From the age of 6 to until I moved out, nothing got me more riled up than someone in my family asking me ‘why are you upset?’
They are not asking because they care that I am upset, they are asking because they feel obligated to ask a child who is upset how she’s doing (they don’t want to appear to be shitty people) and the fact that I am upset about something is more of an annoyance or a nuisance that they need to resolve rather than any concern for my wellbeing or feelings. Chinese families are not known for caring about the feelings of children. The oft heard conversation at home is ‘why are you upset? You are well fed, clothed and sheltered, you don’t work, everything is done for you, you’ve no reason to be unhappy.’ Well, maybe because of you? Just a thought. I learned early on no one really gave a shit why I was upset or what was was bothering me or why a promise made to me by a grown up was being broken again. So, I felt no need to bare my soul to them.
This trend continued through adulthood except it changed from ‘why are you upset?’ to people getting upset at me for being upset or being in a not-so-sunny mood. I am no Katie Couric. The whole idea of a Katie Couric, the perpetually perky and smiley persona is my ultimate nightmare. No one over the age of 12 should be allowed to be that perky. It’s unnatural and creepy. I am unable to hold a coherent conversation with another human until after my third cup of coffee and it’s past 10:00 AM. I can’t help it. It’s genetic. My 92 year old grandmother growled at me one morning because I greeted her ‘good morning’ too early. The coffee was still brewing. I looked at her knowingly and apologized. My dad refuses to look at another human in the morning until he’s on his third cup of coffee and second cigarette. Yet, in spite of all this, the mornings are when I get harassed the most and the my harassers get upset with me for being upset that I am harassed so early in the morning. Is it any wonder the divorce rate is at 50%?
The comments went from a question to ‘your face is so serious’, ‘your face is too unfriendly’ or ‘your face puts people off’. All of a sudden it’s my fault that other people don’t like how my face hangs. Yes, I get it, my face hangs like a miserable cow sometimes because, well, I am a miserable cow some days and I need not explain why I feel like a miserable cow unless you are prepared to do something about it. It may have nothing or absolutely everything to do with the person asking, but I don’t feel compelled to respond. Also, be aware of the question you are asking another, you may just get the answer in the most direct unvarnished way and it may not be pretty. Law School 101, do not ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. It applies in the courtroom and it applies to people too.
Going back to my childhood days, I suppose some of the scorn I received was justified. In my young mind I had a list of ‘favorite grownups’ and they started with my grandfather at the top, he was my favorite person of all time, then came my mother and father when they were around, my grandmother, then came my maternal aunt, my mother’s only sister at a very distant fourth. Everyone else simply didn’t register on my radar. I did not care for them nor did I make any attempt to appear to like them. These people were uncles, other aunts and distant relatives and family friends. In a Chinese household, respect for elders is very important and as long as I was able to maintain a modicum of respectful behavior, I was able get away with my contempt. And as long as my grandfather approved of me and had no problems with me, I felt no need to modify my hierarchy of favorite grownups.
The few times where I was in a good enough mood to confide in whomever was asking how I was, I was always bitterly disappointed. My grandmother and my aunt do not have the ability to just listen, nod and offer a sympathetic ear. No, they must interject themselves into my situation somehow made it about them and then proceed to tell me what I’d done wrong and so whatever happened was my fault. If only I did this instead of that, if only I said this instead of that…When I was younger, I never knew why my grandmother and my aunt were so irritating to me and why each time after I talked to them about anything, from wearing the wrong jeans to a situation at school, I felt worse not better and what’s even worse, I felt irritated. I hated myself for even saying anything, it was the biggest waste of my time trying to explain my feelings and perceptions to a couple of emotionally static people who could not understand subtlety. It’s like their brain short circuited when it came to situations like that. Then in college, the very last time I confided anything serious with them and it backfired again, I said this was it. They were lovely people, the helped raise me and I wouldn’t be here without them, but me and they just do not get along. They were women of a different time, different era, different generation with different thinking and we were never going to see eye to eye about anything. Afterwards, my grandmother said ‘you don’t talk to me anymore’. With the exception of my grandfather and my parents, this was sort of the trend when I confided anything serious with anyone. So I stopped confiding in people. I just developed a miserable face, which worked fine with me. Later I found out, my mother like me, was unable to confide in her mother and sister, for the same reasons, except she was less scathing in her criticism.
In continuation of my post yesterday about expectations of women in society vis a vis men, women having to continually plaster on a smile so that people around us don’t feel uncomfortable or threatened or worse, feel the need to make it better. When I begun working, I always kept my personal life away from my work life. Work was just that, work. It’s not a social club and besides perfunctory office etiquette, I feel no need to adjust my facial expressions so that others don’t feel upset that I am upset. I don’t work in sales, I am not a diplomat, I rarely came into contact with customers so I am not required to twist my emotions into a pretzel to please everyone. But somehow, society never got this memo.
I was tattled on by a male co-worker once, he said that I was ‘difficult to approach’, which is funny, my office door was required to remain open and my job required me to be available to all sales staff, both requirements I executed faithfully. When I pressed further, it was my face, my stony expression. I told our manager to tell him he’s reading too much into nothing and he may continue to approach me as he needs. If my face bothers him, he can talk to me and not look at it, I won’t mind, I don’t take shit like that personally. Given ‘situations’ like these, the invention of emails is a godsend. I can be as polite, sweet and malleable as I need on paper without costing me an ounce in irritation. Same goes for phone communication, I can be ‘polite’ and ‘accommodating’ on the phone even though my face is twisted like an angry cloud. That trick where you smile while you are talking really works.
This incident led to me question for the first time, why am I responsible for his feelings? He doesn’t like how my face hung, don’t look at it. That’s why email was invented. Did you really need to go running to mommy? If something about me makes another person uncomfortable, and it’s not anything rude I’d done or said, why is my problem to fix? Is that even a legitimate complaint? She makes me feel uncomfortable, but when pressed for details, they can’t give any?
There’s a phenomenon called Resting Bitch Face (RBF), yes, someone actually came up with a term for women who wear permanent scowls or when they are not smiling they are scowling, you can’t make this shit up. It’s not a Relaxed Happy Face or Joker Smile Face, it’s Resting Bitch Face (RBF) and I think it’s awesome. Bravo to those who have it. Where in this messed up society where people think it’s a requirement to appear happy at all time, especially if contrasted with the rates of depression, how can scores of women be suffering from depression but should have a happy face all the time? Do we wear a happy face so others feel comfortable? Is it like the grieving widow, she doesn’t want her friends to feel uncomfortable with her loss and grief so she says nothing and pretends she’s fine so others don’t feel awkward and not know what to say?
We are not responsible for the feelings of others. It’s not my problem that you feel uncomfortable with how my face hangs. You can assume whatever you like about me just make sure I don’t hear about it. If our RBF makes others uncomfortable, get comfortable, because it’s here to stay.