I’m standing outside the grocery store alone, waiting for my boyfriend to check out. It’s been a long day filled with socializing, and I’m tired, so I lean against a stone column. My mind starts to drift, as it often does, a flash of images and disparate thoughts.
Suddenly, I’m pulled back to reality. A stranger is practically shouting at me. “Wow, you look so sad!” he says. “Smile! It’s a beautiful day.”
I don’t have time to tell him that there’s nothing wrong before he disappears with his friends inside the store.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Many times, I’ve been hanging out with a group of people, quietly listening as introverts tend to do. Suddenly one of the more extroverted types does the equivalent of a social record scratch (vrrrrrrp, wait a minute!), and asks loudly in front of everyone, “Are you okay?”
Or, sitting alone in a coffee shop, some concerned stranger will nod knowingly and say, “Everything’s going to be okay.” (This is actually a direct quote — as if I were on the ledge of a tall building about to jump and not just sipping a latte.)
Seriously, this is just my face.
Introverts and ‘That Face’
You’re probably familiar with the term, “resting bitch face,” which, according to Urban Dictionary, is when someone “naturally looks mean when her face is expressionless, without meaning to.” When we talk about RBF, we’re usually referring to women, but I’ve seen men have it, too.
And, according to researchers, RBF isn’t just in our heads. In a 2015 study, scientists used software to analyze celebrities’ facial expressions. They found that celebrities who had irritated or bored looks were showing underlying levels of emotions that aren’t apparent in people who don’t have RBF.
My issue is a little different. I tend to look sad. Or, apparently, suicidal when I zone out with a latte in my hand.
I think it has a lot to do with my introversion. I’m not saying that every Resting Sad/Bitch Face sufferer is an introvert — I’m sure some extroverts deal with this problem on some level, too. But extroverts tend to be much more animated than introverts, facial expressions included. Rather than sitting quietly, listening or daydreaming, they are usually the ones doing the talking.
Introverts, on the other hand, are the ones sitting alone in coffee shops. We’re the ones who have stepped out of the loud, crowded store to catch a whiff of solitude. We’re the ones quietly listening, throwing in our two cents occasionally, but mostly just thinking and processing.
And we’re turning inward. It’s no secret that many introverts have rich, inner landscapes — worlds that are alive and present for us. When you’re turned inward, you’re not paying attention to what your face is doing.
Inwardly, introverts may be composing a poem or working out one of the great mysteries of life. But our faces don’t show it. And isn’t this what it means to be an introvert? Your outer expression belies a world of secrets beneath.
Stop Telling Introverts to Smile
There’s something unnerving about people who rarely smile. Studies have found that people are less likely to find friendly-looking faces guilty of crimes. Also, people who look happy are generally considered more trustworthy.
When people comment on my sad face, I understand that they’re not trying to ruin my day. Some of them may actually be concerned (“did her dog just die?”) and want to offer comfort. Others may be looking for an excuse to start a conversation. (Is it a coincidence that a lot of my RSF comments have come from men, when I’m alone? Hmm…)
Honestly, I find these comments really, really annoying.
It’s annoying when someone presumes to know what’s going on within me inwardly. Especially when it’s a stranger.
It also calls a lot of unnecessary attention to me, and as an introvert, the last thing I want is to be in the spotlight. Similar to the dreaded “Why are you so quiet?” question, these kinds of comments embarrass me and make me feel self-conscious. They may even result in me chirping, “Everything’s fine!” even when it’s not — just to get the attention off me quickly.
And what if I were actually feeling sad? (Or angry?) Isn’t it okay to just feel those feelings? I shouldn’t be expected to look happy all the time. Life isn’t happy all the time. Sometimes I will inevitably feel sad.
A Bias Against the Introvert’s Way
But the thing that irritates me the most about these comments is that they are part of a larger bias against the introvert’s way. These comments say that quietly contemplating is not okay. That sitting alone, or taking a break to recharge your energy, is not okay. That if you’re not engaging with the outer world, something must be wrong.
It’s a bias that says emotions must be shared with others, not just felt inwardly.
I’m a highly emotional person, but as an introvert, I keep a lot of my feelings to myself. Most people don’t know just how emotional I am. When I’m sad or mad, I rarely cry or shout, but rather go quiet and mull things over inwardly. When I’m excited, I’ll probably smile, but I’ll rarely gush, jump up and down, or text my friends.
Once, I had a boss tell me that I lacked “passion” for a job I was excited about. Other times, men I was interested in dating had no idea I liked them.
Often, I have to work to show my emotions to the people in my life. For example, when my boyfriend does something nice for me and I’m elated, I have to tell myself, “Say something sweet! Sound excited!” It’s not that I’m manufacturing emotion, it’s just that getting those feelings out can be tricky.
Introverts are inward personalities, by definition. So it makes sense that even when we’re happy, we’re not walking around with a wide grin on our faces.
When you see a quiet person standing alone — perhaps looking sad — don’t make assumptions. Maybe something terrible really did happen, and they are having a bad day. If you really are concerned for someone’s welfare, ask them what’s going on instead of assuming.
But maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe that quiet person has simply slipped into their inner introvert world — and this is just their face.
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Learn more: The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, by Jenn Granneman