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  • marckaye91

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,


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Jun 30, 2022


I just loved this read. I tend to have a RBF and it’s almost never interpreted for what is in the depths of my heart. I tend to look deeply at the world, people, and things and listen intently to others and without foul my eyes get small, my brow frowns and my jaw closes. I tend to often share what I’m thinking and processing in my brain even to a stranger because I’m conscious about my ”judgmental face” that‘s easily misinterpreted. This doesn’t always prove well for a Middle Aged attractive white woman. Now there are many times I read someone in a millisecond and I don’t share what’s in my heart as at those times I to…


Jun 29, 2022

Hi Marc! Thrilled to see your post on LinkedIn, and then read your letter here. Please update me on where you are and what you are seeing. Want to hear all about it. Loved your writing too. All so true. Perhaps the hook back to your traveling is this: yes, we all use flawed judgements that are informed by visual cues. But why? Because the limited experiences our lives have is the foundation for those judgements. And what can better inform those judgements than traveling and seeing different parts of the world from the perspectives of those who live there. Like when I travelled in Vietnam and saw that they don't have regular trash collection everywhere, so burning trash is…

Jun 29, 2022
Replying to

Thanks for reading! Would love to catch up. As of this writing, I am still in Mexico (will be for another couple weeks, I think), currently in San Cristobal de las Casas. I agree with you completely and one thing I truly believe is the answer to "why" is largely grounded in fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of bringing forth what may be pushed down deep. Fear of accepting people and constructs that are not in line with so many cues we have willingly, or many times unconsciously, accepted and embedded into our interpretation (and acceptance or lack thereof) of the world. At least, that applies to me. Or it can be that I am just too sexy for…


David Roth
David Roth
Jun 28, 2022

Hey Happy Traveler, nice to see your smiling terrorist face. A very interesting topic. "Facial expression" is an apt phase. Faces are forever expressing themselves, and it is remarkable how little control we have over what they express. My most telling experience was sitting in a class and listening intently to my instructor, trying to process what she was saying. She happened to look over at me, saw my "expression," interrupted her presentation and said, rather testily, "What?!" As far as she was concerned, my face was arguing with her!

Continued safe travels. Keep smiling! You wear it well, and it's very expressive.


Jun 29, 2022
Replying to

I get it. About a decade ago, I was told that I can turn people off sometimes during telepresence meetings so I made a conscious effort not to speak the next year. My next annual performance review came around and the same person (C-level executive) said that sometimes I look irritated. Um, so what was she suggesting - plastic surgery?

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