The meeting is going smoothly. Mr Nagatomi is about to sign a deal that will help you crack open the Japanese market and make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. But wait, what’s happening? Nagatomi whispers something to his translator and she nods. You look at your lawyer in confusion. The deal is off. Nagatomi leaves the room. His translator gathers her papers. You ask her what happened. She gestures to her face and tells you he didn’t like your expression. What expression? You swear your face was just resting. Then you realise.
Though crudely named, ‘resting bitch face’ is a well-documented phenomenon, and it could put thousands of cross-language meetings at risk every day.
What is RBF?
‘Resting bitch face’, as you may have guessed, is a term that originated on the internet. It is used to describe an angry or sad expression that manifests on one’s face involuntarily when, as far as they know, their face is merely ‘resting’.
One of the first non-meme discussions of ‘resting bitch face’ (or the more savory ‘RBF’ as it can be known) came from New York Times columnist Jessica Bennett. Bennett described her shock at seeing her ‘RBF’ expression when she watched back one of her recent TV segments. Her RBF article discusses celebrities who have been victims of RBF (Victoria Beckham, Anna Kendrick, Kanye West) and discusses the gendered nature of the term. Because despite Kanye’s presence in that parenthetical list, women are accused of RBF far more than men.
The science behind RBF is now well-established. Researchers at Noldus used their FaceReader software to analyse the neutral expressions of celebrities known to have ‘RBF’, and found that these individuals did indeed register higher levels of contempt and scorn in their resting faces.
RBF is bad enough between people of the same language, but it could be even more devastating in a multi-lingual conversation.
What resting bitch face could mean around the world
RBF falls under the umbrella of body language, and as we know here at London Translations, body language can be very different from culture to culture. Chinese body language, for example, can be wildly different from the body language of an English-speaker. In China, smiling after someone else’s misfortune is considered polite, not mocking. In Chinese culture, and indeed many others, pointing with a single finger is considered accusatory and rude (an open palm is used instead).
Even as close to home as France, body language can be difficult for a non-native to grasp. ‘Air kissing’ is perhaps surprisingly a big part of French business communication, but only with familiar partners. It is not always obvious when you and a French businessperson become familiar enough to do this . RBF is not likely to be a problem in France, since smiling communicates very little.
Even within these cultures it is difficult to know exactly what your body language, RBF or no, might be communicating, since different areas of a country can have varying interpretations.
How to make sure RBF (or any kind of body language) misinterpretation doesn’t ruin your meeting
The only way to adequately prepare yourself for a cross-cultural meeting, especially if you suffer from RBF, is to work with an experienced interpreter who is either a native of the country, or knows the culture well enough to pass as one. Translation can help you understand the words, but it takes an interpreter to truly communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers. Your interpreter can teach you correct etiquette before you start an international meeting, so you can put worries about RBF behind you and start closing those deals.