The “Poker Face”

The meaning and importance of human body language and facial expression has been under study for many decades in the fields of psychology, anthropology and sociology (and more).With the advent of artificial intelligence, the quest to imitate human traits such as interest, compassion, and concern within the “bodies” of artificial beings is intensifying. Non-verbal communication in our technology has expanded the options for conveying how we view ourselves and what we’re feeling, with customizable avatars and more diverse facial emojis. We’re pre-occupied with communicating how we feel, during any particular electronic conversation.

The human face is a marvel of muscles, full of possibilities for silent communication As humans, we recognize (from infancy!) the faces gazing down at us not only for their familiarity in our still-narrow world, but for the cues provided by facial expressions. As we grow older, the ability to intuit meaning and emotion from other people’s faces becomes a skill, honed by our many interactions. As any large-city dweller knows, situational awareness – including reading the faces of strangers as we pass on a street – can be helpful in avoiding a potential problem. Anyone who’s tried to communicate with a loved one in diminished capacity knows the power a smile has to say “I’m here and I love you.”

Knowing how powerfully our faces can telegraph our feelings, it continues to surprise me that, in a professional setting, so many of us (including older, wiser women) fail to deploy The Poker Face when it’s called-for. I was in a meeting this past weekend in which a group of professionals were being asked for input on a very thought-provoking topic. We were each taking turns expressing our views. The group consisted of a wide range of ages:  probably 30 to 50 year-olds. As a more “mature” woman began to speak in a slow, measured way, a younger group member (also a woman) sitting next to her interjected a quick, benign comment. It was instantly clear on the mature woman’s face that this action was highly unwelcome. She physically turned her body, so that she was facing the younger woman completely. The older woman said nothing, but stared directly at the face of the younger woman for what felt like a full 30 seconds. Since we were all in a roundtable configuration, everyone could see and feel the “daggers”. The younger woman did what I call the “belly-up, I’m feeling playful” thing that furry creatures do, to show deference or submission. She did this by breaking eye contact, smiling, looking down and away (not at the group, not wanting to see our reactions, I’m sure). The Speaker’s right to be heard (she did have ‘the floor’) was restored, but she’d also demonstrated dominance with the younger woman. At the very least, the older had ‘schooled’ the younger in ‘manners’ by staring her down. Was this necessary? Was this appropriate? The meeting went on, everyone anxious to get past this awkward ‘blip’.

The above happening triggered an embarrassing memory for me. I was meeting with about 20 board members and interested parties. One member in particular was really getting under my skin with his antagonistic questioning. I don’t recall the fullness of what my face did, but I know it included an eyeroll. I wanted that board member to know that I was fed-up with him. Most of the group ‘clocked’ this, and it was totally clear to me that I’d erred in not remaining stoic. The CEO spoke to me later, compassionately, but his advice was clear:  “You’ve got to develop your Poker Face”. Being younger, and being in Management, meant that I still believed that – when I was annoyed – it was “ok” for me to communicate that in my face. Obviously, I was too ‘green’ to fully think that faulty logic through to its conclusion:  the alienation of others in the room.

These days, we’re in a human communication atmosphere that allows for raw, reactive responses to perceived slights or outrages. Nevertheless, I’ve come to believe – through my own trial and error experiences of not being in control of my face – that The Poker Face is an under-appreciated and under-utilized strategy. In a professional or public setting, when emotions are high, being mindful (I know, that word is so over-used) of relaxing your face into a placid, peaceful expression can make what happens next more productive.

As women, I believe we need to recognize that we’re often more expressive with our emotions (pros and cons, there, for sure) than actually benefits us. The ultimate in precariousness is feeling the tears forming (anger, frustration), in a boardroom packed with men. It’s happened to me, and it’s not a memory that I cherish. Having said that, because we’re in touch with our emotions – a very good, and healthy thing – we are able to transform ourselves more quickly, through such moments, so that they become less frequent, then disappear altogether. That’s my goal, anyway.

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