Last week, I met an old friend for dinner; we’ll call her: She-who-knows-me-very-well-but-not-as-well-as-she-thinks. I secured a table facing the doorway and smiled and called, “Hi” when she walked in.
She approached, scowling. “What’s with that face?” She-who-knows-me-very-well-but well, you see the problem, asked. “I hate it when you make that face. It makes me feel like you don’t want to be here.”
Flash backwards – this friend and I have known each other for decades. We each carry a glossary of one another’s facial expressions with plenty of footnotes to show the times they were used in the past and what meaning they held. The “knowledge” apparently gives us license to make assumptions about what we see.
Back in the restaurant, I was tired, but glad to be there. Although I had tried to generate a welcoming smile for my dinner date, clearly, my facial contortions had the opposite effect. I felt chastised and misunderstood.
But, this was not the first time my face has been misjudged.
As a little girl, I showed everything in my eyes – at least that’s how my mother tells it and she has known me best. “Why are you so ungebluzen?” my family grown-ups would ask me with alacrity.
“Ungebluzen” is the Yiddish word for long-faced, put out, pissed off. On occasion, I may have felt a little irritated that I had to defect from a raucous game of neighbourhood tag for dinner, or sad that I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch the second half of “Medical Centre” (I never saw Dr. Joe Gannon actually heal the patients. That scared me), but I was not angry even though my face might have “said” different.
These days, I sometimes ask my fourteen year-old son, son, Charlie, what is wrong because he appears to be incensed, all glowers and grimaces. “Nothing, Mom. Why?”
I tell him he seems mad about something and that actually makes him mad. My not intuitively understanding his expression is unacceptable to him. I get it. It’s hard enough being a teenager without having to justify your face to your mom. But, one chronic problem we share as humans is the false impressions of each other’s faces. Although Charlie and I have visages that occasionally belie our true feelings, we are often labelled angry without even opening our mouths.
My son and I may be victims of genetics.
My father is the gentlest, loveliest of men with his wife, children and grandchildren and will happily do anything to ease the existence of anyone he cares for. But, my father is also known for having a piercing glare that would make serial killers shake in their bloodied boots. His eyebrows are thick and when they become one impenetrable line over intense dark eyes, he appears to mean serious business. Whenever I did something naughty to upset my mom as a child, my father fixed his glare upon me and I cowered. Though I have been told that he was simply concentrating on trying to understand me, at the time I was certain that the look foreshadowed pain.
I think my problem lies with my own eyebrows which remain dark and linear. I have considered lasering them off all together leaving a clean, vacant slate. Then, I would pencil in new brows, high arches in a perpetual expression of surprise. It is almost impossible to look surprised and threatening at the same time.
Occasionally, I join my eight year-old son, Harrison, in front of his bathroom mirror while he tries on different faces for his own entertainment. Harrison is learning what his face can do. My little guy doesn’t give much thought to how his face appears to others. He’s comfortable being himself; it isn’t even on his radar that some people might look at him and get the wrong idea. I think he has the right idea.
Given my experience, I should be hyper- vigilant about not making assumptions based upon how people look, but I, too, am guilty of misapprehension.
Two years ago, having joined a boxing class, I observed a woman who scared me. Ella was serious and cross looking. Her eyebrows slanted down in the middle to make a furious “v” and she rocked a continual sneer. Ella also wore the biggest gloves I have ever seen, chains around her neck and her hair was wrapped atop her head in a yellow bandanna, making her look like a pissed off pineapple. Add in that she was already a very adept boxer, and you might understand that I felt terrified of even standing beside her during a class. She might squish me as if I was a bug – just because she could.
In the weeks that followed, I discovered that Ella wore those gloves to protect fashion designer hands that had been compromised by tough exercise. Her chains were a family heirloom and her “do” was in the crazy bandanna because in South America, that is how some women wrap their hair to keep it from being ruined by sweat and humidity. Most interesting was the fact that when Ella stopped boxing and became engaged in conversation about children, art or education, her smiles radiated like that of an eight year-old girl, sweet and engaging. Her eyebrows relaxed into gentle, wispy brushstrokes. She became a lovely acquaintance. I had been wrong.
Meeting Ella reminded me to not judge people’s intentions by their facial language. A perceived angry look can also denote deep concentration, worry or hunger. A smile can mean contempt or nervousness; conversely, friendliness or joy. If I feel prickly from someone’s expressions, I try to remember to inquire before interrogating. That way, I remain an explorer of humanity instead of one of its prosecutors.
As for how people see me, the very best I can do is be myself and not worry about how my face is perceived. I am content to remain open to interpretation.