When I lived in Los Angeles it felt like some stranger or another was constantly ordering me to “smile!” I was a criminal defense lawyer with the Los Angeles Public Defender which meant I regularly struggled with seeing people at their worst, seeing tragedy, and incredible ugliness. Not exactly the kind of working world that makes one smile from ear to ear.

At the time, some judges had juries fill out evaluations after trial. The last day I read the jury evaluations was the day that I read one from a juror who wrote “the defense lawyer should smile more.” That “advice” still confuses me. What exactly should I be smiling about? My client being charged with a crime? The prosecutor calling witnesses that have nothing good to say about my client? My client getting convicted? My client getting sentenced to years in prison? But, the New York Times offers a possible answer. I’m betting that what that juror objected to was my “resting bitch face.” Yes, this is a term. Those in the know (which I wasn’t) refer to it as RBF.

According to the New York Times, this is a problem almost exclusively for women. We are, it seems, supposed to always have some happy expression plastered on our faces. Celebrities caught with the dreaded RBF are accused of looking “absolutely miserable” in the midst of events where they are supposed to be smiling and happy. But, it isn’t only celebrities who are told to smile and look happy. The article quoted Rachel Simmons who said:

“When a man looks stern, or serious, or grumpy, it’s simply the default…we don’t inherently judge the moodiness of a male face. But as women, we are almost expected to put on a smile, so if we don’t, it’s deemed ‘bitchy.'”

We all know that non-verbal communication matters and the article points out that looking too serious at the wrong times can be off-putting (which is sometimes a good thing).

But, what the article misses is that this is not universal. One of the many joys of living in Eastern Europe for all the years that I did is the no one said to me “smile.” Not once. Walking around with a vapid smile plastered on one’s face is not a cultural value for women (or men) in many other countries. In my experience, people seem to understand that everyone isn’t happy all the time. There seems to be a greater understanding that sometimes life is boring or serious and that smiles are not always appropriate. There is also a recognition that not smiling doesn’t mean you aren’t happy or content or friendly or helpful. It just means you aren’t smiling.

Unfortunately, back here in the USA, it seems that we women have to focus on not having a RBF, at least not when photographed. And, as much as it isn’t easy for all of us, I do recognize that the RBF probably doesn’t do dispute resolution professionals any favors as it can be off-putting. But, as the article asked, “who has the energy to smile to strangers all day, anyway?” The challenge is figuring out when to put it on and when not. At least for those of us who aren’t blessed with a resting smiley face.

Cyntha Alkon is an Associate Professor of Law at Texas A&M University School of Law. Prior to joining academia, she was a criminal defense lawyer and worked in rule of law development in Eastern Europe and Central Asia focusing on criminal justice reform issues. She is a contributor of ADR Prof Blog.