Back in May 2013, Broken People uploaded a parody PSA titled “Bitchy Resting Face” (BRF) on funnyordie.com. BRF “sufferers” displayed an angry, annoyed, irritated, bothered or contemptuous facial expression when relaxed, resting, or not expressing any particular emotion. BRF sufferers were asking for understanding (more on “why” later). After a small permutation from BRF to RBF (resting bitch face), the internet jolted RBF into stardom, both online and off, in pop culture, news media, and the scientific community.
RBF is a tenet of a psychosocial theory called the facial feedback hypothesis (FFB), which states: Facial movement (e.g. a smile) can influence emotional experience for the person producing these movements. FFB dates to Charles Darwin, who argued that physiological changes caused by an emotion had a direct impact on that emotion. A more robust, more powerful version of this theory argues that facial feedback by itself can create the emotion. Therefore, forcing ourselves to smile, sometimes called a “social smile”, during a social event will allow us to find the event surprisingly enjoyable.
NTs often pair the social smile with eye contact. Getting on an elevator with a preexisting occupant? Brief eye contact, smile. Someone holding the door for you? Brief eye contact, smile, quick thanks. Accidentally make eye contact with someone at the DMV? Smile. Responding to the greeting from a cashier at the grocery store? Brief eye contact, smile. Creepy dude talking to you at the gas station while you fill your car’s tank? Brief smile, get in the car.
Why? What’s the point? Why are NTs smiling at people they don’t know and more than likely will never see again? By applying Darwin’s version of the facial feedback hypothesis, we surmise NTs are just trying to make these experiences a bit more enjoyable for themselves. If we apply the more robust interpretation, NTs smile to make these experiences a bit more enjoyable AND to “protect” others from their own negative reciprocal emotional reaction.
So, let’s get this clear: One NT smiles at another NT, even a creepy NT, so the smiling NT feels better and the creepy NT doesn’t feel badly.
Let’s think of this in another way by going back to RBFers. RBFers are not personally experiencing a negative emotion. But, their “bitch” faces inadvertently cause a reciprocal, organic negative emotional experience in unsuspecting viewers. (Maybe we should jokingly call these NTs “victims”?) Because the RBFers “caused” another person’s discomfort for having to look at the bitchy face, they take responsibility for the other person’s negative emotion(s). This responsibility makes the RBFers feel guilty, and guilty people typically want forgiveness (Read: “understanding”).
Essentially, RBFers “fail” to control their face. And they believe they have to control their face because the emotions others feel from viewing these facial expressions are the RBFers’ responsibility.
Perhaps, most simply:
RBF or other negative facial expressions = others feel bad (Boo!)
Neither RBF nor any other negative facial expressions = others do not feel bad (Yipee!)
So, that brings us back to the question: Why do NTs smile even when they are not being nice? Hopefully, after deconstructing RBF, the answer is a bit more logical.
The smile purposefully offsets the not-so-nice content (which likely also sounds nice). The viewer focuses on the smile and experiences warm fuzzy feelings, which they attribute to the person providing the not-so-nice content. Those positive feelings create a buffer of comfort to deliver the content. Mission accomplished: Short-term good feelings, long-term mean content. By the time that mean content fully registers, the interaction is over and the responsibility to make someone feel better (by smiling) in the short-term has passed.
In case you missed it: They are smiling BECAUSE they are being mean.