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Body Language

Poker Face: The Male Advantage

The clash of the non-verbals.

Poker might be thought of as a training ground for developing the masked face. Boys who play this game learn not to give away their hand with their nonverbal expressions, thereby tipping others as to how to bet. Over time, they develop the poker face, which can be a great advantage to them in adulthood during negotiations.

According to matrimonial attorney Eleanor B. Alter, men are "a lot less frightened by negotiating. They're not afraid to offer whatever they think they can get away with. Or they'll say, ‘I'll offer very little and wait them out.' Women have a hard time with that." The poker face helps men seem as if they're maintaining their cool, even if they're not. As Alter explains, "Emotional detachment can be productive."

In a context of a negotiation a woman can borrow and employ the poker face because it doesn't always behoove her to let others know what she feels. Suppose she's in a union negotiation with a union representative she dislikes. It would be smart for her to hide her disgust. We're all in situations when we're with people we don't like. What to do? Women can be more conscious of "controlling" their facial expressions (also other nonverbal cues like posture and gestures). They must watch for overly reactive facial expressions and maintain an air of neutrality. They practice the face they want to wear in the mirror!

There is greater latitude of acceptance for men to assume neutral facial expressions. We expect emotionlessness from them. For women however, the opposite is true. Our expectation is that women should be the happy, cheerful sex, which is reflected in the Smiley-Face Syndrome. Many miscommunications can occur because female and male facial expressive styles vary so profoundly.

Although men might take on an air of neutrality, there is, in truth, no such thing as neutrality in communication. Women perceive blankness negatively. Men's masking of facial expressions causes uneasiness in women, just as it did in Carroll Izard's study of infants with their mothers described above. This is why women often interpret men's monotonic facial expressions as punishing and admonishing or as negative feedback.

The monotonic face is one of the reasons women feel uncomfortable with men. Males can appear unavailable and emotionally inaccessible because it has political value to them; this is the ultimate nonverbal way for them to express their masculine control. (Indeed, Senator Bob Dole consciously tried to smile more during the 1996 presidential campaign to dissociate himself from his image as "Nasty Bob." On the other hand, the "naughty frat boy" smirk hurt George W. Bush's credibility with some voters during the 2000 presidential campaign. )

When a woman can't take a read on the man with whom she is talking, it makes her anxious. She becomes confused and begins to doubt herself. She might even become more animated to spark a reaction, but the man will hold fast to his stony demeanor. Indeed, when a woman increases her expressiveness in this situation, the man may believe that she's becoming overly emotional. This undercuts her credibility. This is one of the occasions that prompts women to complain: "I get in trouble when I'm excited." As a consequence of male facial stonewalling, the woman may cut short the conversation, explode in a rage, or avoid personal contact altogether.

Some men love the stone face because they know that it makes the other person feel uncomfortable and throws them off balance. It puts them in control.

What should a woman do when she encounters this stratagem? I recommend that she recognize this ploy and then hang-tough, refusing to be influenced by it. Or she can use the verbal package to expose the nonverbal, by saying, "I'm not getting a read right now on how you feel about what I'm saying. What do you think?" It's a powerful approach to let a man know that he is not intimidating her.

This was adapted from Audrey's book, You Don't Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes (Prentice Hall 2004).

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