Do You Speak English?
Resting Terrorist Face when not at rest.
I have a part of my comedy set where I acknowledge that I suffer from something called "RTF" or Resting Terrorist Face. Obviously, this isn't a real thing (at least that I know of) but it gets to the point.
I am sure you have heard of people being described as having a boyish face or something like that. Yeah, that's not me. The way in which we interpret the world (people, places, experiences) is overwhelmingly informed by our visual exposure to them at first. This is just the way things are.
As the joke continues, I explain that while I may have the face of a terrorist, I have the soul of a hostage. This is, again, not necessarily a fact but an exaggeration for comedic effect. That being said, I have been asked on numerous occasions in my travels things like "what country are you from?”, (Italy, Greece, and Turkey being among the top candidates), and "do you speak English"? (Directors, producers, and casting agents: take note. If you are looking for a chameleon, you may have found your guy.)
I get a laugh out of it as I completely understand. Regardless of how hard I try to have a naturally, smooth, relaxed, and approachable disposition my face tends to look like it's in the state of either prosecution or skepticism. (Years of parenting will add to this, too.) If I furrow my brow just enough, I can pretty much make sure no one sitting on a plane speaks with me. If I try to relax my forehead on purpose, it looks like I may be trying to score some weed.
One of my biases is that I, too, often mistakenly think I can guess one's personality by their appearance, particularly facial expressions. In fact, I have often wondered if the way in which we think about ourselves and the world, over time, manipulates the way our faces form, from bone structure on through expressions. I think this is an over-reach, but I have pondered this when my assumptions do match the perception. This is, of course, false.
It is not easy for me to meet people because of this. I look like one type of guy and then I open my mouth and I sound like a reporter for National Public Radio (NPR) or a lawyer getting ready to review a contract. I get it - it's confusing and even disconcerting. The cues are not obvious.
I had this conversation with someone, an epidemiologist who lives in Japan, whom I met recently in Mexico. He is of South African descent and he, too, gets taken for Colombian, Mexican and other nationalities based on where he happens to be and who people are "used to" being exposed to.
Looks can betray you. It's not that we are shallow, per se, but I think more to do with the fact that it is natural tendency to make quick observations and judgements when we first encounter others. In fact, in the book "Face Value" by Alexander Todorov, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, he uses scientific research to show what informs, and the impact of, first impressions.
These impressions are very much associated with how we take in, process, and make sense of the world socially from an intuitive standpoint. As described, "with only a single, split-second glance at someone's face, people unconsciously form judgements about someone's character." Todorov's research has demonstrated that only 40 milliseconds, (yes, milliseconds, or as noted "about a tenth as long as a single blink of an eye"), is required to formulate a quick impression of someone’s personality.
This automatic judgement, as it were, has real consequences. A Reddit thread that had me hearing about (and laughing) at other's similar experiences - from the way in which people are approached (or not) in retail settings all the way through dating situations, I realize I am not alone.
I would also be remiss if I didn't put this into the context in which it needs to be placed, given that I am still largely seen as a white male which will afford me latitude that so many others will never have. Yes, I may be taken as "unapproachable" to some, but people are not making biased decisions on which side of the street they walk on or worse, negating the benefit of the doubt, based on my skin color or the way in which I dress. Being potentially dismissed socially is one thing. Having one's life be at stake, is quite another. This needs to be recognized and acknowledged, (not to mentioned addressed, as well).
"Ok, so what exactly is your point, Marc?" I can almost hear some of you wondering, and rightfully so. For me, it is to understand that being part of this flawed humanity, I am as much a perpetrator of this behavior as I may be a recipient. Though I do try to listen to the actual words a person says, not how they say them, (imagine reading one's words rather than hearing them and then assess if there is some merit you may otherwise be dismissing - you'd be surprised). I, too, am only human. My primitive brain is making quick judgements (consciously or unconsciously) that are not just unfair but often, wrong.
My RTF is a mere inconvenience at times. With a little effort, maybe I can turn that into "AAF", Actively Approachable Face. Regardless and for the record, I do speak English. I just don't converse in it as well as I always can. But I'm willing to learn.
Until next time,