Who is that Masked Man, Anyway? Why She Can’t “Read” Him


Rather than revealing their emotions on their faces, men have learned to internalize them.

Francine has a bone to pick with her boyfriend. 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.
The male lack of eyebrow activity is a case in point. Whereas the brow lift is an integral element of a woman’s nonverbal repertoire, its absence is part of a man’s monotonic face—nothing moves. Men report the political value of this kind of facial management: It prevents anyone from knowing what they think and feel, which although detrimental to interpersonal relationships is often key to survival on a job. They don’t want to let others see that they’re afraid or doubting themselves. It behooves men in the workplace (but rarely in intimate relations) to hide their true emotions. As one man explained, “If everyone really knew what you thought or felt about your job, you wouldn’t have it.”
Indeed, men can keep a straight face when something strikes them funny, they can hide attraction to another woman when their wives are present, and they can suppress anger at their bosses. To do this, they substitute, de-emphasize or neutralize their facial expressions.

  • In substituting, men might think: “I’m really angry, but I’m going to act happy.” “I think the proposal stinks, but I’m going to act like it works.” “They offered me a raise that knocked my socks off, but I’m going to act unimpressed.” Lance Armstrong used substitution in the 2001 Tour de France to fool the competition. He grimaced and appeared to struggle during the early sprint portions of the race (at which he was most skilled), leading the other teams to believe he was a weak competitor that year. The racers let down their guard, and Armstrong shot to the lead.
  • In de-emphasizing, men might think: “I’m overjoyed by the price I’ve been able to negotiate for this car, but I’m going to act mildly pleased.” “I’m really angry, but I’m going to act vaguely perturbed.” “I’m frightened that my girlfriend will leave me, but I’m going to act confident.”
  • In neutralizing, men might think: “I don’t want my wife to know what I feel. Period.” And they stonewall.

And these days, Type A men are even resorting to Botox to reinforce their masked faces. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article subtitled, “Wipe that Smirk off Your Face. It’s Bad for Business,” “growing numbers of salesmen and lawyers, bankers and stockbrokers are fixing their facial expressions with Botox—freezing and sculpting their faces into semipermanent serenity.” A survey conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that about 12% of Botox devotees don’t use the stuff to combat wrinkles and signs of aging but rather to address a “severe/angry facial expression.”

Apparently, the frozen face gives men an even greater competitive edge. One patient—a 44-year-old principal at a real estate investment firm—attributed the 10% to 30% boost in his real estate deals to his treatments. “When you look strong and tough and not afraid,” he explained in the article, “people respect you more. Showing less expression really makes a statement.” Now that’s downright scary!

This is adapted from Audrey’s book, You Don’t Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes and her CD, He Speaks, She Speaks: What Different Things They Say. Check them out on her website www.AudreyNelson.com