Chinese “Relaxed Face”

February 21, 2010

I feel like I should write something, but I just had myself an unbelievable New Year break, and I don’t feel like ruining the feeling with any sort of hardcore analysis, so we’re going to go easy today. (*1) Okay? Well, actually – I don’t really care if you’re okay with that, because I am.

It goes like this:

Back in the States, I very often had people ask me if I was angry. Now, some of the times I was, but the vast majority of the time I was asked this, it was when I was just bored or sort of spaced-out, mentally. Staff meetings. Workshops I attended. Public transportation. That kind of thing.

So I looked into this little phenomenon, and it turned out that – when my face is totally relaxed, and my mind is wandering – I look kind of mean or angry. I just do. I can be thinking about the most lovely things in the world, but if I really just let my face "go," I look contemptuous, at best.

And once I realized that, it explained so much. That was the reason that nobody ever seemed to want to sit next to me on public transportation – because who wants to sit next to the scary mean guy, right? (*2) It was the reason people often told me that they were scared of me upon first meeting me, or that I seemed "intimidating." In new social situations, people seldom sought me out first. Because I space out a lot, and thus – I look mean a lot. And we’ll just let the mean guy meet us at his own pace . . . (*3)

It was a revelation. I found myself experimenting a little bit by consciously changing my facial expressions when I was bored on the bus, or wherever, to see how people reacted. And most of the time – my little theory seemed to be proven correct. More people seemed to sit next to me, and people just responded differently to me, in general.

And then I moved to China. And as time went on, I noticed something – Chinese folks often look angry or "mean," too. (*4)

I’ve watched endless crowds of bored Chinese folks on the subway, and the majority look kind of mad. Irritated. Perhaps, they really are all mad and irritated (Chinese subways at rush-hour will do that to you). But it’s the store clerks, as well. And passersby on the street. And older folks just sitting on benches soaking up sun in the park. So it’s got to be more than just irritation. Maybe they all have the same "relaxed face" situation that I do. Maybe a semi-mean "relaxed face" is a Chinese thing. Maybe, in this particular little way, I actually look more Chinese than I first thought.

Wouldn’t that be a strange form of "self-discovery" living out here?

Of course – I’m not around any non-Chinese folks enough to really test this theory fully, so I present a homework assignment to my readers (*5):

Next time you’re on a bus, or the subway, or in traffic and can get a good look at the faces around you, note the expressions. Which folks look mean? Which ones just look "bored"? Do Chinese (or other Asian, perhaps) folks look meaner? Or does everybody just look pissed off when their faces are relaxed? (*6)

These are important questions – and I know you all are just the ones for the job.

The fate of the world is in your hands – and if you fail . . . well, I would bet I’ll look disappointed, at the very least.

(*1) My posts last week were all written in advance . . . took me some time to just enjoy the holiday.

(*2) Seriously – some people would elect to stand in the aisle even though the last, perfectly-free seat was open next to me. I often felt like race played into that, as well, and it probably did, to a certain degree.

(*3) And this past summer I added facial scarring – above my right eye – to the mix, which probably makes me look even meaner.

(*4) I’ve got this one favorite lady who sells zhīma qiú (these f-ing brilliant sesame-ball treats) who just looks so disdainful and hateful every time she serves me. I thought she just hates stupid foreigners, but then I realized she always looks like that. But maybe she’s just bored.

(*5) Who have been quiet as Hell, lately, by the way . . .

(*6) This reminds me of a great bit of research Glotto did that exposed the fact that people tend to "remember" black folks in a crowd as being "angry" if anybody else in that crowd was angry, while "remembering" that the original "angry" person was calm. I.e. if a white man in a crowd had an angry face, but there was a black man in that same crowd, participants would "remember" the black man as looking angry and the white man as looking neutral. Glotto – you have a link to better explain that one for me?



  1. For whatever it’s worth (probably not much), I grew up with a lot of Chinese and Korean friends, their families… never noticed an ‘angry face.’ I wonder if other Chinese folks think so too.

  2. My resting face looks sad or unhappy and in high school people used to come up to me and ask me what was wrong or if I was ok (usually boys, I think). Now I just get random men commanding me to “smile!” I’m a white woman and I’m sure that plays into how people respond to me.
    Because of this I have been paying attention to other people’s resting faces for a while and many people just look content or neutral. I haven’t seen any trends that I’ve noticed that correspond with race but I haven’t specifically looked for a pattern either though. I’ll start paying more attention now and see what I notice.

  3. Hmmm, maybe you are dealing with a similar facial expression for different reasons. Perhaps the people you see around you look “angry” b/c you are in an urban area (or at least that is my impression by your descriptions) so more people are on guard with their back up. Also, since in some ways, at least from my biased Western POV, the Chinese experience more societal oppression and have fewer overall freedoms they can express so as part of being oppressed they have a lot of repressed anger and it is safer to look angry than to actually act it out. Kind of like how people in America think black people look angry a lot, though the repression has a different root cause. Or maybe you just happen to be paying attention when some not so happy campers are around. Plus, we Americans seem to put a premium on pretending to seem happy when we aren’t so maybe that is the difference you are noticing.

    As for you “looking angry” in America, maybe as a very racially aware POC in America you are carrying a lot around with you and have a lot to be angry about and that is what people tell you they see.

    However, like the first commenter I grew up with a reasonable minority of Asian folks, mostly Chinese and Korean (but more whites than anything else), and never noticed them looking particularly angry, though I was a self-absorbed black teen who was pretty angry and alientated myself so maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. I currently work in Chinatown in DC, and though it is fairly small, I have not noticed the Chinese folks who I see looking particularly angry.

  4. I get a lot of “what’s wrong?” especially when I’m concentrating on something. And I may be perfectly fine. I notice in various situations, I will purposely lift the corner of my lips up, especially when listening to make the person feel more at ease and have them feel that I am more perceptive to them. (It works).

    I personally don’t notice angry faces too much with POC…I think I find in my work, or people watching more white people with angry faces. I wonder in part that is the percentage is higher because I live in an area that lacks diversity or for other reasons?

    Being a “feeling” person, I have more of a sensory experience of anger or calmness from others in the vibes they put off, regardless of what they may be saying or their body language. I think even with someone smiling they can be angry, it is just the face they “put on”. Also something to consider is cultural appropriateness in expression. In the past I have looked at family photos and have asked my mom while no one is smiling? (e.g. wedding photos) Her response is this is a serious moment. The other thing I have become aware of is that some people will cover their smile or their laugh, hiding their expression or emotion.

    In addition, culturally there is also a tendency to look at different aspects of one’s face to read emotion. Literature suggests that Westerners focus on the mouth and Asians will focus more on the eyes. With that being said, a person with a relaxed face may not exaggerate or turn the corners of their mouth up into a smile which may resemble a frown or angry face.

    I had the opportunity last night to go to a New Years celebration and benefit dinner for the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. I didn’t notice angry faces in the crowd. And whether or not they were smiling or spaced out I felt at ease. And in some ways that is where it sits….people are propelled by their own fear and insecurities, creating more distance between each other.

  5. No link yet for the research on expressions leaping between faces, but it’ll be out in a few months and I’ll send it along then. You’ve got it right, too, only I would say it’s more of a tendency than an absolute thing (sometimes people see anger leaping to White men — they just tend to see it leaping to Black men).

    In the meantime, what do you think of this article, from the most recent issue of the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology (having trouble finding a public link to the full article, so I’ll just paste the abstract here). They trained a computer program to recognize different expressions on white faces, and then used that program to judge what emotions neutral Korean, Black, and White faces seemed to express.

    Facial Resemblance to Emotions: Group Differences, Impression Effects, and Race Stereotypes

    Leslie A. Zebrowitz, Masako Kikuchi and Jean-Marc Fellous

    The authors used connectionist modeling to extend previous research on emotion overgeneralization effects. Study 1 demonstrated that neutral expression male faces objectively resemble angry expressions more than female faces do, female faces objectively resemble surprise expressions more than male faces do, White faces objectively resemble angry expressions more than Black or Korean faces do, and Black faces objectively resemble happy and surprise expressions more than White faces do. Study 2 demonstrated that objective resemblance to emotion expressions influences trait impressions even when statistically controlling possible confounding influences of attractiveness and babyfaceness. It further demonstrated that emotion overgeneralization is moderated by face race and that racial differences in emotion resemblance contribute to White perceivers’ stereotypes of Blacks and Asians. These results suggest that intergroup relations may be strained not only by cultural stereotypes but also by adaptive responses to emotion expressions that are overgeneralized to groups whose faces subtly resemble particular emotions.

    • Oh I see you called it a tendency, too. Nevermind.

  6. I’d like to read the whole article…I’ll search for it online.

    My initial thought is that depending on your cultural norm of expression would be how you might interpret another person’s expression. If you had 4 different people from different ethnic groups looking at the expression of the persons face their responses would not necessarily be the same. I think that is why there is so much confusion and discord. Any person may not be able to identify what the expression is or based on their knowledge might assume that it is of anger, etc. their defenses go up and begin creating and/or justifying their own belief systems as a coping mechanism to keep them safe. In addition, one will recruit others that have similar belief systems to continue on in their attitude and behavior. I’m speaking in broad and general terms. By no means am I an expert on the human psyche or behavior. These are just my personal thoughts. What do you think?

  7. Haha great point. My bored face, sleepy face, confused face all look kind of angry and it bugged me when at a party, people insist that I was unhappy or pissed off (which incidently did actually make me angry)

  8. During my travel in Canada I notice that Chinese look really really angry. I even remember asking my friends about it. In Israel you don’t see those expressions too often. Only if people are actually angry.
    I even found the photos from Canadian parks and market really awful, because it had so many angry faces in the frame. Everytime I had interaction with Chinese in Canada I felt like Im totally disturbing them, almost like they hate me or something.
    Now I read some article about bikes in China and it had photo in it. Just some shot from the street, but look at them: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/8762228/China-falls-back-in-love-with-the-bicycle.html

    It seems like they not only dont know how to smile but don’t have neutral relaxed expressions at all.
    I was hoping I’ll find some answer here, and Im really happy that someone mentioned the “issue” online.
    Now… I do believe some people just have kind of angry face naturally, but its something about Chinese that particulary disturbs me: they ALL look like they hate you.
    I really wonder: why?

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