A reader writes:
I was hoping for your input on something that has plagued me all my life. I am a woman who has a very masculine/serious looking face that many would consider to be RBF (or resting bitch face).
I am only in my mid 20’s and it seems to constantly be an issue at work. My male boss is always walking by my desk (while I am focused) and making joking comments like “Don’t you like working here?” or “Come on, smile!” I’ve heard comments like this ever since I started working in high school … and they always are out of male mouths. I have never had to face them on a near daily basis.
When I was younger, I thought it was something I was doing wrong. Now that I am older, I realize that this is because I am the splitting image of my father! He is a serious looking man due to his heavy brow and a droopy eye — but unlike me he seems to have always been respected for his serious look. No one ever told him to look happier.
I’ve tried to look “happier” by pulling my forehead back and consciously smiling, but it is exhausting and gives me headaches since my muscles aren’t relaxing. I make an effort whenever a client comes in (not often) and I am often praised for how friendly/kind I am to clients. I am a friendly person and customers always love me.
If I lose my “look” when speaking with a client and they make a comment, it is very easy to laugh it off. They often will complement me instantly about how nice I look when I smile and it can boost my day. But I cannot laugh it off with my boss because of how it makes me feel – I can muster a feeble smile but it looks very awkward and forced.
This is a very small workplace (two employees under this boss – no HR) so I need to deal with him if I want anything to change. My other female coworker just rolls her eyes at him and says that is how he is, but she is lucky enough to be tucked away in her own office where he can’t bother her as often.
He will also commonly make a comment like “you are so beautiful” when he wants something. The first time I thought it was a genuine compliment. After that, I started laughing it off, and now I can’t even smirk and just silently (and awkwardly) wait for him to tell me what he wants. Don’t even get my started on the constant mansplaining and insensitive jokes about women, minorities, and the poor.
I don’t know how to respond when he is making these comments. I want to shut it down and make sure he gets that there is no need to be saying this when I am working on reports and focusing on my work. I almost feel like I need a tattoo on my forehead reading “This is just how I look, keep your comments to yourself.” I’ve tried ignoring it but it is starting to lower my self-esteem as it is a constant reminder of my masculine features.
I don’t know if it will help you to see this stated plainly but: Your boss is an ass.
It’s 99.9% likely that if you were a man, your boss wouldn’t be telling you to smile. Men just don’t seem to tell other men to smile. It’s women’s work!
And it’s 99.999% likely that he definitely wouldn’t be buttering up a male employee by telling him he was handsome.
So this is all pretty gross.
Oh, and look, he’s a mansplainer and makes sexist, racist, and classist jokes! How surprising.
I’m going to suggest that you stop trying to adjust your face. It’s your face! It looks how it looks. I mean, yes, if you were constantly glowering at people because you were in an actual bad mood, I would tell you to stop that. But this is just your face, looking serious. I know that Serious Ladies are not so comfortable for everyone, but you are never going to win by trying to play to that crowd’s issues.
Instead, I suggest that you tackle this head-on and address it with your boss. I’d say this: “I have a serious looking face when it’s at rest. That’s just how it is. It doesn’t mean that I’m unhappy. And I think you know that I get a lot of feedback from clients about how warm and friendly I am to them. Can I ask you to stop commenting on my expression or telling me to smile while I’m working on my own? It really is just the way my faces rests, nothing more, and I feel uncomfortable having you remark on it so often.” Or, another version: “Hey, could you humor me and stop asking me to smile? It makes me feel like there’s something with the way my face sits while I’m focusing on work, which I know isn’t your intention. Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Caveat: Not everyone is comfortable or willing to be this direct with their boss. If that’s the case for you, then you have my blessing to use a softer version if that’s the only way you’ll realistically be able to speak up. But do say something.)
Also, the next time he tells you you’re beautiful, some options are:
“Eeeww, I don’t want to hear that from my boss.”
“Please don’t make comments like that.”
“Let’s leave your assessment of my appearance out of our work discussions.”
If you’re not comfortable with those, your current strategy of not responding also seems reasonable.
And for what it’s worth, the longer I write this column, the more I become convinced that tiny, three-person organizations are nearly always terrible news for the employees who work there — rife with boundary violations and unprofessionalism, among other problems. So when you’re ready to move on, aim bigger — I think it will lower your chances of another boss like this guy.
my boss is constantly commenting on my face and telling me to smile was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.