I Promise I’m Paying Attention — I Just Have Resting Bored Face

The gendered phenomenon that’s putting your Zoom meetings to the test

A photo of a bored looking woman on a video call on her computer.

No really, I promise. I’m listening.

I know I look like I’m staring into middle distance, actively disassociating from your every word. And, okay, it probably looks uncannily as though I just rolled my eyes at you. Slowly. With a degree of awe-inspiring corneal articulation.

It isn’t what it seems.

This meeting is fascinating; I just have Resting Bored Face

By now, most of us are familiar with the concept ofResting Bitch Face” — what the writer Corinne Purtill describes, in Forge, as “a catchall term for the unsmiling expression some people wear when they’re not thinking about communicating with their face.” It’s also, as Purtill points out, an idea that’s inherently sexist: “That it includes the gendered expletive ‘bitch’ tells us whose faces we’re policing this way,” she writes. These days, with our face-to-face interactions largely modulated through the imperfect technologies of laptop and phone cameras and our devices’ two-dimensional screens, another, similarly gendered phenomenon is primed to edge its way into our awareness: “Resting Bored Face.”

Resting Bored Face is exactly what it sounds like: a facial expression that beholders register as boredom. It’s contextual, too — if you’re noticing it, it’s likely that you’re expecting the face-maker’s attention.

Unlike the other RBF, this occurrence hasn’t made its way into the annals of Urban Dictionary just yet, but the concept may be familiar to some who spend far too much time in certain corners of the social web. You know it if you’ve seen it. And, whether a lifelong affliction or circumstantially ascribed, you likely know it if you have one.

On Twitter, for example, the term appears intermittently — usually in the form of a tweeter’s wry self-diagnosis, but occasionally as an observation of another person’s presumed facial predicament. In more than one instance, Resting Bored Face is attributed to the pop star Dua Lipa. Country singer Kacey Musgraves has also been put forward as a potential sufferer. And in a 2019 post on Reddit’s asktrp — as in, Ask The Red Pillforum, a user asks his fellow misogynist conspiracy enthusiasts whether “this face of perpetual un-excitement and boredom” is intended as a kind of “female sexual strategy.”

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

Surprise! It’s about bias

A whole constellation of individual behaviors and adjacent interpersonal dynamics can be summed up by a single, basic fact: Women, and other individuals belonging to one or more marginalized identity groups, are subject to greater physical scrutiny than our white male counterparts. What’s more, we’re expected to perform pleasantness. It’s the same dynamic that undergirds the “smile, honey” trope, which has become a de facto shorthand for the kind of casual sexism that becomes normalized in a patriarchal society.

While most of us have presumably, by now, have gotten the memo about why and how it’s rude to ask any woman to smile, we may still be subconsciously beholden to certain parallel, deep-seated cultural biases. These biases can inform where — or, more precisely, to whom — we direct our attention, and how we interpret what we perceive. In the context of perceived racial and cultural difference, sociologists refer to this phenomenon as “hypervisibility,” but the concept can be broadened to apply to any individuals who don’t fit the “normative” physicality of power-holders in their milieu. It is, as the USC scholars Katheryn Wright and Kristin Novotny aptly describe it, the difference between “being seen and being watched.”

Resting Bored Face in a time of quarantine

At the same time, a majority of us are presently struggling to adapt to a whole new way of living, a “new normal” that’s set to continue for a yet-undetermined period of time. Our emotional resilience is low, and so may be our individual abilities to ape the mannerisms of rapt enthusiasm on a Zoom screen as we work and socialize via videoconference, from homes we’re discouraged from leaving. The conditions are ripe for Resting Bored Face to become an interpersonal liability.

For both the observer and the observed, Resting Bored Face presents a test of empathy and perspective. We’re all a little distracted and preoccupied and, for many of us, present circumstances may very well be getting in the way of garden-variety “emoting.” And, as we buckle down in our collective mission to get through this difficult time with psychological faculties intact, others of us may be less inclined to check ourselves (before we wreck ourselves) and nip subconscious preconceptions in the bud.

The solution is two-pronged

Interrogate, then communicate. If you suspect someone’s zoning out during your virtual presentation or Happy Hour spiel, first ask yourself why you noticed that person’s emotional reaction (or lack thereof) as opposed to others’. Might you be unwittingly hypervigilant of some individuals’ expressions on account of subconscious biases? Try not to be too hard on yourself, but do be honest in your self-scrutiny.

After you’ve interrogated your own perspective and motivations, you might conclude that it’s worth opening a discussion with the other person about how they’re doing. You can mention that you noticed the other person looked less engaged in recent conversations than usual, and you can ask them how they’re feeling. It’s important not to accuse, but rather, to listen. The objective here is to identify the issue and arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.

And fellow RBF sufferers, don’t be ashamed to admit your condition! “I wasn’t rolling my eyes; that’s just me trying to soothe my seasonal allergy eyeball itch without touching my face,” you might say. Or, “What looked like slack-jawed disassociation was just good old-fashioned mouth-breathing; I’m congested from the morning’s crying jag.”

Feelings can seem like a minefield, but they’re unavoidable territory within human coexistence. What better gift than to learn to confront them, while unlearning biases to boot?

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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