The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Blank Face

Facial sign1. A neutral, relaxed, seemingly "expressionless" face2. The face in repose, with the eyes open and the lips closed. 3. A condition in which the neck, jaw, and facial muscles are neither stretched nor contracted. 4. A baseline "emotionless" face, the muscle tone of which reflects a mood of calmness. 5. The deadpan face we adopt at home alone while resting, reading, or watching TV.

Usage: Though "expressionless," the blank face sends a strong emotional message: "Do Not Disturb." In shopping malls, elevators, and subways, e.g., we adopt neutral faces to distance ourselves from strangers. The blank face is a subtle sign used to keep others a polite distance away. (N.B.: A blank face with naturally downturned lips and creased frown lines may appear "angry" as well.)

Psychiatry. In schizophrenia, "affective flattening" (i.e., an unchanging facial expression) may be seen as a core negative Type II symptom (Andreasen 1984).

Symmetry. In most people, the right and left sides of the blank face basically mirror each other. In people with neurological problems involving the facial nerve (cranial VII, which links to the muscles of expression), however, there may be a slight drooping of the eyelid and of the mouth corner, and a flattening of the nasolabial skin fold (which runs from the nostril bulb to the side of the mouth), on the side of the face affected by the problem. This reflects the underlying background level of muscle tone required to animate the blank face (see below, Neuro-notes).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. "Regardless of whether a person intends to take a line [verbally or nonverbally], he will find that he has come to do so in effect. The other participants will assume that he has more or less willfully taken a stand . . ." (Goffman 1967:5). 2. Infants 7-to-12 weeks old interacting with mothers whose faces were voluntarily immobilized became unhappy and puzzled, grimaced, stared at their own fisted hands, avoided mother's eyes, and made quick glances at the mother (Trevarthen 1977:267). 3. The normal face: "No special expression present but face not slack as in sleep" (Brannigan and Humphries 1972:59). 4. Infants 4-and-6 months old looked significantly more at joyful faces than at angry or neutral-expression faces; the latter two received equal attention (LaBarbera et al. 1976). 5. A review of research on theneutral face shows that, even though faces at rest emote no clear emotions, people respond as if they do. Neutral faces "seem to have a perceptual status comparable to a prototypical expression of basic emotion" (Carrera-Levillain and Fernandez-Dols 1994:282).

E-Commentary: "I was doing a search for the words 'deadpan' and 'expressionless' and I found your web site. I have had a deadpan and expressionless look most of my life. I am now coming to terms with how much it has impacted my life. I believe that it has kept me from being in meaningful relationships. I also have been quiet much of my life. I have a 10 year old son who had a traumatic birth and has a brain injury as a result. He has some of the same expressionless features. It occurred to me that much of what you are talking about is the result of brain injury. There are many people with undiagnosed brain injury. I believe that I am one of them. I think that I have motor problems with my facial muscles, which are not working properly. As a matter of fact, there has been great improvement because of dietary and nutritional changes, but I have never gotten to the point where someone might say that I have charisma. I still want to help my son so desperately." --F.N., USA (5/17/00 11:08:24 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes. The unconscious background level of muscle tone in our face is set by the brain stem's reticular activating system. In the blank face, muscle tone is neither aroused nor sedated, but "normal." Studies show that, as in monkeys, for whom the face sends important emotional signs, neurons in our forebrain's amygdala "respond briskly" to the sight of another person's blank face (LaDoux 1996:254). Blank faces are considered pleasant or unpleasant, and rarely ever neutral. Imaging studies suggest that while encoding pictures of neutral and expressive faces, three brain areas--the temporal cortex, hippocampus, and left prefrontal cortex--show high levels of activity.