Until yesterday I had not really thought about the impact of subcomponents of facial expressions. As a successful businesswoman I am conscious about my appearance, as most women my age are, especially one who receives a certain amount of public attention. I have become perhaps a bit more conscientious as I have aged and put on a few more pounds than desired over the last few years.
I have spent a good deal of my life more focused on behaviors than expressions – enough to write a book about the interpretation of leadership behaviors looking through the lens of gender. Behaviors obviously speak volumes louder than words in the workplace. But I had not thought about the weight of specific facial expressions – or even the impact that the parts of one’s face can have on an interaction. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to ponder what I am calling the brow factor.
I have strong pronounced eyebrows with upside down v-like arches. I can thank my mom and my grandfather for that. Each has and had beautifully pronounced arched brows. I am well aware because of my experience with these two role models how these brows add intensity to every expression – Spock-like intensity. Many talk about Spock’s pointed ears. I think about his pointed brows – a sign of intelligence, intensity and depth of character. I have always been proud of my intense brow factor. I had not thought about the potential downside to having natural Spock brows and the lines separating them… until yesterday.
I was meeting with a very significant person – a man who leads an organization important to my business – along with my leadership coach and my direct boss (both women). At one point in the conversation directed to me the man said something that caused me to feel puzzled and subconsciously search my inner thoughts. At that particular moment he said something to the effect: “I see that look and know what you’re thinking…” He frowned himself, and went on to further explain himself in a way that made me believe I had acted defensively. The conversation rolled on without pause beyond the moment where he made the seemingly negative judgment about my expression. I allowed it to pass because, honestly, my head was free of negative thoughts and I was aware of my verbal and nonverbal language enough to know that I had not behaved in a manner that reflected negatively.
After our important male guest had departed and we were wrapping up by summarizing the outcome of our meeting, I inquired about that earlier slightly awkward moment. I wanted to reflect on it because I was puzzled by his reaction and as a leadership coach I am constantly thinking about interactions. I respect the opinions of these two women, as they are close advisors. I explained to them what I didn’t do during the meeting, that the “look” he described was caused by a feeling of puzzlement – prompting an inner reflection on my part – and therefore, I supposed, a change in my facial expression.
To my shock my coach responded immediately by saying: “I think you need Botox.” She followed this with: “You have that furrowed brow expression that can really send a negative message.”
I sat back in my chair dumbfounded. Really? I am absolutely positive my brow factor was showing up at that moment because I was actually feeling those negative emotions! I don’t even remember all of the not-so-positive thoughts that went through my head. One I actually verbalized out loud: “I am not fucking getting Botox.”
I am a normally, and I believe, gracefully aging, 51-1/2-year-old woman who has chosen not to be altered by knife, laser or drugs. My selection of regular chemical treatment is topically applied religiously in the form of sunscreen. But now I was being advised to tone down my intensity by injecting a neurotoxin into my brow lines? Ugh uh. Second choice of self-imposed advice after failing to embrace the first suggested advice: explain my expression. Hmmm. Do I really need to think about my brows in addition to thinking about my hair, my makeup, my clothes, and my voice and where I sit — and the list goes on and on?
So, is this a thing? Do women face the brow factor regularly, in general, or just as they get older? I did a little research.
Several years ago, the Daily Mail published an article about a similar affliction after comedian Taylor Orci, released a hit skit for her YouTube channel talking about what she called Bitchy Resting Face. The video has received more than seven million views. Apparently, I am not alone. The brow factor is a real thing. #BRF
In January, Daily Mail published a follow up article about the BRF topic, this time pointing to recent research that found people who have a natural frown factor might actually be better communicators and have greater empathy. However, there is a real downside. Rene Paulson, Executive Director of the Center for Research Design and Analysis at Texas Woman’s University, was quoted in the article providing advice to women possessing the brow factor saying: “Women (who are) confronted by a world that automatically attaches negative attributes to their non-smiling face must quickly hone a finely-tuned awareness of both our own emotions and the emotions of those around us.’” Sounds consistent with my alternative to Botox. It seems there is a need to actively communicate emotions because you must assume others do not perceive them accurately – if you have the brow factor.
Paulson also cited Dr. John Lund, an expert on interpersonal relationships and communication, who advised: “Instead of communicating to be understood one must communicate to not be misunderstood.” Exactly! I couldn’t agree more. This is what I do all day long every day in my coaching practice. But, up until now my coaching has had nothing to do with eyebrows.
Lund’s research, conducted in February of 2016, revealed additional science behind the brow factor. The research was conducted working with Noldus Information Technology who employed a facial expression recognition tool to analyze the many different emotions of the face. The software analysis revealed that the frown factor is characterized with higher levels of “unconscious, subtle contempt,” and while it may not be intentional, the brain is wired to pick up on it and attach it to negative emotions. While the software read the expressions as contemptuous, the researchers explained that while the face isn’t truly showing this emotion – that’s exactly how others perceive it.
It’s obviously not a new phenomena, older research has shown that people rely heavily on facial expressions and body language. Psychologist Albert Mehrabian, of the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted studies in the 1960s that found that interpreting someone’s communication is based mostly on nonverbal cues, like facial expression, body language and tone.
Neither article mentioned whether this phenomenon is more prevalent for women, but I would bet that it is, particularly in business situations.
Women are advised to embrace confidence and power – both qualities critical to leadership success. This requires taking up physical space, speaking with assurance, and being serious. Others gauge seriousness by reading their facial expressions. I advise women to do this even though I acknowledge that women in power positions can feel caught in a catch-22 of gender norms. Behaving in a serious manner is known as a way to effectively demonstrate power and confidence, especially in critical situations. But, it can also cause others to classify her as a bitch. Women leaders often feel exhausted by all of the physical cues they are measured on and therefore must be constantly monitoring and adjusting. I feel it myself.
I can’t help but wonder – do men get coached on the brow factor? I don’t think so, or at least not as often.
The take-away, according to my coach: when confronted by a world that automatically attaches negative attributes to their eye brows, I must hone a finely-tuned awareness of my own emotions and the emotions of others. That’s heavy. My brows are ready to sleep now.
I’m thinking it’s time to draw attention to this issue. Wear and share your brow factor, with pride please! Isn’t it time to embrace them and just ask people what they really feel instead of ascribing negative emotion? What do you think?
Here’s my brow factor. What does yours look like?
PS: There is such a thing as Spock brow – caused by too much Botox!!!! Be remarkable. Be courageous. Embrace your brow factor. #BrowFactor, #RBF, #GraceMeetsGrit.