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The Advantage Blog

  • Tsongas Litigation Consulting


“Smile!” “What’s wrong?” “Are you mad?” “I can see you don’t agree with me.”

At first these questions and statements caught me off guard. “Nothing’s the matter.” “No, I’m not mad.” “Why do you ask?” Now, I’ve gotten so used to them I simply respond, “Oh no! That’s just my face.” I used to think it was just me; that is until I saw a story on NBC’s Today show about “Bitchy Resting Face,” or BRF. Finally a name for my disorder!

The PSA that spawned the story was a clearly a parody, but it addressed something quite real – the fact that some people’s “resting” face isn’t pleasant. It’s a phenomenon that results from facial features that we inherit or develop with age that make us look grumpy and well, bitchy. While men can be afflicted with an equivalent male disorder, “ARF” (A**h*** Resting Face), it’s primarily a woman’s “problem.” Why? BRF touches on a subject we’ve written about before: Gender Communication, which includes the female traits that can hinder credibility, and society’s expectations about how women should behave and communicate. Society expects women to be friendly, pleasant, and smile. From an early age, people will tell young girls, “Smile!” and not just for pictures – but as they simply go about their day. Rarely do you hear someone tell a young boy, “You should smile more!” Those girls who don’t learn to smile on command, or who plaster a smile on their face as they go through their day, can be labeled a “bitch.” (“She looks mean!” “She’s always mad!”)

In the litigation world, this “disorder” can have repercussions. For female attorneys, BRF can be a turn off to the jury. I’ve had jurors tell me in post-verdict interviews that they did not, “like that female attorney – she always seemed angry.” “I never saw her smile.” What can you do about this? The answer is NOT to put on your happy face just for the sake of appearing pleasant. Instead, think about the overall cues you might be sending that also contribute to being labeled a “bitch.” Are you crossing your arms? Are you being too aggressive in cross-examinations (meaning, being aggressive even though the witness is staying calm and collected)? Are you snatching things off the podium or noisily shuffling papers on the desk? Are you shoving documents at the witness? Are you furrowing your brow and shaking your head?

It’s not a matter of smiling so people like you. It is, however, important to be aware that for women, a BRF can work against you. It places an obstacle in your way that you will probably have to address in some manner. Less painful then Botox or a “grin lift” (Yes! That actually exists!), is understanding that as unfair as it is, women have a finer line to walk in the courtroom then men. A woman must be assertive but pleasant; firm but polite; strong yet nice. There’s room along those continuums, depending on a variety of factors (e.g., the witness’s demeanor, opposing counsel’s tactics), for a woman to become more aggressive without experiencing negative backlash. However, for many people the default perception is that women should be pleasant and conciliatory.

The first step to “recovery,” is awareness. Videotape yourself as you give your opening. Do you appear frustrated or angry even though that’s not the message you intend to send? Watch how others respond to you. Are they wary or on guard even though you feel approachable? If so, it’s up to you to decide what, if anything, you want to do about it. After all, there are definitely times when a BRF comes in handy.


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