IBM Blank Faces

Facial sign. 1. A neutral, relaxed, seemingly "expressionless" face. 2. The face in repose, with the eyes open and the lips closed. 3. A condition in which the neck, jaw, and facial muscles are neither stretched nor contracted. 4. A baseline "emotionless" face, the muscle tone of which reflects a mood of calmness. 5. The deadpan face we adopt at home alone while resting, reading, or watching TV.

Usage: Though "expressionless," the blank face sends a strong emotional message: "Do Not Disturb." In shopping malls, elevators, and subways, e.g., we adopt neutral faces to distance ourselves from strangers. The blank face is a subtle sign used to keep others a polite distance away. (N.B.: A blank face with naturally downturned lips and creased frown lines may appear "angry" as well.)

Psychiatry. In schizophrenia, "affective flattening" (i.e., an unchanging facial expression) may be seen as a core negative Type II symptom (Andreasen 1984).

Symmetry. In most people, the right and left sides of the blank face basically mirror each other. In people with neurological problems involving the facial nerve (cranial VII, which links to the muscles of expression), however, there may be a slight drooping of the eyelid and of the mouth corner, and a flattening of the nasolabial skin fold (which runs from the nostril bulb to the side of the mouth), on the side of the face affected by the problem. This reflects the underlying background level of muscle tone required to animate the blank face (see below, Neuro-notes).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. "Regardless of whether a person intends to take a line [verbally or nonverbally], he will find that he has come to do so in effect. The other participants will assume that he has more or less willfully taken a stand . . ." (Goffman 1967:5). 2. Infants 7-to-12 weeks old interacting with mothers whose faces were voluntarily immobilized became unhappy and puzzled, grimaced, stared at their own fisted hands, avoided mother's eyes, and made quick glances at the mother (Trevarthen 1977:267). 3. The normal face: "No special expression present but face not slack as in sleep" (Brannigan and Humphries 1972:59). 4. Infants 4-and-6 months old looked significantly more at joyful faces than at angry or neutral-expression faces; the latter two received equal attention (LaBarbera et al. 1976). 5. A review of research on the neutral face shows that, even though faces at rest emote no clear emotions, people respond as if they do. Neutral faces "seem to have a perceptual status comparable to a prototypical expression of basic emotion" (Carrera-Levillain and Fernandez-Dols 1994:282).

Resting Bitch Face (RBF). RBF is a recent concept born in the popular print and electronic media. In a New York Times article ("I'm Not Mad. That's Just My RBF," Aug. 1, 2015), Jessica Bennett wrote, "For those who need a review, RBF is a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply . . . expressionless. It's the kind a person may make when thinking hard about something--or perhaps when they're not thinking at all." In "Resting Bitch Face is Real, Scientists Say" (CNN -, Feb. 4, 2016), I am credited as affirming that RBF exists: "But RBF is a real phenomenon, according to David B. Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Washington. He calls the condition blank face and said in studies, subjects judge a neutral, expressionless face to be 'unfriendly'."

E-Commentary I: "I was doing a search for the words 'deadpan' and 'expressionless' and I found your web site. I have had a deadpan and expressionless look most of my life. I am now coming to terms with how much it has impacted my life. I believe that it has kept me from being in meaningful relationships. I also have been quiet much of my life. I have a 10 year old son who had a traumatic birth and has a brain injury as a result. He has some of the same expressionless features. It occurred to me that much of what you are talking about is the result of brain injury. There are many people with undiagnosed brain injury. I believe that I am one of them. I think that I have motor problems with my facial muscles, which are not working properly. As a matter of fact, there has been great improvement because of dietary and nutritional changes, but I have never gotten to the point where someone might say that I have charisma. I still want to help my son so desperately." --F.N., USA (5/17/00 11:08:24 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary II: David, I'm so glad to hear that RBF is real!! Back in 2007 when I lived and worked in Washington state (for 2 years) I was called into a meeting with my boss And the owner of a small company that I worked for. They proceeded to say that after over a year of employment, they and others had noticed that I "didn't look happy to be here." I was so shocked, I stammered a response and left the meeting.

Part of me wanted to scream: I'm a New Yorker and we don't smile every minute of the day! Another part of me wanted to say: if I didn't like working here, I would leave (I was living with someone who could pay the bills without my income). I had RBF and clearly not only was it noticed, but it got me demoted just weeks after this meeting!!!! I felt confused, hurt and misunderstood.

A few months later, I left that job, my fiance, and the west coast to return to the east coast. I know currently rbf is sometimes joked about in social media, but for some of us it's real and has consequences.

Sincerely, Tara from Queens NY (Wed, April 4, 2018 2:14 am

Neuro-notes. The unconscious background level of muscle tone in our face is set by the brain stem's reticular activating system. In the blank face, muscle tone is neither aroused nor sedated, but "normal." Studies show that, as in monkeys, for whom the face sends important emotional signs, neurons in our forebrain's amygdala "respond briskly" to the sight of another person's blank face (LaDoux 1996:254). Blank faces are considered pleasant or unpleasant, and rarely ever neutral. Imaging studies suggest that while encoding pictures of neutral and expressive faces, three brain areas--the temporal cortex, hippocampus, and left prefrontal cortex--show high levels of activity.


YouTube Video: Watch a 20 second video of an attempted blank face. (That her lip corners in repose trend upward gives the appearance of a smiling face.)

Copyright 1998 - 2018 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of IBM executives listening, inattentively. Most have blank faces, though a few show skepticism, boredom, and disagreement leavened with contempt (picture credit: unknown)