Ronald Riggio, PhD, has been doing research at the California State University at Fullerton for over seventeen years. He’s been trying to find out what makes a person attractive to other people. He officially studies charisma. One important factor Riggio has discovered is the importance of “emotional expressivity”: the ability to show your emotions on your face so people can easily read how you feel. People who don’t show much emotion on their faces don’t attract us very much. That’s one of his findings that seems pretty obvious.
But Riggio found something that’s not so obvious: Charisma also requires the ability to not show emotions. He calls it “emotional control.” It’s what I’m calling a “poker face” because when you play poker and you get an exceptionally good hand, you don’t want anyone else to know. Likewise, if you get a poor hand, you don’t want them to know — it gives your opponents an advantage in betting against you. While you’re playing poker, the basic rule of thumb is to not ever register your feelings overtly. The only thing that might give you away is the look on your face, so you have to show as little emotion on your face as you can.
Improving your ability to have a poker face when you need it (and only when you need it) can increase your effectiveness with people. Why? Because emotions are contagious when they can be seen. When you look at someone who is laughing, it tends to make you feel like laughing, doesn’t it? Sure. And when you see someone crying, it can make you feel a little sad. Naturally. That’s why good actors are so highly valued. They can make us feel emotions. We all have a tendency to experience the emotion we see on someone’s face.
But, you may ask, what’s wrong with that?
Nothing really, except sometimes. The problem is that there are some emotions you wouldn’t want another to have. Two examples are anger and social awkwardness. When you’re angry and you show it, the other person will probably become angry or defensive or afraid to some degree — they can see on your face your blood pressure is up, and their body will respond by increasing their own blood pressure. This rising intensity tends to interfere with communication.
Something similar happens when a person feels socially awkward. When you talk with someone who feels awkward because they don’t quite know what to do and it shows, you feel somewhat awkward, too, don’t you? Or how about when someone giving a speech feels uncomfortable up there in front of the group? Don’t you also squirm in your seat a little just watching?
In these kinds of circumstances, the people would be better off and the people they’re talking to would be better off if they would learn to conceal those particular emotions when they feel them.
We have all learned there are times when it is not appropriate to say certain things. You don’t say to a widow at the funeral “the dude owed me money.” At certain times and for certain situations, we all know some things are better left unsaid. Well, the emotion on your face is nonverbal, but it is still communication, and sometimes it is counterproductive to say nonverbally “I’m angry” or “I feel awkward.”
The good news is that you can learn to put on a poker face when you need it. I’m not suggesting phoniness or pretending you’re happy when you’re angry. But there are times it helps to show no emotion on your face. It’s a skill like any other, and it can be improved with practice.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.