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
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 - CNN.com, 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'."
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.
See also FACIAL EXPRESSION.
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)