What’s Your Default Face?

This is the face I’d like to present to the world. This is my Facebook profile picture. This is the picture I submitted to the New York Times.

This is probably the face that most people see.

The latter is what I call my “default face”. I don’t see this face often, but I am sure people around me have seen it plenty.

Knowing your own default face is a difficult, if not impossible, task. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is certainly at work here. You can only see it if you are not looking for it.

I discovered mine through serendipity. A few years ago, I saw a face reflected in a subway train window. The thought — “she looks kinda familiar, but why so serious?” — flashed across my mind before I realized that I was the face in the reflection. I looked so different than how I looked in pictures. I looked so severe, so uninviting, so ugly…

Ever since then, I started noticing other people’s default faces. Everyone has his or her default face. They can often be found in waiting rooms, subway cars and sidewalks. They show their face (no pun intended) when the person is alone, relatively relaxed, not self-aware, not engaged in any expressive activities like talking or emotive activities like thinking deep thoughts. The person is not communicating with the outside world, yet his default face nonetheless can exhibit (or elicit) certain emotions. Some default faces look bored, while others look confused. Some look silly, while others look grumpy. Some look kind, while others, like mine, are off-putting.

Everyone wants to put his or her best foot (or face) forward. We spend lots of energy on make up, clothes and professional photography. Yet all these efforts can be sabotaged by the default face.

I want to be approachable and I think I am, but my default face often unintentionally gives the opposite vibe. It has been the bane of my social life. I have come to the conclusion that the only way to overcome this is to smile more (Duchenne or not), much to my dismay.

Why the dismay? I hate smiling. Despite articles like this extolling the virtue of smiling — how smiles can induce happiness — I resisted extraneous smiling before now. I thought people who smiled all the time were fake and many looked stupid. Well, I am hoping to join the legion of silly smiley people soon.

I am not going to smile because I think it will release some endorphins (though I won’t mind). I am going to smile more because I want to reveal the self that I want the world to see, my real self.

UPDATE: My husband said that the picture of my “default face” above is not representative — too much on the unflattering side. “Why flatter a picture that was suppose to be unflattering?” I asked him, but of course I was secretly happy to hear that my default face wasn’t as bad. Then I got suspicious knowing my husband’s tendency to flatter me (yes, he is a sweetheart). So I made him prove it. Here is the picture he took in an attempt to capture my more representative default face while I was watching TV. I gotta do something with my upside-down mouth.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to What’s Your Default Face?

  1. Another MIT Alum says:

    “Default face” – I like that. I chuckled seeing your two photos. I would say my default face tends not to be that welcoming, so I too have to remember to smile. However, I have to be careful about smiling without showing teeth, because way back in high school, my younger sister told me I looked like I was grimacing at her when I would smile at her in the halls at school!

  2. Lisa says:

    I’ve thought about this too. I usually err on the side of self-consciousness about my looks, so I’ve tried to develop a default face that is at least awake-looking, but since I don’t see it, I’m not sure how well I succeed.

    I do try to smile at people, though, if only to break through their default faces. It’s a practice I started back in college and I’ve tried to keep it up. It’s a little ego kill every time someone won’t smile back, but the good smiles are worth it. It’s really astonishing how much a smile can change someone’s appearance — like the difference between your default face above, and your cheerful, approachable profile pic.

  3. Gina says:

    I love this post. I have had several conversations with my close friends about how I want to work on my “default face”” (I’ve been calling it that, too!). Like you and other commenters I’ve just been trying to smile when I notice myself or at least when I make eye contact with other people. Thanks for posting!

  4. kng says:

    I watch a lot of Cesar Milan’s Dog Whisperer show on National Geograhic network(i swear this will relate). For very timid dogs, he sometimes hold their tails up instead of letting it curl between the legs, he thinks that this tail placement modification tricks the dog’s brain.
    Jump ahead to another show that I watched once… have you noticed that whenever we’re sad or mad, we tend to have our heads down, arms crossed or even curled up. Next time when you’re mad, try lifting your head, opening your chest and taking a deep breath, it’s impossible to stay sad/mad.
    So maybe smiling does induce something.

  5. Hope Springs Eternal says:

    Funny. I “face” the opposite issue. My default face is overly welcoming — as in it draws in more people than I’d like (and in NYC, that can be freaky). For that reason, I often make an effort to look a bit dour or outright angry. Seriously.

    That aside, I’m grateful that my years with BigLaw haven’t squelched my tendency towards a cheery outward demeanor. Alas, that’s probably one of the reasons I don’t fit in too well . . . .

  6. Hope Springs Eternal says:

    My response is a qualified “yes,” I believe people are unsettled by seeing joy in their peers (and sometimes those beyond the office building) when they themselves are miserable. That’s why the adage “misery loves company” exists and all to often rings true. Few people *want* to be sad or discontent. I went through a stretch during which I was painfully depressed at work and I carried that anguish with me wherever I went. But I quickly realized that the melodrama and brutality at the office were not permanent fixtures in my life — that I could disengage and, even if it meant that I would jeopardize any chance I had to make partner. But that was okay – b/c I knew was worth more than the sum of my billables at BigLaw and had enough confidence to brush off the pressure to prove myself to people/partners that were so visibly and palpably unhappy with their lives. It’s easier for sadness not to be made conscious of itself by the presence of joy. A happy “default” face is a potent reminder that sadness and anger are not a given – they are tied to/the results of volition. Just my opinion.

  7. Daniel says:

    I really wonder if we have one default face. I’d like to think that we have many of them; they represent the current moments in which we are present, without thinking about how we look, whether we are smiling, etc. A few days ago, walking down Lexington Ave., I recalled something funny that had happened earlier that day, and I remember smiling, almost quietly laughing. That, to me, was a permutation of a default face; I was present in that moment. The same can be said of when I’m in a contrary situation, when I’m upset or sad. As you wrote, Jennifer, the facial expression is the function of our reaction to the moment. (Heisenberg.)

    @Hope Springs Eternal: Funny point about New York, drawing more people in than you want…and it’s great to see that a job doesn’t change your overall disposition. You wrote that you didn’t fit in too well; do you think that people who have the energy sucked out of them, or miserable at work, and have different ‘default faces’, feel threatened by someone else’s happiness?

  8. UWC says:

    I thought you were going to say the default face relates to how you feel. Like, to the world you present the picture of the alert, smiling girl up top, whereas inside you feel like the sour-faced, unsmiling grouch.
    Because sometimes people have said to me, “You look great,” while in truth I am feeling like crap.

  9. Angeliki says:

    I have the same problem. My default face is always welcoming and smiley. My problem though, is that I send mixed messages to people and I can’t make myself clear. I’m angry at someone and I’m smiling, I’m breaking bad news and I’m smiling. I know there are deeper issues in that but I’ll start by altering my default face

  10. starfish says:

    French passports (and as far as I know, all EU passports) have the same rule.
    Maybe smiling makes it more difficult to use facial recognition software?

  11. Carl Jung says:

    Do you happen to know your Myers Briggs type? You seem very much like an INFP to me with well-developed T powers

  12. I HAVE CAT says:

    Great post Jennifer! ANd i wholeheartedly agree with your HUSBAND

  13. expat Canuck says:

    You should take a look at some Canadian passports for the default face. You are not allowed to smile (really, I’m not kidding). Mine looks like a mugshot. Very unflattering. I hope that’s not what people IRL see.

    Belatedly, I found your blog from the NYT piece and have been reading it since. It’s been timely and inspiring for me. I’m not ex-Big Law (or any law), but quit what seemed like a very good job at the time after my second child was born. It was our plan that I would go back to work when the kids were old enough, but reading your blog is making me think hard about what I should do next. I had always assumed I would return to my former industry, but now I’m not so sure. I decided to get the Johnson O’Connor test done thanks to your writing about it here.

  14. Giving it another go says:

    Although I do believe that smiling will improve how people will perceive you, I also think that one’s eyes are for more reflective of that person’s true, real self. A person can have a smile on his/her face and appear happy, content, but his/her eyes paint a very different, unfortunately sometimes a very depressed, tortured picture.

Leave a Reply