Let’s Face It: Why You Can’t Read Him But You Can Read Her

Why is the face so important?


Why is the face so important? Of course we communicate from the neck down, but the majority of meaning and the richest source of nonverbal data come from the face. Our visage provides the most information about how we feel, and our body movements indicate the intensity of the emotion. According to anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, human beings are capable of making 250,000 facial expressions without uttering a word.


Several years ago, I was teaching one of the more difficult communication courses at the University of Colorado in Boulder. For the entire semester, a young man sat in the back row of the classroom with a knitted brow and scowl. His expression conveyed a combination of perplexity, anger, and confusion. In trying to determine what made Mike so unhappy in my course, I went through a host of questions in my head: Does he hate 8 AM classes? Does he understand what I’m saying? Is the material too tough? Could I explain it better? Does he disagree with the course content? Maybe he doesn’t like me. . . . I was starting to take his negative expression personally.


The other students were receptive and animated—they leaned forward in their seats, their eyebrows were lifted showing interest, they nodded their heads as I made my points, and they smiled or laughed when I cracked a joke. But this fellow never seemed to move off his bad mood, and I didn’t know what to do about it. As a good communicator I usually make adjustments, so I tried this with Mike—I framed my message in a different way, I made eye contact, I smiled at him. However, during the course of the semester, nothing that I did made a difference with Mike. I began withdrawing from this young man. In fact, I did adjust by minimizing my eye contact with him, because his off-putting expression started having a profoundly negative influence on my classroom presentation. Eventually, I chose to ignore him because his expression was just too distracting.

At long last, the day of the final exam arrived. When the exam period ended, Mike walked up to the front of the room, handed me his blue book, and proceeded to shake my hand. “Dr. Nelson,” he said with surprising enthusiasm, “I just wanted to thank you. I’m a business major, and this is one of the best—if not the best—communication course I’ve ever taken.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather! “You’re kidding,” I couldn’t help blurting. I quickly regained my composure and said, “Mike, I need to share with you how you come off nonverbally.”

“Oh no, I know what you’re going to say,” he interrupted. “Friends tell me they see me walking across campus, and they don’t want to say hello because I look like I’m mad and grumpy.” Then he apologized.


Once Mike started talking, he seemed congenial. His scowl simply evaporated.
I explained to him that he was going to have to take responsibility for his nonverbal behavior. “For your professional health in the business world, you’ll need to pay attention to the messages you’re sending people.”
Our natural affect is the expression our faces take on when we’re not trying to express anything. It’s what Emory University psychologists Stephen Nowicki, Jr. and Marshall Duke call the resting face. “You’re ‘in neutral emotionally,’” they explain in their book, Will I Ever Fit In?

In our culture, we expect women to have a more affable resting face. Females are engaged in building relationships, connections, and interdependence. Because they often are “other” oriented, I believe that women generally want to appear facially open and receptive. Many a female will walk around with a subtle smile on her face. Since women seem more approachable, strangers will come up to them and ask, “Do you know where the tuna is?” “Can you reach that box for me?” in the supermarket. It’s rare that someone would buttonhole an unfamiliar man for that kind of help.
The genial expression is so important to how women are perceived, if they don’t display an open or friendly natural affect, others may seek to correct them. In fact, this very predicament happened to me. I was at the airport, on my way home from a three-days-in-a-row, six-hours-a-day training session. I was exhausted, and my feet hurt—darn those new heels. I leaned against the waiting area podium, grimacing in pain. Suddenly a man walked up to me, a complete stranger, and offered, “Hey, you’re not smiling.”
“I don’t feel like smiling,” I shot back. “My feet are killing me.” He acted as if I had the bubonic plague and hurried away in a huff. I had stepped out of the prescribed sex role. To conform to this stranger’s expectations, I should have quickly changed my affect to a happy face—that’s the requirement for women.

Francine has a bone to pick with her husband. Eddie comes home haggard and stressed, night after night, unwilling to share the drama that’s obviously going on at his office. When she asks him how he’s feeling, rather than welcoming her concern, she senses that he tenses up. Eddie’s face seems to turn to stone as he grunts, “I don’t want to talk about it.” If she badgers him further, he turns his head away, becomes absorbed in the newspaper, and withdraws all eye contact—leaving Francine feeling left out in the cold and probably angry.

This scenario repeats itself night after night in millions of households. Yet it might help to understand that whereas a cardinal rule for female nonverbal behavior is, “Thou shalt be animated,” one of the Ten Commandments of masculinity is, “Thou shalt not be vulnerable.” Rather than revealing their emotions on their faces, men have learned to internalize them. They mask.


Face management is paramount to many men. It is the corollary to control, and control is a bedfellow to power. The male monotonic face conveys: “You can’t move me, you can’t shake me; I’ll decide if I let you in (and I probably won’t). I’ll decide who is in control of my emotions.” The masked man is a mystery. Does that mean men don’t have feelings? Of course not. But they don’t show their emotions. Whether in a business situation or a marital dispute, a man’s stone face can become incendiary.