Poker Face or Joker Face? Your Expressions at Work

facial expressionsWith apologies to Lady Gaga, there probably is no such thing as a real poker face. No matter how stoic you may wish to appear, you're probably broadcasting your emotions right up front, and this can be a good or bad thing in the work place.

"When you are talking to someone, he is not generally looking at your feet or your hands, but directly at your face, and every one of your expressions is being read and interpreted. Be careful, therefore, about what your expressions are saying," advises Todd Bavol, who is known as The Job Search Ninja, in the blog entry "Are Your Facial Expressions Giving You Away?"

It all depends on how you truly feel about your job, your boss, and your co-workers. When someone you are not particularly fond of approaches you, even if you smile and say, "Hey!" your eyes are probably narrowing, and your lips are pulling back. Your mouth says "Welcome," but your eyes say "Go away."

Or suppose your boss hands you an assignment that looks about as exciting as watching ice melt, and you know it's going to take you at least 10 hours to complete. You smile and say, "Thanks -- I'll get right on it," but your eyes say, "What did I ever do to deserve such drastic torture?"

In plain sight

Unless you're dressed like the the Unibomber in hood and sunglasses (which is likely frowned upon in the workplace), there is really very little you can do to hide your true feelings. Think you've mastered that stoic look? Just steal a look at yourself in the mirror when emotions are running high -- when you're angry, happy, sad, surprised, bored or excited. Now try to change your expression. Pretty tough to get away with, isn't it?

Your true colors shine through, don't they? Even if you "turn that frown upside down," your sadness radiates from your eyes. When Michael Jackson and Nat King Cole told us to "Smile though your heart is aching," their advice may have been pretty, but it wasn't that useful.

Plastering on a more appropriate expression that contradicts how you're feeling is just not all that easy. A smile, for example, can convey many different things. It can connote happiness and joy, or derision, mockery, even malice. Think about that cold smile that curls a on the lips of a cruel supervisor when he or she sees subordinates struggling.

Even looks of surprise can get you in trouble. They can indicate that you've been startled or that you're experiencing wondering awe, or that you're being extremely judgmental, condescending or skeptical. You know the expressions on people's faces when they say, "I can't believe that! You've got to be kidding?" That's not always positive. Your surprised expression might even tell someone you think that's the funniest, most ridiculous thing you've ever heard, when they are dead serious.

Make it work for you

So what's a worker to do? Well, for one thing, understand that no matter how hard you try to "put on a happy face," or hide what you're feeling, know that you can't control all 90 facial muscles at once, and some of them are bound to give you away -- especially those around the eyes.

You can use this to your advantage. When a co-worker is suffering and you truly feel for her but you don't have the right words to say, let your expressions do the talking -- your eyes will sincerely convey your true feelings. By the same token, you don't have to yell or cuss to express your anger. A searing look says volumes, and won't get you in half as much trouble.

And when all else fails -- when you're feeling something that you know is inappropriate and you don't want to give yourself away -- don't try to fake it. That will never work. These days, you can always use the Blackberry Defense. Look down at your Blackberry, cell phone, desk, hands, papers, computer screen, whatever is available. Sure, people will know you're hiding something -- but they'll be less likely to know exactly what.


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