a) Avoid her -- she's clearly in a bad mood.
b) Go ask her, "Are you okay?" "Is everything alright?" or some variation thereof
c) Treat her like a normal person who happens to not be smiling
If you answered anything but C, you are a rude, sexist jerk.
But, chances are, the woman feels fine -- she's just a normal human being who happens to not be smiling. Asking her if she's okay, then, is obnoxious. And it can make her feel bad or ugly. And it's an intrusion. And possibly, also, a mood killer. If this confuses you -- how can a woman possibly be okay if she's not smiling?! -- let country star Kacey Musgraves break it down for you:
Resting "This Is Just a Totally Neutral Expression" Face
Resting "My Mind Was Elsewhere For a Minute" Face
Resting "Please Stop Asking What's Wrong" Face
Resting "This Wouldn't Bother You If I Were a Guy" Face
Why? Because in order to have a smooth, tension-free interaction with someone, actions and reactions need to be complementary. You can't both act high in agency -- if you did, the alternative is conflict and confrontation, which most people try to avoid.
But this morning, I read I'm Not Mad. This Is Just My Resting Bitch Face in the... wait for it... New York Times.
For those who need a review, RBF is a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless. It’s the kind a person may make when thinking hard about something — or perhaps when they’re not thinking at all.
A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.
“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?” the publication wrote, noting the seeming absurdity of a business publication tackling RBF.
“But, after calling around the state asking more than a dozen C-suite women in multiple industries to weigh in on the subject, we noticed one thing: No one ever scoffed or even asked, ‘Why would this matter?’ ”
Yes, the tyranny of RBF is real.
For Nora Long, a 22-year-old intern at a Florida law firm, the struggle began in kindergarten, when her school’s headmaster summoned her to his office “because he thought I looked unhappy.” “From that day on until he left the school when I was in the seventh grade,” Ms. Long said, “he would say ‘Smile Nora!’ every time he saw me.”
Morra Aarons-Mele, a small-business owner in Los Angeles, said she “Botoxed away” her “congenital frown line” so that people would stop asking, “Are you mad?” “Then people were warmer to me — I swear,” she said.
Because, seriously... WHO DOES THAT?
Here's how I handle it:
The first time someone asks this, I tell them, "I'm not mad, but I will be if you ever ask me that again. Unless I'm lying in a pool of blood, do not ask me if I'm okay. It's rude, it's disempowering... and why would you even ask that?"
90% of the time, the person cleverly retorts, "Are you okay?!"
So I say, "Seriously. Don't ever ask me that again."
The second time they ask, I do get mad. Because if a woman is not being respected, it's important for her to be rude. ("Rude." Because if I calmly asked them not to do something, but they did it anyway and I got mad, I'm the "rude" one. Because if someone asks me an intrusive, disempowering question and it bothers me, I'm the rude one.)
And, while we're talking about it, here are a few other totally rude, stupid questions you should not be asking or saying:
- Long day?
- You look tired!
- Are you feeling well?
- Did you get enough sleep last night?
Because why? Why would you ask someone something like this? Either they are tired/sick/stressed, and they're just trying to make it through the day... or they're totally fine, and you just made them feel like they look like shit.
I'll end this post the same way I ended Stop Asking People If They're Okay - Ask This Instead:
There are so many better things you could be asking them. Questions that remind them that they still have agency, independence, and autonomy. And that you care, and are totally ready to support them, if and when they need it.
Questions (and, I guess, statements) like:
- How's it going?
- What're you working on these days?
- Let's catch up soon -- like really catch up. What's your schedule look like this week?
- You've always been really good at ___. Can I pick your brain for a project I've been working on?
- You're an important friend to me.
- If you ever need anything, let me know! You were totally there for me that time when _____.
- Wanna go for a walk? I'd love to get outside for a bit today! We can talk about whatever. Or we can just listen to the birds.
- I'm pretty much going to sit at my house alone and watch Netflix tonight. I'd love it if you'd sit with me. Or we can go to your place -- you have that awesome couch!
- Can I get some advice about _____?
- You look great today!
- It's SO GREAT to see you!
- Seeing you always makes my day!
- I was JUST thinking about you! Remember that time we ________!?
- Get over here and give me a huge hug!! (you know, if that's appropriate in the context of your relationship)
- I saw that you accomplished _____. Way to go!
- I've been on this thing lately where I've been asking people, "What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?" What's yours?
- This is sort of random -- but what are three things about yourself that are important to you?
Because, let's be real. Whoever you're talking to, anywhere in the world, each of these questions is better, more personal, and more interesting than some generic, scripted question like, "Are you okay?" I mean, if that's the best you can come up with, why not just delete your default SMS app and replace it with Yo?
And let's be more real. People who used a mindful, thoughtful greeting like the ones above are also seen as warmer and more charismatic. (Remember: charisma is a science, not an art.) So... get mindful. Be a better conversationalist. Treat people like people, and ask better questions.