Faces we Wear in Public

I recently read a blog post recently by Anastasia titled, “The anxiety monster”. In her post, Anastasia describes what life is like in her shoes. Anastasia lives with some issues that many of us will never face, while others live with them daily. Anastasia is a brave woman who’s heart is in the right place, and wishes to help others as she is able.

Moving from the brevity of Anastasia’s post to reflect on creating and wearing your face as a mask when in public is the point of this post. Anastasia writes, she turns her face into a mask when going out in public. The idea being that no one will be able to decipher her true self or feelings, if she keeps her face set to mask. As I believe Anastasia understands the process, if there are no facial expressions, there is nothing for people to judge or process about her.

While the idea of people turning their faces into a mask when out in public, sounds good on the surface, there are drawbacks to this behavior. Being emotionless has its place in public, but not always, and not for most people.

Being emotionless may let us think we are indecipherable. No one can read our thoughts, see our fears, or determine our mood. We feel we can look at other people while wearing our mask, and they will not judge us, or form an opinion of us, because we are wearing our public mask.

There are some downsides turning our faces into masks. We have been looking at each other since we were born. We are experts at seeing through what wearing a public mask can not hide. These are not obvious things, but they are there all the same if we are looking for them.

One of the first tools foreigners use in a new land is watching facial expressions and body posture. Even without knowing a word of the language, much can be determined simply by posture and facial expression. Even the lack of expression is expression after all.

We can not hide subtle details of our face changing with our momentary flashes of emotion. Namely around our eyes and lips. These are areas of our faces which we have little control over. Eyes in particular flash emotion, caused by subtle changes of the skin around our eyes.

When someone suddenly becomes angry, subtle changes take place around their eyes. From a casual glance we are not aware that we have seen the changes, yet we know that person is suddenly angry. If asked we usually can not describe how we know what we know about another person is feeling in the moment.

Surprise or fear are two other emotions that are apparent even when we try to keep our face under control. When someone is suddenly surprised or becomes fearful, no matter how they try to control that emotion, it flashes across their face. Anyone watching picks up on that surprise or fear because it momentarily flashes across their face like a neon sign.

Other emotions follow suit, flashing across peoples faces, letting the world see what they feel no matter how they try to control their face. There really is little one can do about these facial expressions commonly called “micro expressions“.

No mask here, I'm tired the sun is in my eyes.

No mask here, I’m tired the sun is in my eyes.

A second concern Anastasia writes about is people judging her in public. If her public mask is place, she feels people can not pass judgement on her.  With her face in a neutral expression, what is there to judge? This too is a sound idea in theory, but simply not true.

Human beings continously pass judgement on other human beings. True, if we are treating our face as an emotionless mask, people may form the wrong opinion of us, but they will form opinions of us all the same. This is something we do without thinking.

Forming opinions by watching expressions others is how a salesperson knows when to apply pressure and when to back off. Forming an opinion is how the beggar knows we are an easy mark or not. Forming opinions of interviewed suspects is how police begin to solve cases.

At the very worst, someone may be attracted to our public mask and form an opinion of us that is simply not true. Then we are confronted with someone forming an opinion of us being someone we really are not.

Turning our face into a public mask to hide may feel secure, but we humans are smart. We generally are not fooled by anothers attempt at deception by wearing a public mask. We are well trained and have honed our skills in deciphering faces and the emotions they display.

We prefer to keep our inside or private us partially hidden away unless we are behind closed doors where we can safely be ourselves. To a large extent we all wear masks in public. Only our masks are closer to the real us.  In public we become actors taking on a bit part, representing what we want the world to think of us.

Actors and Actresses do this very well. They take on roles portraying a character that may be nothing like themselves. They adapt the persona they need to use while performing. Which is what we do, only we are not well trained actors. We make more mistakes.

We put on a face we want to be seen with in public. Perhaps we look happy, content, or curious. We may want to look seductive, or aloof. Depending on the level of interaction we want, we make subtle changes to our public face, prehaps pretending to be more than we reallyare. We put our best self forward, and we hope we are not caught acting.

Wearing a blank face is not fooling anyone. People will still judge, forming opinions that may or may not be true because of the face we wear. People are good at seeing through our masks generally. It is simpler to be ourselves. People will form opinions of us anyway, so what does it matter?