What to Do When Your Boss Tells You to Smile

bitchfaceThere has been a LOT in the news lately about “bitchface” (when your resting face looks slightly angry/bitchy). A lot of women have poked fun at the problem, such as the Smile, Bitch! Training Camp or this great cartoon, but the policing of women’s facial expressions is also starting (finally!) to be more understood as a form of harassment — often on the street, as in one of the catcalls men feel entitled to make to women. But reader F has a different problem: her coworkers and superiors are the ones telling her to smile. Here’s her question:

I’m hoping you or the Corporette community could give me some advice. I am a recent university graduate who’s accepted a public sector position. I have my own office but we keep our doors open, and anyone who walks by can see my face as I work. A number of my coworkers and superiors have stopped while walking by to tell me that I look “too serious” or “angry” while I’m working. I do furrow my eyebrows when I concentrate, and often am reading very tiny print, which makes me squint a bit.

It seems silly to put mental energy into holding my face into a more pleasing expression while I work, but the comments are getting on my nerves and I’m unsure if there is any ‘talk.’ I haven’t found a good response to the comments yet. Do you have any ideas of something appropriately light-hearted I could reply that wouldn’t be rude if said to a superior?

MAN. Welcome to the club, Reader F! I also “suffer” from resting bitchface, and I can’t wait to hear what the readers say here. A few thoughts for you:

  • Ignore them. F’em. Your face is your face. Smile when you talk to people, when you see them in the hall, when it comes up naturally — eventually they’ll learn that you don’t have a permanent black cloud over your head.
  • Reconfigure your desk so you don’t face the door. In my law office we had L-shaped desks, and most of the lawyers, myself included, had our computer screens along the wall — not facing the door. If anyone asks, say you did it for ergonomics or sun-related reasons or some such. (In fact, it’s probably not a bad idea to look into ergonomics if you’re already going to the trouble to reconfigure your office.)
  • Educate people on a one-on-one basis. If you have one or two main offenders whom you are otherwise friends with, you could possibly send them a link to one of the articles above. Another way to go about it is to gently ask your coworker (with a smile), “Out of curiosity, when was the last time you said something like this to a male coworker?” In a perfect world, he will be thankful you said something, and learn the error of his ways. Be warned, though — this is likely to net you a reputation as “someone who can’t take a joke” and enhance your, er, bitch image.
  • Talk to HR. This disturbs me, particularly coming from the supervisors — they should know better. You may want to say something to HR such as, “I’m not sure if you’re aware that some of the supervisors are doing this. I don’t meant to get anyone in trouble, and I have a pretty thick skin so it doesn’t bother me, but I’d hate for it to become an issue down the line.” And then leave it to HR to educate them that this is a form of harassment. I would especially talk to HR if a) it is happening from numerous superiors and coworkers (which suggests it’s a problem with office culture), or b) you’ve talked to a coworker about it directly and he persists in telling you to smile.

Ladies, take it away — how should Reader F handle this situation?

Photo credit: Shutterstock / ArtFamily.



N.B. These substantive posts are intended to be a source of community comment on a particular topic, which readers can browse through without having to sift out a lot of unrelated comments. And so, although of course I highly value all comments by my readers, I’m going to ask you to please keep your comments on topic; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. Thank you for your understanding!


What to Do When Your Boss Tells You to Smile


  1. My least favorites are “you look stressed” and “you look tired.”

    • I called out a coworker who told me I looked “exhausted” once. In fact, he said he had been talking with other male coworkers about how exhausted I looked that day. He was genuinely confused why I would be offended, and I don’t think he ever got it, but at least he’s never said it again.

  2. Contrarian :

    I hear you, I hear you. But what if they’re right? What if they are really well-meaning and absolutely right?

    [FWIW, I got botox on my frowning lines in part to see if it didn’t make my life better by seeming to be less cranky. I don’t think that the person needs to do that, but it would be an interesting experiment to see if making an effort to seem nicer might really make a difference in how you interact with peers and co-workers.]

    Maybe, if the person is squinting, they need reading glasses. I got some and think I got a boost just from 1) looking different and 2) not having tension headaches from reading teeny spreadsheets.

    I disagree with going to HR. The person isn’t being told to smile. It seems more of a “you seem angry” and “you seem angry and it affects how we work together.” I have a co-worker who always seems angry and it puts me on edge.

    • Spirograph :

      Agree that maybe she should consider reading glasses.

      I found it interesting that the poster did not actually specify the gender of the people making these comments (maybe she did in the e-mail, but I don’t see it in the post), and Kat assumed they were all men. In the office, I’ve had women make comments like this to me at least as much as men. I don’t think it’s any more acceptable coming from a woman, but it does water down the harrassment angle.

      In any case, I usually say something like “no, this is just how my face looks.” No repeat offenders after that.

    • LilyStudent :

      For me, the reading glasses also make it clear that if I’m frowning it’s because I’m reading something, rather than just for the sake of it.

    • I don’t think the issue is whether or not they are right. The issue is that this is never an issue for men. Women are told to smile, but it is significantly less likely for someone to tell a man to smile. Regardless of one’s intentions, telling a woman to smile is problematic.

    • I agree that men are never told to “smiile”.

      I also think it’s intrusive that coworkers/and supervisors! are peering into your office and critiquing your face while you are doing solitary WORK!

      I agree it’s borderline harassment. (I wouldn’t go to HR, though, certainly not about the supervisor saying it. HR is not your friend, remember that. HR is management’s friend.)

      Anyway, I would just say, “Oh, probably because I’m WORKING! I’m thinking,and reading. This is just how my face looks when I READ”.

      (Hint hint, I’m doing solitary work. Leave me alone)

  3. chellersm :

    Yes, I practice employment law and also am not 100% on board with the go to HR instruction… although I admit I haven’t read the above referenced articles, so maybe there’s an additional reason I’m missing that connects the comments to actual sexual harassment. I think that if there is an indication that this is part of an overall hostile work environment that seems directed at a worker based on her gender, then absolutely get HR involved… and I am also a proponent of going to HR if you just want some advice on interpersonal office relations – i.e. “these comments are being made to me and they make me uncomfortable, what would you advise?” I know in my organization the HR reps often know the various personalities in an office and could probably provide some useful suggestions.

    I do think Kat’s advice to be positive in one-on-one interactions is great. I know we have a new(ish) employee in our office who constantly has a scowl on her face when working, in meetings, walking down the hall, etc. It goes way beyond basic RBF (which I am afflicted with as well). We all assumed she hated us when she first started – we were really worried that she was going to quit and we were concerned because we honestly wanted to make sure she was happy that she had taken the job. However, on getting to know her, we’ve realized that she does like the job (and us) and I think she just doesn’t realize the effect her “resting” expression has on others. FWIW, our office is almost entirely female.

    • Yay! Great topic, Kat. I have gotten similar advise from the manageing partner. I alway’s try to be professional, but was sometime’s confused between that and being to nice. So he told me alway’s to smile, no matter what I am saying b/c peeople like me and will be more likeley to do what we want if I am nice. This is great advise.

      Now I also got similar instruction’s from the WC judge, who counseled me on how to position myself in the courtroom to be most persuasive to a jury. He alway’s counsel’s me and tells me if I am wearing clotheing that is good visueally, and he like’s it when I stand in a way that gives him a better siluette view of me — kind of 1/2 sideway’s. Mason think’s it is b/c he like’s to see my boobie’s but he realy can’t see them at all b/c I am NOT weareing low cut stuff into court. The judge can thank Frank for that. FOOEY on Frank he must think, but that is b/c I am VERY conservative and try NOT to acentuate my body either in court or anywhere else. That is the best advice. Just be professional! YAY!!!!

  4. I usually just tell people “I’m not angry, it’s just my face”. I’m very smiley and positive when interacting with people, just have bitchy resting face. Once I tell them that they get it.

    • Exactly, diffuse the situation with humor and goodwill and get on with your job. If that doesn’t work then go to HR, but come on, these people are likely just making small talk.

    • Anonymous :

      Yep! I’d even go so far as to make a crack about bitchface.

      Anon is also correct in saying that some people mistakenly think this is an acceptable way to make small talk.

      I have dark circles under my eyes. They are darker if I’m tired, but there are times when a single mother simply will be tired, and even when I’m rested my allergies can make them worse. Once I tell people that straight out, they usually don’t mention it again.

  5. Wildkitten :

    “This is just my face.” And then go back to doing good work.

    • Ah, this!

    • TO Lawyer :

      +1 million

      This infuriates me – do they want you to worry about how your face works while working or actually working?

    • anon a mouse :

      This. Also, if they say you look “too serious,” just say “yes, I do take this job seriously, thanks.”

    • Yes!

      Semi related: the other week, an older man at the gym told me to smile/ not be so serious while I was doing lunges (!). I’m still annoyed with myself for just smiling and laughing rather than making some type of comment that indicates that my face doesn’t concern him at all.

      • I’ve been told to smile by strangers all my life, mostly men. My husband says it’s a way of trying to strike up a conversation but it just irritates me. I wish I could come up with a great comeback. Recently, when I was line dancing at a club a woman on the sidelines yelled at me to smile. Guess I was concentrating on the steps too much but I just feel it’s plain rude.

        • I don’t know that you need to have a snappy comeback. I find just looking at them perplexedly and ignoring them works great.

    • My response is just to look up, smile, and say “That’s my game face.” Or “You caught me concentrating on a tough problem.” Not because I feel the need to make an excuse for my BRF , but because usually it is the case that I scowl or furrow my eyebrows or tighten my lips when I’m really focused. If you laugh it off once or twice with each of the people who make the remark, they’ll stop commenting on it.

      Oooooor these are just people trying to make conversation and are going about it in an awkward, clumsy way.

  6. I occasionally tell the men in my workplace to ‘cheer up buttercup’ or ‘smile’ it really takes them off guard and they have realized why saying such things to me is inappropriate.

  7. I have an incredibly angry reading face, and I usually say something like, “Yea, everyone tells me I have an angry reading face. I have no idea why. My husband used to think I was going to murder him every time he saw me reading. I’ve tried to take pictures of myself to see what it looks like, but I can’t get the same expression on command.” Basically, I say the first two sentences no matter what, and then include the following sentences if it makes sense in context. No one has ever said anything about it twice.

    • AngryFace :

      Ahghhhh! I have an angry face too when I concentrate. Considering Botox for less expression.

      • Anonymous :

        Please don’t!! Have you thought at all about the pressure that puts on other women to “take care of” their facial expressions and putting themselves through the expense and risk of getting Botox?

        • I’m considering getting Botox, mostly because I have noticed that I often tense up between my eyebrows when I am stressed, frustrated, etc. It’s more of an experiment to see if being unable to tense the one area of my face where it is most concentrated will have a positive effect on my mood, and generally make me calmer. A similar idea to the fact that smiling when you’re upset makes you happier from a facial feedback loop. If it also helps to keep the wrinkles there at bay, then bonus round. Even if I was doing it for pure vanity, I really do not see how that puts any kind of pressure on anyone else. Hopefully nobody else would even know, that’s kind of the point.

          • Anonymous :

            I do it… and now I’m free from the comments about how tired, angry, stressed, or what not I look.
            Every time after I go to the derm, about a week later, someone tells me I’m looking more relaxed. I basically consider it a business expense to maintain my poker face in law.

    • At my last job, we got a new IM tool thay included a Facetime-like feature. I accidentally switched mine on one day and thought, “who’s that cranky lady?” before realizing it was me.

      • I can relate ~ I have my ipad on a stand at my desk. Sometimes it will be pointing at my face and I glance up and see my bitchy-face reflection on the black screen when the ipad is “sleeping”. Ugh. I try to keep the screen tilted away from me when not in use to avoid this.

  8. Anonymous :

    i’m also a lawyer also working in the public sector – after 6 years i think that public officials are just a bit more socially akward then the average lawyer :)… not even mentioning officials coming from the world of economics and engeneering . there are various sociologic reasons to explain this. but focusing on results rather than causes – try to take this a little more lightly, chances are they are akwardly trying to make you feel wellcome and trying to show interest in how you are adapting to the new work environment. try talking to people and getting to know them – professionally, you do’n’t have to be friendly (i am not a supporter of overly friendly, i prefer professional but in the spirit of good cooperation – so open, kind, helpful cooworker are good in my book). this should solve the problem. if it doesn’t solve it, then yes, we may talk harassement. and all of the above applies.

  9. I find it really interesting gender isn’t mentioned–I assumed reading it it was a man supervisor saying this, but I’ve had women tell me this too. It’s a tricky one.

    For one-stop squinting. It isn’t about improving your face, but squinting all the time isn’t healthy. Get reading glasses, or change your computer font size.

    It also depends on how confrontational you want to be. I like the above response of just saying “this is my face” and continuing work, but they may not get the hint. If it’s someone you have a good relationship with, how about just saying the comments is frustrating?

    If you don’t feel comfortable, I would rearrange your desk.

    • Eh — I would say 95%+ of the time I’ve been told this, it has been from a man, so I think it’s a fair assumption.

  10. Anonymous :

    I was told in a mock trial training exercise (within my firm) that my arguments were good but my “unpleasant face” was a distraction. I said, “this is just my face” and chalked it up to sexism. None of the male associates got any comments about their appearance. I agree it’s not worth going to HR over though.

  11. Maddie Ross :

    To me, there’s a real difference between an attempt at a concerned comment that you look “angry” and want to make sure you’re ok, and the type of comment that comes across as “you’re too pretty not to smile” kind of patronizing comment. I’ve made comments to male and female co-workers that they look stressed in the context of making sure they don’t need help with their workload, etc. But the patronizing comment about smiling or the like, just no. Not appropriate. Not HR material in my mind, but definitely worth a side eye or snarky comment in return.

  12. I don’t see this as harassment or worthy of an HR visit and would just respond with “I’m focusing on the work not my facial expression.”

  13. Anonymous Associate :

    I am absolutely shocked that so many readers have actually had these sorts of things said to them in a professional workplace. I can’t fathom any of my coworkers saying something like “smile” or “you look angry” to me.

  14. I suffer from RBF and resting sad face. It’s just great. RSF has followed me since high school. People would ask me “What’s wrong?” I would say “nothing, why?” and they’d say “you look sad.” And yes, i would tell them it’s just my face. It might have something to do with my big brown eyes people probably confuse me with a sad puppy or something I dont know. 90% of the time it is a man.I don’t want to smile so I’m prettier just for you.

  15. Anonymous :

    My mother spent years telling me “look pleasant when you go outside”

    I think their concern is prob also that you’re new, you’re young, and your face is saying “I find this job stressful and unplesant”

    I’d respond to every interruption with a smile, and if that interruption is to tell me to smile, smile even bigger and say “just concentrating” with determined cheer.

  16. I’m going to give somewhat contradictory advice. On the one hand, ignore the rude people and, if you believe the comments are affecting your work or reputation, go to HR. On the other hand, I recognize that my unfortunate angry face affects me socially. It’s also embarrassing when I see candid photos of me; I really do look pained. I therefore use Botox in my forehead and try to remind myself to smile as often as I can. And I always where my glasses or contacts. (Incidentally, I’m sometimes mistaken for being 20 years younger than I am, despite a lifetime in the sun. I think the “always wear your glasses” rule that I adopted at age 14 and my 15 years of judicious Botox have helped.)

  17. Ugh. I’ve suffered from this since I was a kid and my parents were telling me to smile. I often have strangers (generally older men) telling me to smile. At work, I only hear it when it comes up during reviews…my peers will mention it to my boss.

    I have nothing to add to this topic other than my personal experience :o(

  18. marketingchic :

    I’ve actually had a review where my supervisor (a woman FWIW) told me I was qualified for a promotion, but needed to smile more and look happier/friendlier around the office. In a lot of industries, being a cheerleader is more valued than competency. Now, doesn’t that make you smile?

  19. I have the same issue. I think in your office, working, no problem. But what I do at social events, or even when at meetings, is I consciously try to have a small smile or to think happy thoughts. And I’m pretty friendly/outgoing too, which I feel negates the intimidation factor should I happen to relax into my natural frown face. I also got botox to get rid of the perma frown lines between my eyebrows and that makes me look a lot less angry. Annoying yes but in my work the interpersonal part is as important if not more so than the actual substantive work so it was worth it to make the accommodation.

  20. Snap response: “Why?”

    If I have more time: Short explanation of what I’m doing. I have very few reasons to smile if I’m working at my desk.

    If I have a good relationship with the person: “Would you tell a male colleague to smile?”

    I have RBF and have used all three with coworkers.

  21. I really don’t like the term “resting bitch face.” I’d have a problem with it even if the embedded insult wasn’t gendered female.

    I’m even more troubled to see commenters here mentioning Botox as a solution to others’ discomfort with your natural facial expression.

  22. I am fascinated that this is such a common problem. I have a colleague and close friend who comments on my appearance all the time. At a recent meeting, she was concerned, she said, because “You looked so tired.” I hadn’t felt tired at all, but there was nothing I could do to assuage her concern. She is convinced that she knows what I am feeling like from something she sees on my face, though I rarely agree with her assessment. I wonder if this is not a problem that extroverted people have when dealing with introverted people. When extroverted people are out in the world, they often have a welcoming expression on their faces, as if they are inviting interactions with others. Introverted people are more likely to be caught up in their own thoughts, and they look sad to extroverts as a result. (In Old French, the word for “thoughtful” is the same as the word for “sad.”) If I am in a public setting, I try to put on an extroverted expression, but it is a bit much to expect me to do that all the time. I think that extroverted people should learn not to misread introverted people–and that people in general should not be so confident that they can read other people’s expressions.

  23. This is definitely cultural. I have family in a less-smiley part of Scandinavia and there RBF is normal, while smiley is considered…. creepy. Abnormal. People will avoid you on the bus if you are smiling at everyone. On the other hand, when I was teaching at a Scandinavian-heritage college in the US Midwest, simply practicing smiling during teaching improved my teaching evaluations immediately, because suddenly I was seen as “nice” and that was important.

    • Anonymous Associate :

      Ah, good point. I am Eastern European, which is obviously from my name and accent.

      Eastern Europeans are know for many things, but not for smiling frequently and being openly warm. I think I may have gotten a pass on this smiling thing. :)

      • Red Beagle :

        Yes, this! Those of us with ancestry from that part of the world are genetically predisposed to RBF. I think somewhere along the line, though, after years of making a conscious effort to look pleasant, this has trickled down to my resting face. Although I also am fortunate that my computer screen completely hides my face when I am concentrating or working so when someone approaches, I have time to arrange my face into a non-concentrating socially pleasant expression before I interact.

      • Oh my. I have noticed this.
        Even when you say hello to an Eastern European, you are rewarded with RBF, a blank face, and you DON’T get a hello in return :(

        • Anonymous Associate :

          It’s because we are not accustomed to saying hello to strangers, or to even those you know when passing by unless you are going to talk to them about something. I am still getting used to American style interaction, so I am lucky to be in a profession full of awkward people! At least the Ukraine, we are really warm with friends/family, but not with strangers or acquaintenances, or really coworkers, unless they happen to be friends too.

          If someone told me to smile or be happy, I would probably scowl at them and say nothing.

          • What about neighbors?
            I say hello to longtime Eastern European neighbors in my building when in the elevator with them. They stare at me blankly with RBF. NOT appealing.

  24. Too much time with Orbitz commercials and not enough time with paintings, is what I say. Get thee to a museum so you can put my visage in CONTEXT…

    Or…if you look at me and smile first, that’s all my mirror neurons need.

    If I’m at rest, or focused, let it go, I’m peaceful enough, or in my zone – let me, be me!

  25. I’ve heard this from some of my colleagues as well. People got used to it overtime but a few things helped: (1) work on a really warm greeting when people enter the office and smile at them right away so that it’s obvious that the frown is about concentration, not just being cold and (2) put some cheerful things on your desk to communicate that you are a warm, friendly person to bosses who might pass by notwithstanding your concentration face. I rotate between a few things, but pumpkins, flowers, and retro figurines from out IP clients (mostly toy makers) have been hits and cause partners to stop by my office to chat.

  26. When someone tells me to smile:

    At work: “This is my concentration face,” or “one sec…I’m sorry, what were you saying? I was concetrating on my work.”

    On the street: “Dance!” (If they actually dance, which only one person ever has, then I will actually smile).

  27. I agree that it might be nice for people to express concern regarding WHY someone might not be happy/smiling, rather than just say “Smile!”
    (i.e., you must smile on command so you look pretty for ME)

  28. Angel Michele Cagle :

    This is how I know the world is screwed. An issued has been made over a smile. Maybe, those horrible harassing men wouldn’t tell you to smile if you didn’t look angry all of the time. You all look angry all of the time because you find everything you can possibly find to be angry about. Offended and angry is the mantra you all adhere to. How do any of you make it through a whole day?

  29. I agree with E.D.’s sentiment. This is an OPPORTUNITY to mention how busy (important) you are at your job…especially to a boss or superior. You can respond by saying something like, “Yes, I’m on a tight deadline with project A and also just finished up project B. I have a lot on my plate.”

    I used think this type of bragging was rude or would come off as whiny, but I’ve watched my male attorney colleagues do this for years to great success. I see how important it is to remind everyone what your working on. If you aren’t vocal about how much work you do and how important you are at your job, it can go unnoticed. At least that is my experience at my law firm. I would use this as a chance to remind your boss of your worth.

  30. Arrgh i’ve heard it since I was fifteen.
    “Don’t look so mad!” Can’t you smile?”
    Most of the time, they tried to use it as a ( horrible) pick-up line. And that’s the way I viewed it: they were looking for a reason to talk to me.
    Still I answered it always the same: Oh, I’m not mad. This is my face in restmodus. I have no control of it.
    ( Adding when I knew the person: ” Kind of like your nose that points upward when you talk/ your ears slightly tilting when you smile/ that lock of hair on your forehead that always points right.)
    It was me saying:That was it. We all have our “things” End of story. Boring subject.

    Worked like a charm

  31. John Wayne was a Nazi :

    I recommend carrying a hammer and using it.

  32. Professional Not Plastic :

    I have had a few of my Superiors actually call me into their office and tell me to work on my attitude when I get frustrated. They agreed that my frustrations were well founded and understood, but felt that my resulting facial expression misrepresented my department. My actions were not in question, as I had not acted out, or spoken rudely to anyone. Anyone that came to me for help, was greeted with courtesy. I was being scolded for not putting on a fake smile & pretending I was happy. Every boss that has ever said this to me has been male. This has never come up with any female bosses I have had. It is very demoralizing to me.