might glance at a person’s mouth as she is speaking. I think that is a natural tendency, at least for me. I assume everyone does it, but maybe not? I have to admit that I haven’t thought much on this, but this thread has potential to cause a lot of us to start overanalyzing ourselves.

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    7. The Other Dawn

      I can definitely tell. A woman in my office does that. My mother-in-law does it also, although she tends to look at my neck or chest. I used to think it was really weird, but then I read AAM and realized that some people have an issue with eye contact. I still find it a little distracting, but I don’t take any offense to it or say anything about it.

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      1. Dr. Johnny Fever

        I had a beloved PM who made eye contact with me, but would often look at a small mole on my shoulder. It’s in a spot where the collar shifts and it stays visible. It’s really not a thing. But when we would chat, she would wind up staring at it and making me self-conscious. I’m certain she meant nothing by it, but it was disconcerting.

        Oddly enough, she had RBF and it took me a while to warm up to her because I often thought she didn’t trust me. After our first delivery the dynamic completely changed. I worked with her 4 years – wonderful woman who taught me volumes without even trying.

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    8. Lynne

      Look between their eyes. From their perspective, it looks like you’re looking them in the eye, but I find it helps so much with staying face-neutral (especially in difficult or stressful conversations!)

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    9. Koko

      Joining the chorus here – I frequently watch someone’s lips while they’re talking because I don’t have the sharpest hearing. I don’t have hearing loss in the clinical sense or anything, I’ve just been to a lot of concerts and have chronic tinnitus.

      I rarely have trouble with female voices and higher male voices, but lower-pitched male voices, especially if the person speaks at a lower volume, can just sound like an indiscriminate low rumbling noise unless I study their lips carefully.

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    10. Not So NewReader

      Like others have said, I do some minor lip reading, also. I have slight scaring inside my ears because of chronic childhood ear infections. So I have a tiny hearing loss, nothing worth getting all medical about, but I do miss some words once in a while. So I just would have told her that and said, “you may see this from time to time and it means that I am fully concentrating on what you are saying so that I do not miss a single part of your message.”

      No way in heck am I going to let someone take lip reading away from me.

      Sorry, just my opinion but your old boss was just plain weird. Clearly, she has never been around people with a hearing impairment. I catch someone staring at my lips, I make sure that I keep my chin up so they can see my lips and I keep everything (hands, hair, etc) away from my face so that they can stay in the conversation. You don’t force people to admit they have a hearing problem, especially, when they are clearly pulling out all the stops to compensate for their difficulty.
      I rant. Sorry. I feel that you boss was kind of low in people skills and she tried to make YOU feel awkward when she was the one that should feel out of sync.

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  8. hbc

    “But I’m young, I’m extremely busy/stressed at work, and he is often incredibly unhelpful.” I believe you that he’s unhelpful because the obvious helpful thing to do when someone is looking frustrated is to say something like, “Okay, you’re looking frustrated, where did we lose each other?” It’s like saying, “Can I get you some water?” versus “Huh, you look parched.”

    Can you help him help you? TootsNYC above has good examples of how to verbalize your frustration in a useful way. When he says you’re pulling a face, that’s definitely an opening to say, “Sorry, you lost me at X” or “I don’t see how I can get this done without letting Y and Z slip.”

    The goal is to stop being so frustrated all the time, not to put on a pleasant mask while your blood pressure steadily rises.

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    1. Not So NewReader

      Love this, “huh, you look parched”. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where you have to use your questions to guide your boss to what you need.

      I see a two part problem here. One is that you can do some work on developing a poker face. This is an investment that will be of value to you for the rest of your life.

      The second part is what are you willing to do to help yourself to acclimate to this job? Clearly you are not happy in the job and it’s showing. So how can you help yourself turn this job into something that is better for you? If this is not possible then what are you doing to help yourself get to a better place?

      See when we are unhappy to the core it is very hard to hide it. If you let this go on too long you could end up in absolute misery. Don’t let this go unchecked. Figure out how to get your mindset to a better place. Either change what you are doing at this job or perhaps, change jobs.

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  9. Sarahnova

    My general advice on this (and it’s come up quite a lot when coaching) is that it’s generally easier to change the way you manage the feelings than it is to keep the feelings completely off your face. I second the approach about mindset – try to go into these conversations with a problem-solving/collaborative/assuming positive intent mindset. I find that developing calm and assertive ways to express these feelings is also often a huge help. Just developing the ability to say “I understand why we have to do XYZ, but I do find it frustrating” often throttles down the intensity of the feeling a LOT, IME.

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    1. Sarahnova

      (Also, as another lifelong RBF club member, I have developed conscious habits of looking positive and engaged when listening to people – smiling slightly, nodding, “uh-huh”s, etc.)

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      1. Sarahnova

        True, and I’d do both – I agree with the advice about specific strategies for trying to relax and open your face. But I think people often think of it as “how can I prevent anything I am feeling from coming across on my face?”, which for most people is impossible, and is therefore not a very useful framing of the question.

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      2. fposte

        I was thinking of this too–that if the OP finds a way to loosen up her expression it may actually help her feel less stress.

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    2. Koko

      Yes, I think sometimes people stuck in a frustrated mindset don’t realize they have the power to change it. You’re not born with the conflict approach that you have today. It’s shaped by your upbringing and the tactics that you learned served you best when dealing with conflict in your childhood, which may be totally effective in your adult life or may be totally dysfunctional in your adult life.

      I’d highly recommend the book, “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.” It has a ton of applicability to the workplace and uses a lot of workplace examples, but it’s really useful for your life in general. The author shows the reader how to be self-aware of when your emotions are turning you into an ineffective communicator, in the moment, so that you can mentally course-correct, set aside your feelings and the narrative you told yourself that produced them, and move forward in a helpful and constructive way.

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      1. RegularAAMPoster-InNewField

        Yeah, I’ve had to learn to manage emotions a lot with PTSD. Often, if I feel I’m getting too heated, I will just peace out for a few minutes. A quick stroll around the block can do wonders for facial expression and emotional tone generally.

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  10. The IT Manager

    I got to be honest. I have never really heard the phrase “have a face” to mean either “making a face” (which is juvenile) or to be expressing an emotion. I might be tempted to say something snarky like “yes, we all have faces since we’re not in a Nicolas Cage/John Travolta movie.” That unfortunately is not helpful advice for the OP because it sounds like he says it when she’s frustrated and upset. LW just needs to work on being less expressive when upset which is easier said than done, but Alison and commenters have already provided some good advice.

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    1. Dangerfield

      I think it’s more of a UK usage? “Having a face on” is not an uncommon way to say someone looks grumpy here.

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      1. FindingAName

        It’s pretty common in Ireland, because Irish uses prepositions to express things that in English would use verbs, so in Irish we say “Ta ocras orm” (can’t do the fadas/accents) which means “I have hunger on me” rather than “I am hungry”, and Irish English has been very influenced by Irish.

        So, except that it’s definitely not the most polite or diplomatic way to express it, it didn’t seem an odd thing to say to me at all.

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    2. Daisy

      Well, pretending to take an idiom literally is a little bit juvenile. The OP knows what the boss means, and you were able to work it out.

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      1. Delyssia

        Without the comment above that it’s a common UK usage, I had no idea that “having a face on” is in fact an idiom, rather than just a really weird personal usage. And, yes, I thought it was really weird.

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        1. Cath in Canada

          In my family (as northern English as you can possibly get without being Scottish) we say “having a lip on”, but “having a face on” would be understood anywhere I’ve lived in the UK (Northumberland, North Yorkshire, Glasgow).

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          1. UK Nerd

            I’ve never heard the phrase before. But then I am a southerner. Maybe it’s more of a northern thing.

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          1. Delyssia

            I think the meaning was clear from the context, but at least to me, the fact that it’s a common idiom was not clear at all, especially with the phrase being written in quotes even in the letter.

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      2. Kyrielle

        Like Delyssia, I thought it was an odd phrasing unique to the boss – I’ve literally never heard it before. I don’t think The IT Manager was trying to be juvenile or rude; I didn’t know how to read that face either. If someone had said it to me out of the blue, I would have been totally baffled, and I was wondering whether it even meant what the OP assumed it did.

        Learning that it’s a common idiom in Britain and _does_ mean what OP read it as (probably because they’re familiar with it!) was very educational, but I could easily have said something similar to what started this thread and I don’t think ignorance is “juvenile”. Just ignorant.

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        1. Kyrielle

          Wow. Apparently I shouldn’t type while thinking about other things. Read that *phrase*, not face. Heh.

          Also, should’ve said UK, not Britain.

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  11. Katie the Fed

    I have a terrible poker face, and early in my career was called out for it – including in meetings. Usually it’s my concentrating face, and sometimes I’m trying to work out something confusing in my own mind.

    My advice is to not try to hide it and try to address what’s actually causing all the frustrating. Sounds like there’s an unhealthy amount of strife there – you’re busy and stressed, a lot of issues are arising at meetings, and you see him as unhelpful. I think having a better dialogue about those issues will actually help with your facial expressions – or at least take the focus away from them.

    Reply
  12. Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees

    Facial expressions are something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I thought I had a slightly pleasant neutral expression until I saw my most recent passport photo… I look like straight up murder. It’s made me more conscious of how I look at work because apparently even when I’m not thinking frustrated or angry thoughts my face can look like I am!

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Because photos freeze our face, and IRL our muscles are often in motion even if it’s small, you may not look as bad as that photo did.

      Reply
      1. Elizabeth West

        I hate having my picture taken for this very reason. It always seems to catch me at the moment I’m moving my face in some dumb way. Though my passport photo came out looking pretty good, actually!

        Reply
      1. Katie the Fed

        I usually feel murderous when I have to pass through the immigration line at Dulles, so it probably looks just like me!

        Reply
      2. ToxicNudibranch

        Mine looks exactly like Roz, from Monsters’ Inc.!

        I am told I do not resemble an oozing, bureaucratic slug in real life.

        Reply
        1. Sonya

          As long as you remembered to fahhhhle yer paperworrrrk… for once.

          Your stunned silence is very reassuring!

          Reply
      3. Sunshine

        I really thought I was half-smiling in my last drivers license photo. The actual result looks like I’m about to cut someone.

        Reply
    2. motherofdragons

      Before I took my most recent passport photo, I looked into the guidelines for taking a good/acceptable photo. The guidelines told me something like “don’t smile, but to think of something that makes you happy so that you have a positive neutral expression.” As a result, I look snarky as hell in my photo! It’s hilarious.

      Reply
    3. Swoop

      my theory on passport photos is that they look terrible so they’ll match how you look when you come up to Customs and you’re hungry, tired, cranky, whiffy (and know it), and just want to get to where you’re going so you can eat and sleep :)

      Reply
      1. Hobbits! The Musical

        Yes – my last passport photo: no makeup, no smile, hair pulled back from face = meth-head RBF. My family all agree that’s what I would look like after a sleepless night on the airport floor with no food or drink, surrounded by other stranded passengers (with and without offspring).

        Oh and I had to remove my glasses too. Make that *squinting* meth-head RBF.

        Reply
    4. BananaPants

      We got our older daughter her first passport when she was an infant. Do people have any idea how hard it is to keep a naturally smiley baby from smiling? Being our first kid, we were like the paparazzi and she loved the camera. It took the ladies at AAA a half dozen tries to get a suitable passport photo of the child. I asked them if the State Department would really reject a passport photo of an infant because they were smiling/showing teeth (all two of them) and the response was yes!

      Reply
  13. OP

    Hello Alison and everyone – thank you all so much for your help and suggestions. It’s cheering me up just to know that other people have had similar problems. The last time it happened I responded with “I’m sorry, I’m just a little frustrated as [and explained the issue]”. Next time I will definitely mention that I’m not doing it on purpose – I really, really hope he doesn’t think that’s the case.

    My boss is notoriously difficult to work with but I will be trying to adjust my mindset and can see myself using a fair few of these tips. In any case, I’m working on the larger picture too (in the form of job searching because it’s definitely time to move on).

    Reply
    1. Elkay

      Out of interest OP where is your boss from/living? As noted above this is a common colloquialism in the UK, while it’s not particularly professional language I wouldn’t be concerned if my boss said that to me.

      Reply
    2. Argh!

      I’ve never heard this expression before. I think responding that you are frustrated is a good thing, because in a way he is asking for feedback. You might try speaking up more often and sooner, and doing less faceful listening.

      Reply
    3. Lily in NYC

      The only thing that works for me is to pretend I’m royalty and have to have a regal expression on my face.

      Reply
    4. Analyst

      Glad to hear you are looking for a new job! It sounds like the boss is offended that you have a Negative Feeling about all the bs at your work and how dare you show it.

      Reply
  14. Dangerously Cheezy

    I would get feedback from others to see if you just have a face like that or if it is happening in certain situations.

    I unfortunately have what appears to be a permanent ‘puzzled face’, it involved how my eyebrows are shaped in relation to my face. It cannot be fixed and consciously trying to look less puzzled is a disaster, I once had a coworker as if I had gotten bad news because instead of looking confused I instead looked mortified. Other times I have ended up looking so upset that people asked if I was depressed.

    When I started my new job I actually had to tell me boss “It’s just my face” because he kept on coming over to help me and see what the problem was.

    Reply
  15. GH in SoCAl

    I got this comment from an early boss. He told me that when other people were speaking — including him — he could tell from my face when I didn’t like it and was preparing to object. He told me I had to stop doing that. The fact that he was a beloved mentor helped me to hear the advice. I DID need to adjust my face — and more importantly, my attitude. I needed to hear the other person out before deciding my reaction.

    Reply
  16. AnotherAlison

    I really wish I had some good advice on how to handle this physically, because I’m apparently naturally awesome at keeping my emotions off my face. This point was driven home to me by my gym trainer, who said she couldn’t tell if she was hitting my limits when stretching me out because my expression never moves. The downside is my face for pure happiness looks the same as my excruciating pain face.

    Reply
  17. CADMonkey007

    Going into a difficult meeting is kind of like going into a boxing ring. The last thing you want to do is walk into a meeting and let your emotions react to a situation that you knew was coming. You have to mentally prepare yourself for the hits. I have to hype myself up going into meetings that require any sort of “game face,” particularly with difficult clients. I try to think through the worse case scenario and mentally practice my reaction. I think through what I would say and what my demeanor will be. Obviously you can’t always know what is going to be said, but if your boss is difficult I’m sure you can imagine something. Have some canned responses in your back pocket to navigate questions or topics that tend to trip you up. (“That’s a great point, I’ll have to look into that.”)

    I say all this as a person with terrible facial expressions and classic RBF. But when I prepare, I am able to control my demeanor and keep it pleasant looking (ish). Good luck, OP!

    Reply
  18. Rabbit

    I relate to this post so much! My boss has told me I am “giving him attitude” which I am truly not. It’s actually really difficult to hear that, because my past bosses have never said anything to this effect to me. I have worked on my poker face, but I believe that I have a touch of “resting bitch face.” I’m quite a nice person and defer to my boss always, but I can’t have a crazy-person-smiling-face on when my boss is telling me that I’ve done something all wrong (when I haven’t).

    I do feel there’s a touch of sexism to the whole thing, but I don’t know if I want to open that can of worms.

    Reply
    1. Big Hair No Heart

      I just wanted to say that I’m in your exact same position right now. I’ve never been accused of having an attitude (even by my parents when I was a teenager!) and yet, I’m hearing it from my boss now and I don’t know what to do. I feel like my mantra at work has become “talk less, smile more.” Exhausting. You have my sympathy for sure.

      Reply
  19. Marzipan

    Apparently, bringing your tongue down from the top of your mouth (i.e. just sort of letting it float in the middle of your mouth) can really help you to have a more neutral expression.

    Reply
    1. Oh, I'll Answer The Phones.

      Yes! I used to practice this while out walking. Something happens to my face while I’m thinking and crossing a parking lot, so if it crossed my mind, I’d start telling myself to stop sucking on the roof of my mouth and let my expression relax. I also pay attention to where my lips fall in relation to my teeth, and how my mouth muscles are situated in general.

      Reply
    2. Hobbits! The Musical

      Yes, that does work. I don’t know if this will also be helpful, but in Tai chi our instructor always says to keep your lips together but not pressed tight, relax your lower jaw so your teeth are apart, let the tip of your tongue rest against the ridge behind your top teeth, and kinda twitch the corners of your mouth. She calls that “smiling inside”. I think it helps reset you mentally before a stressful conversation.

      Reply
  20. Ann

    My boss made a couple of comments to me as well after a few meetings. I was surprised because I usually support him, always in meetings, and generally mostly agree with him. After the comments, which of course I denied doing, during a meeting one time, he pointed at me and laughed…it was good-natured…he made me laugh, and I realized I was looking at him funny. It was making him question what he was saying. But, the problem wasn’t me questioning what he was saying, it was, I couldn’t see him properly and was squinting at him! After the meeting, I told him what the reason for looking at him so funny was and he of course kidded me about it. Now, I either try not to look at him, or try not to squint when I do. But he knows I have his back and if I give him any more funny looks, I’ve probably got something in my eye!

    Reply
  21. Laura (Needs a New Name)

    This is a kind thing for your boss to be up-front about and I hope you will take the feedback and use it rather than being resentful.

    I had to have this conversation with a student research assistant. Every time we spoke about plans, she would make a face that conveyed the impression that she thought my assignments were both unreasonable and stupid. I had a private conversation with her where I asked how she felt about her assignments, then told her my understanding of her feelings based on her facial expression. She was very surprised, said her facial expression was inconsistent with her internal state, and planned to work on more effective non-verbal communication strategies.

    This conversation was really stressful for me. I would have rather avoided it and assumed that my interpretation of her nonverbal expression was accurate. It would have made me feel less favorable towards working with her further and would have probably led me to make changes in which assignments I gave to her. Your boss is giving you some hard but useful feedback that you can use to your advantage.

    Reply
    1. Laura (Needs a New Name)

      ETA: Not that I think there is any evidence that you’re being resentful (quite the opposite!). It is just another way you could react, which would be super less helpful.

      Reply
  22. Nadia

    My boss said something similar to me that had me stewing. So the next day ,I went to his office and said why don’t you show me what my face should look like. Lets just say, he never said that again

    Reply
  23. KT

    I’ve posted this before, but it’s really helped me!

    I have an extremely reactive face. I show shock, nervousness, rage and have zero control. I also cry at the drop of a hat. I’m frustrated? Sob. Embarrassed? Sob. Reprimanded? Sob. It’s awful and humiliating and obviously not the least bit professional.

    What helped me was pretending to be someone else and emulate that person. I usually pick Claire Underwood because she’s the iciest ice queen of them all. What Would Claire Do? becomes my mantra (besides blackmail and murder, of course). It gives me a bit of distance from the conversation so I can listen but can react more professionally and calmly.

    Reply
    1. Big Hair No Heart

      Yes! I’m in the same position right now, and emulating Claire is all that’s kept me going. The advice to fake a smile is tough for me because then it just looks really stiff and obviously fake (for me anyway, I’m sure others can manage). But I can apparently pull off “neutral” by thinking about how calm she looks in stressful situations. WWCD indeed.

      Reply
  24. Kathy

    My former manager used to say to me frequently “are you feeling okay? You look (tired, pale, etc.)”. At first, I assumed she was genuinely concerned and would respond that I was fine. After a while (we are talking years of this) I got annoyed. I wanted to tell her “this is the same face I have every day, so get used to it!” I deemed it was one of two things. I don’t normally wear makeup (but have very clear skin) so I thought it was her subtle way of suggesting I wear makeup. Then I figured she was trying to undermine my confidence. I ultimately just ignored it, and she finally retired.

    Reply
    1. Artemesia

      AS you age you learn to decode these remarks. for a woman past 40 ‘you look tired’ is not subtle code for ‘you look old.’

      Reply
  25. PolarBear

    When I was a flight attendant, I was written up for not smiling enough! I no longer work in customer service…

    Reply
  26. Artemesia

    I think it is important to recognize that tone and facial expression are behaviors and they need to be controlled just as actions do. I had a tendency in my youth to let my contempt leak out in my expressions — not eye rolling but close. Do what it takes to get a game face. I found that framing things in my head in a positive way helped me adopt an interested, or engaged expression (enthusiasm will always escape me) rather than one of surprised dismay. It is important; take the boss’s inept feedback as a wake up call.

    Reply
  27. animaniactoo

    Among other reasons for working out the frustrations rather than sitting there seething with them and trying to cope:

    About 4 years ago or so, my company did a “negativity” sweep. They fired something like 1/6th of the employees, and left everyone else to juggle while they gradually replaced them. While most of them were framed as layoffs, it was clearly imparted to us that the reason for the sweep was that they were getting rid of the people who had issues dealing with the status quo and were overly negative about it and bad for morale in general.

    Note: Not that people did not have legitimate issues. But that their method of coping with them/addressing them was unacceptable to the company.

    Reply
  28. Mando Diao

    Maybe OP has a hard time maintaining eye contact with her manager, especially when you account for the power differential or gender differences (I’m a hetero woman, and some awkward experiences in the past have made it hard for me to maintain long stretches of eye contact with older men. It’s reflexive at this point). It’s a REALLY easy thing to over-think and get self-conscious about. Can she develop a “serious thinking” face instead? Sometimes going with a planned expression is easier than trying to maintain a blank slate.

    Reply
  29. KR

    I feel your pain. It took me years to learn how to contain both my RBF and my natural facial expressions. I had to learn partly because if I showed my frustration or annoyance growing up, my father would tell me not to give him attitude or not to “be ignorant” and also to hone my customer service skills. My polite work face is now a mixture of boredom with a slight smile and raised eyebrows with intermittent eye contact – enough to make the person feel listened to and not enough to creep them out.

    Reply
  30. hnl123

    One other thing is….. your voice can show a lot too. I am someone with RBF AND resting B VOICE.
    One thing that I learned in my retail days is how my intonation and voice say as much/more than my face. The difference between “oh….” and “oh…!” make a BIG difference. So, your boss could be picking up on other cues, and he sees your face, and the two together gives off a stronger negative impression.
    Because I have RBF I have been very aware of my tone of voice.

    Reply
    1. Former Retail Manager

      OMG! YES! I have my retail voice and my real voice. I have a lower voice for a woman and if I talk in my real voice it can come across at bitchy/uncaring so I take it up an octave with lots of inflection and enthusiasm. And I too am afflicted with RBF. My naturally relaxed face leads to lots of people assuming that I am aloof, mean, or rude. Apparently, I just always look a smidge testy. On the up side, panhandlers and other solicitors rarely ask me for money when out and about…I give off a vibe of stay away….has its perks I guess.

      Your advice is excellent.

      Reply
      1. Rebecca Too

        I have RBF, and I was a retail manager for a long time. By biggest pet peeve was when customers would tell me that I should “smile more”. Really?? I just don’t understand the link between working with the public, and people feeling like it’s totally okay to mind my business and tell me to smile. How do they know what’s going on in my life?? I found it very annoying, and that’s part of the reason that I no longer work in retail!

        Reply
  31. TheLazyB

    I’ve had this in the past. I’ve done a lot of self-work since and now when someone gives me unexpected feedback I get almost excited… sort of wow, I had no idea I could be/was being perceived like that, tell me more! I got feedback early on in my current job about length and frequency of emails (both too high, oops) and approaching it with fascination (and I was fascinated, 20 years in the workforce and it was totally new feedback!) really helped me combat it. I’ve recently got feedback that I’ve improved beyond all recognition there so it’s really worked for me.

    Maybe someone else will have more practical tips on how to do it though because I don’t really remember!! ;)

    Reply
  32. MCR

    I really wish I could give this feedback to a senior person I work with. Every single time others, including clients, speak about something that even vaguely aligns with her expertise, she makes a face that looks like she is concerned and/or confused. It’s different from her “listening in agreement” face, for sure. It drives me bonkers because it always makes her seem like she is doubting what the speaker is saying.

    Reply
  33. disconnect

    Ugh. I would like to tell him, “This is a workplace, John, not a therapy session. I’m not here to help you with your feelings that you have as a result of my facial expressions. That is something you need to come to grips with on your own time. I’m here to get this specific job done, so can you set aside your hurt feelings so we can continue talking about the substantive items at hand?”

    Something I read on captainawkward recently applies here: when in the midst of a discussion, an accusation of improper tone is a derail, and the thing to say to that person is, “When you police my tone, I hear you saying that I’m not conforming to your idea of how I’m supposed to speak, and therefore what I say isn’t worth listening to. That’s unfair to me, because now not only do I have to argue my original point, but I have to argue this additional point and do so in such a way that you can’t use it as an example of the very thing you’re accusing me of doing.” (highly paraphrased, natch)

    Reply
    1. Shell

      Come now. I think workplaces can expect a neutral or pleasant tone and expression as part of reasonable, professional behaviour (and OP admits to possibly pulling a face, besides). You don’t have to go syrupy sycophant, but it’s reasonable to expect that your facial expression and vocal tone doesn’t seem like someone just vomited on your shoes. Neutral or pleasant is a reasonable middle ground. Jumping immediately to “you’re policing my tone” is weirdly adversarial and is unlikely to get the results you’re imagining.

      Reply
    2. Koko

      I think it depends. There are still social norms that have to be followed, especially in the workplace. The kind of heated argument that I have with my boyfriend when he’s being a gigantic baby would not be appropriate in the workplace, and it’s well within a manager’s purview to hold their employees to a standard of professional courtesy, which can include things like not becoming visibly upset when you’re assigned routine work.

      The “you should smile more”/RBF issue is taking it too far and policing someone’s facial expression. But if someone really does seem to be annoyed or put off every time their boss or coworkers talk to them, it’s going to have a chilling effect on how much people want to interact with them, and if they’re in a client or otherwise public-facing role it could impact business directly.

      The truth is that there are a lot of social norms that are “policed” in the workplace. I don’t walk around my office barefoot even though the first thing I do when I get home is take my shoes off. It’s not appropriate for me to tell people that their feelings about my bare feet are irrelevant because it doesn’t impact my ability to run our social media campaign. If you’ve truly transgressed a polite workplace behavioral norm, it’s appropriate for your manager to ask you to adhere to polite workplace behavioral norms.

      Reply
    3. fposte

      As people are saying above, social relationships and work relationships are different things. I also think the OP is being given valuable information here: the way she’s coming across to her boss is concerning him. That doesn’t mean she has to be different–people have offered up useful scripts for “that’s just my face”–but it’s a concern that it’s generally advantageous to address, and it’s better to be told than to have that silently factor into your progress at your workplace.

      Reply
  34. Bunny Purler

    I am mostly known for being kindly and good humoured at work, but we have been having some tricky times recently and it has been hard to stay pleasant. I have therefore been channelling my inner Tim Peake. He’s the British astronaut currently on the International Space Station, and that man just never stops smiling. He has Resting Smily Face. You cannot imagine a person who looks more happy to be at work. In the face of aggravation and crap, I think of cheery Tim floating in zero G, and I can usually prevent myself from feeling and looking stabby.

    This works for me because I too usually have Resting Smily Face, and I think if I put on a more neutral expression it would terrify my colleagues out of their wits.

    Reply
  35. Rachel

    I’ve had this said to me before too, but I am nit frustrated…I’m focused. I don’t know how to fix my concentrating face, especially since I’m always concentrating but often being interrupted – it seems like one would have to expect that while I’m working to figure out the issue of my work (I’m in a position where I need to “figure out” what’s wrong all the time to the figure out the resolution) , that I concentrate, which results in the face.

    I stil haven’t been able to figure out how to snap out of it quick enough to not, apparently, piss people off.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      This may or may not resonate with you. Take a moment to recognize that you DO believe in your own skills. This means that you can glance up, say a few words, and get back on track with ease… because it’s within your skill set to do this. You know your job very well and even an earthquake could not take that knowledge away from you.

      Many times that I see people become frustrated at work, the underlying issue is their private belief that they cannot do the work or they question their own ability to do everything the job involves. They are afraid of breaks in concentration because they are afraid they will screw up the job. So they snap at people who interrupt them and the actual problem is their own fear of failure.

      Reply
  36. Angela Harris

    The op suffers from what we call bitchy resting face

    When i relax my face and try to look neutral i look like a mean witch. If i pretend to look happy, i look crazy.

    I cant fake smile, it looks evil but then when im neutral it looks angry

    I recommend practicing in the mirror your neutral face

    Reply
  37. Angela Harris

    Even if the op is pulling a face, he seems to not know it. Hes just naturally trying to relax his face and looks indifferent which to some overly happy people looks mean..

    I hope your manager doesn’t expect you to smile and grin like an elf.

    I have a mean mug neutral face so i try to help that by nodding and making eye contact to ease the blow

    Reply
  38. Not So NewReader

    OP, while you are working on other parts of this question, you could start to solve the problem by taking a preemptive strike. This would look like injecting a positive statement (don’t lie) in the a conversation where ever you can. If you think something is a good idea don’t assume the person knows that, let it slip out “oh that is a good idea”.

    By putting in little positive statements here and there you can mitigate some of the problems with facial expressions. People assume you are angry/upset/whatever BUT if you are saying things like “good idea” that lets them get a peek at what you are thinking. They can then see that what you are thinking is not all bad.

    Reply
  39. smile more!

    Yea, I’ve heard that a million times – and every time all it did was make me want to smack the idiot who said it.

    Hey, maybe if I acted on my impulses I would have smiled more?

    Reply
  40. Phlox

    This was me today times 10! sleep deprived meant I was more honest in my facial expressions in a meeting with my boss that I narrowly saved from turning into a complete disaster and waste of time. He wanted to micromanage far more than I could bear but a good reminder that we need to sit down and talk about how we can have productive meetings/relationship.

    Reply
  41. HKM

    On one project I worked on, one of the supervisors used to call me “Sad Brows” because my face appeared to always be in distress. It became a running joke and I’d end up doing it purposefully.
    “Sad Brows” is now a permanent fixture in my arsenal of nicknames for myself.

    Reply
  42. Hobbits! The Musical

    This is interesting for me today because I just had a training session as ‘conversation support’ helping people regain communication skills (e.g. post-stroke or brain injury aphasia); one of the major points was that verbal communication is only SEVEN % actual words, 38% tone of voice, and 55% – i.e. more than HALF – is facial expressions and body language. So having a RBF is more generally important to deal with than one might think.

    And actually, since I also have chronic fatigue, my RBF sometimes downgrades to Zombie Bitch Face. Totally unintended!

    Reply
  43. Bessie

    You need to figure out a manager-appropriate way to say: “If I have something to say, I’ll speak up. I wouldn’t expect you to read my facial expressions to figure out if I was unhappy or frustrated about something, I would speak up about it.” And then make sure that’s the case – when you have something you want to say, say it. And when you aware you’re making a face to express your opinion about something, stop :)

    Reply
  44. Lisa LC

    Your boss sounds like an insensitive juvenile to be telling you that you appear to “have a face on”. Is he your mom and has just told you you’re not getting any ice cream after dinner and suspects you’re not pleased? Perhaps one half of the responsibility here is that bosses should learn how to speak less condescendingly and with better social graces to the employees whose lives they already control for a third of their day.

    It’s great that there are lots of sites packed with advice on how to be a better employee, but I’m endlessly tired of the fact that every conversation ultimately ends up being about how employees need to take seriously every vague whim their bosses have for them and contort themselves into the perfect minion. Do we all not have enough to be worried about than how our faces look at work?

    Reply
  45. MB

    This just happened to me: “You need to get help for your face – it’s going to follow you for the rest of your career!” I am almost sixty years old. My face has never been a problem. This current boss, in the past 4 months, has decided to hate me and find fault with everything i do or touch. When I am nervous and trying to gather my thoughts to respond to a question, i will briefly close my eyes. That is not allowed. It shows disrespect. You know how sometimes you take a deep breath before you speak? Not allowed. Shows disrespect. It’s gotten to the point that I avoid co-workers for their protection – so that her hate for me doesn’t rub off on them.

    In the preceding 3 years i have received nothing but compliments and appreciation. Four months ago my direct boss quit and a temporary replacement was brought in. That replacement and i got along like gang-busters. We were getting a lot done, proposing new things, helping cover for each other, etc. That is when the hate started. After 4 1/2 months, that temp was very unceremoniously dumped (on a day that I wasn’t here.)

    I am afraid that i should start taking personal things home with me. I think my dumping is around the corner. She actually told me – in front of the new temp – that i should start looking for a new job.

    I am too old for this crap.

    Reply

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