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'Is there something wrong?' 'No. That's just my face.' 'RBF' might be a funny Internet bit, but for women in business, it's not necessarily a laughing matter

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When Maggie Pazian started her new company, she knew there'd be some challenges.

For one thing, she was partnering with someone she had just recently met, so she figured there would be a bit of confrontation on the road to collaboration.

Nevertheless, it didn't always feel right — and she wasn't sure why.

Six months later, her new business partner finally confessed.

“He said there had been occasions where the harshness of my face would set the tone for our conversations — and immediately put him on guard,” Pazian said.

“Now that he knows me much better, that's no longer the first thing that crosses his mind when he sees my expression.”

What expression, exactly?

Well, one that has become known as “Resting Bitch Face.”

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That's right — NJBIZ is talking about “RBF.” And yes, we've asked ourselves the questions you might be asking yourself right now:

What relevance does this have in the workplace?

Is this topic sexist?

Should we write this story at all?

But, after calling around the state asking more than a dozen C-suite women in multiple industries to weigh in on the subject and share their experiences and opinions regarding RBF, we noticed one thing:

No one ever scoffed or even asked, “Why would this matter?”

RELATED: Living with 'RBF': NJBIZ staffers share their experiences

Sure — Pazian's story does not show that RBF is a major issue in the workplace in New Jersey. (We'll admit, we're still not sure.)

But it does show that it is more than just a comedy bit (where the term originally came from).

And it does show that it's something women are conscious of far more than men (most of whom haven't heard the term — just ask around the office).

More than anything else, it's another example of how females conduct business within a different workplace dynamic than men — one in which they are judged in separate ways.

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RBF was born out of a mock public service announcement on the comedy website Funny or Die.

To most, RBF is simply an unflattering term, used to describe women whose unintentional facial expressions often make them appear unhappy or uninterested.

“It's just a funny pop culture term that most older people wouldn't know about because they don't watch a lot of shows or troll around the social media circuits,” said Blanche Garcia, of Travel Channel's “Hotel Impossible” and principal of B. Garcia Designs, an interior design studio in Upper Montclair.

But to some, RBF and its impact on women in business digs much deeper.

“RBF, as a shorthand, just seems to be a way for people to make unnecessarily negative assumptions without context or information,” said Rachel Braun Scherl, co-founder and principal of SPARK Solutions for Growth, a marketing and strategy consultancy in South Orange.

If it's simply about fostering positive first impressions, however, why is it solely a women's issue? Can't men also suffer from RBF?

Not exactly, say both Janet Matts — a strategic business consultant, leadership development professional and executive coach in Branchburg — and Deborah Carr — a professor and chair of sociology at Rutgers University.

RELATED: The power dynamics behind 'RBF'

“Women in the workplace have a lot more to pay attention to, especially at leadership levels,” Matts said. “Communication styles that are accepted for men are not always the same for women.”

Added Carr: “Men have so many ways that they can behave in the workplace. For women, there are higher expectations — there is a (social) assumption that women should be warm, nurturing, maternal and encouraging. If you have a woman who either looks or appears serious or unfriendly, that might force people to have a negative view of her because she's not living up to this image.”

Scherl agreed that there are certainly double standards and gender barriers when it comes to nonverbal communication in the workplace.

“In my experience, a woman who has a serious or unpleasant look on her face is interpreted much more negatively than a man would be,” she said.

“She's seen as moody, or hard to communicate with, as opposed to intense and focused.”

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Which brings us to the “B” in RBF.

“When men are aggressive, they are often admired for being ambitious and authoritative,” said Sally Glick, principal of the public accounting and consulting firm Sobel & Co. in Livingston and president of the Association for Corporate Growth in New Jersey.

“When women are aggressive, they may be called bitchy — rather than confident, determined or focused.”

And being labeled a “bitch,” in any capacity, has historically proven to have serious impact upon one's career.

Just take the widely publicized firing of Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, and Natalie Nougayrede, former editor-in-chief of the French title Le Monde.

Both allegedly left their positions last year in part due to complaints regarding their “brusque,” “abrasive” and “authoritarian” management styles.

“I think that women are scrutinized and criticized in a somewhat different way, and that certain qualities that are seen in men as being the qualities of a leader … are somehow not seen in as attractive a light as when a woman is involved,” Abramson said in an interview with Yahoo global news anchor Katie Couric.

No word on whether such “qualities” included having RBF, but one thing was certainly made clear:

Appearing to be a “bitch” in business is never a good thing.

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Meg Fry of NJBIZ.

Or is it? Can RBF be made into a powerful asset for women leaders?

Sure, says Collette Liantonio — president and creative director of the Boonton-based production company Concepts TV — but it's not how she would want to influence her employees.

“It may simply go back to company culture,” Liantonio said. “What's going to get you ahead?”

Though Liantonio believes creating a culture of intimidation — such as the one represented by Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” — is not conducive to the honest exchange of ideas, she's also been unnerved by women who simply smile and nod their heads in agreement when faced with a “pompous person holding court” in meetings.

“Were we all just taught to be good little girls?” Liantonio said. “It doesn't help.

“It's almost like giving such a person permission to do or say whatever he or she wants.”

Welcome to the double-edged sword of femininity.

“(RBF) is yet another instance where women in the workplace are damned if they do, damned if they don't,” Carr said.

“If a woman is being serious or somber or showing gravitas, she may be deemed as bitchy — but if she's smiling and laughing, there's evidence, too, that it might reduce her credibility.”

Carr said that, while it's certainly tougher for women to navigate, both women and men in business must consider both task and emotional leadership opportunities.

“A serious face may help them on the task end of things, such as getting things done, making sure people meet deadlines and making decisions,” Carr said.

“But it might not necessarily encourage things like creativity and group decision-making if people are afraid they may be judged.”

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So what on earth are women supposed to do about this — if anything?

“It's only a minor hurdle to overcome,” said Linsey Schwetje, manager of business development at Upper Saddle River-based Sigma Group, one of New Jersey's top advertising agencies.

“These people simply need to display their internal positivity and personalities in the way they communicate.”

Easier said than done — there have even been reports suggesting plastic surgeons have seen an uptick in procedures that transform the corners of patients' mouths or remove lines between eyebrows in order to create “friendlier” faces.

But Pazian — also an internationally accredited specialist in the science and art of nonverbal communication and behavior — believes her strongest weapon is self-awareness, or the “power to know what (her) face is showing and to 'flex' when necessary.”

Slight adjustments, such as raising her eyebrows or contracting the zygomatic muscle responsible for the smile, Pazian said, helps make a huge difference in her demeanor.

“We are part of a society that has specific social rules regarding displays of emotions that we tend to abide by,” Pazian said.

“So while this is something that women have to face — no pun intended — we can be proactive in order to counteract this pervasive belief.”

One way to do this, Pazian said, is to stop participating in the chatter about another woman's RBF.

“There's no denying that some of us have such a face — which sometimes we're conscious of, and sometimes we're not — but if we keep pigeonholing ourselves, it's going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

Ashley Lukens of NJBIZ.

On the flip side: Coping with 'Resting Nice Face'

While this reporter understands what it’s like to “suffer” from RBF (note: it’s actually been helpful in positions of power), another NJBIZ staffer knows what it’s like to have a “resting nice face” — which she believes has more positives than negatives.

“It makes people feel that I am approachable and easy to work with,” said Ashley Lukens, NJBIZ marketing manager.

“For my job in marketing, it is very important — especially when networking and convincing others to use our products.”

Its downside? “People ask more of those who have ‘resting nice face,’ mainly because they believe we are happy to help and are less likely to say no,” she said.

“As a person with ‘resting nice face,’ it is important to set up healthy working habits, including the ability to say no to those who ask too much of them.”

By the numbers

In an informal poll of more than a dozen female NJBIZ staffers between ages 21 and 50:

believe RBF has the ability to impact one’s career, or prevent one from getting ahead in business.

learned about RBF from pop culture; 71 percent have discussed its implications with colleagues, friends and family; and 36 percent have even had a man bring up to the term to them.

have been told that they “suffer” from RBF, but more than 64 percent believe they exhibit it anyway when they are frustrated, concentrating or if it’s “just their faces.”

have been told they exhibit RBF when they didn’t think they did.

have judged another woman for having RBF.

And eight brave male NJBIZ staffers between ages 21 and 60 also contributed their thoughts:

had heard about RBF.

believed RBF had the potential to negatively impact women in the workplace.

believed RBF could also be attributed to men, with 62 percent stating it also had the potential to negatively impact men in the workplace, too.

Reporting on RBF

When faced with the daunting task of collecting information on this topic, NJBIZ was (unsurprisingly) ignored by men, and (surprisingly) met with positive reactions from women.

The biggest problem for both genders? Not the question of whether RBF actually exists or causes issues in the workplace — but the fact that they would theoretically have to say, in print, the word “bitch.”

It’s easy to see why men opted out — but what’s interesting is that, while women were willing to say it, they were not willing to have such a word attributed to them when quoted.

Rachel Braun Scherl, however, made a good point that RBF seems to be a descriptive term haphazardly created by women for women.

“The ‘B’ in RBF has historically been associated with women,” Scherl said.

“In my mind, it is unprofessional, and when women use it to describe other women — we are only hurting ourselves.”

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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