In the world of LOL, NSFW, and ICYMI, you might think that a new abbreviation wouldn’t attract much attention, let alone provoke a discussion of how women are viewed in the workplace. But not long ago, I heard a term in a CBC interview that not only took me aback, it also made me laugh. And it made me think about issues regarding working women: RBF.
RBF stands for “resting bitch face.” Yes, “resting bitch face.” Jessica Bennett , the journalist interviewed about the RBF phenomenon, had thoroughly explored the issue in a New York Times article called, I’m Not Mad, That’s Just My RBF. In it she traced the term back to a satirical public announcement video called “bitchy resting face.” (Disclaimer: NSFW!)
So what exactly is RBF? Basically, it’s a term used to describe women who aren’t smiling. And when they’re not smiling, they don’t look cheerful. In other words, the way plenty of women and men look when they aren’t smiling: expressionless. Yet it’s women, who are typically singled out as somehow being negative or unpleasant looking, when not smiling. It’s only women who are charged with looking “bitchy,” a pejorative term in and of itself. There is no term equivalent to RBF used to describe men.
It’s part of a double standard that plays out everywhere, but particularly in the workplace. Simply put: Women are supposed to appear friendly, nurturing, and nice. Men, on the other hand, are allowed to appear serious and authoritarian or simply preoccupied, without anyone accusing them of something like RBF.
Nancy Henley, a cognitive psychologist mentioned in Bennett’s article, theorizes that this double standard emerges out of traditional workplace power dynamics, (women as secretaries to male bosses). Also, more women work in service positions, where smiling is deemed essential. (Henley calls this kind of smile a “badge of appeasement.”) It’s also true that there are studies that show people are less likely to suspect friendly-looking people of being criminals. That, and the reality that happy looking people are perceived as being trustworthy, can lead people to suspect “non-smilers” as somehow sinister.
Body language, as I’ve blogged about before, can be a powerful business communications tool. But it’s important for all of us to be careful about passing judgment on others based solely on their expression — or in the case of so-called “RBF” — lack thereof. Remember; women in the workplace have historically had to combat stereotypes and discrimination based on appearance or manner. As Renee Paulson points out in an article on QZ.com “Women, especially women in power, can feel caught in a catch-22 of gender norms.”
Still, to make change one has to challenge those kinds of “norms.” In fact, here are a few pointers for women accused of having RBF, and for anyone tempted to judge someone on this basis:
- Don’t “police” facial expressions, your own or others.
- Be confident and strong, and recognize that not everyone is going to like and/or appreciate you.
- Do choose words carefully when talking about someone else, particularly someone you really don’t know.
- Don’t make a snap judgement based on facial expressions or body image.
- Be aware of your own tendencies to make assumptions about men and women based on preconceived ideas about gender.
And finally, remember this: You really don’t have to constantly smile! On the other hand, smiling at someone you think may have “RBF” could go a long way to getting to know that other person, and to moving beyond the Internet shorthand.