Life

The perils of having an overly-expressive face when your life exists on Zoom calls

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Kayleigh Dray
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A woman covering her face at her computer

Prepare to feel seen if you, too, are the ‘confused Winona Ryder’ meme brought to life.  

I’d like to, if I may, take you on a brief journey back in time. I was a junior writer, with big ideas, and I was busily making a career for myself. Not to brag, but it was going well: my performance had received praise from senior staff, I was hitting all my targets, and I’d secured myself a brilliant mentor, too.

The problem? Well, my overly-expressive face: think Jim from The Office, whenever he looks directly at the camera.

The situation got so critical, in fact, that I was once pulled aside by my aforementioned mentor for a quiet word of advice. Basically: control your bloody face, please, or you will never, ever get promoted.

“Your face,” my manager said, rubbing the back of her neck awkwardly. “I’m not sure if you know this, but it gives everything away. When [insert name of colleague here] interrupted you just then, you looked like you wanted to murder them.”

“But I didn’t…” I argued, only for her to hold a silencing hand up.

“It doesn’t matter if you didn’t,” she said firmly. “It looked like you did. And it did not go down well.”

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It wasn’t the first time that my “quietly taking-in information” face had been misconstrued, of course, but it was the moment I realised that I had to try and monitor what my face is actually saying. Because it seems every emotion I experience – no matter how fleeting – burns itself into my facial features within moments, alerting everyone around me to my mood.

Since then, I’ve been careful to adopt a pleasantly neutral expression at work. It has, if I do say so myself, served me well. 

And yet…

Well, the coronavirus lockdown has undone a lot of my good work. Because, when I’m not with people in person – aka staring at them via a laptop – I kind of forget that they can see me, too. Which means, yeah, I sometimes slip up and let my face do its thing.

For the most part, I usually get lucky: it seems people are, apparently, staring at themselves far too intently to notice that I have minimal control over my eyebrows, that my mouth is a constantly twitching smorgasbord of emotion, that my eyes are constantly widening, narrowing, or rolling back into my head. And I can usually keep it together for work calls (mostly), by calling upon my tried-and-tested ‘business face’. I am a paragon of professionalism.

When I’m chatting to friends and family on Zoom or Skype, though, all bets are off. I’m constantly being asked if I’m OK (nobody ever believes me when I say I’m fine), why I look so shocked (I always look shocked, apparently, and it makes people feel hella awkward), or if I want to share my “judgey feelings” with the group (oddly enough, I never do).

People sometimes find it funny – and fairly so, I guess, for I am the ‘confused Winona Rydermeme brought to life. If they interpret whatever my face is doing as a direct attack on them and their lockdown stories, though, they’re less enthralled.

“Boring you, am I?” one pal snapped, causing me to jump out of my skin.

“Not at all,” I replied, widening my eyes and shifting my face back into neutral mode. Because I wasn’t bored, I really wasn’t: my face was just being an asshole. Still, though, the conversation took a frosty turn. Indeed, it only warmed after 30-odd minutes of painstaking facial control. And I was dog-tired by the end of it all.

My colleague, Jazmin Kopotsha, knows the pain of having an overly-expressive face, too.

“I normally enjoy it,” she says. “It means that if I don’t have the words to explain what or how I’m feeling, my face will do it for me. This is good when, for example, I’m hungover, emotional, or find something really funny but have to be quiet about it. This is bad when I’m pretending to be enthusiastic about a plan I’ve accidentally committed to, ‘secretly’ loathe the person I’ve bumped into on the street, or am on a Zoom video chat that I feel obliged to take…”

Exactly. Look I’ll admit it: I miss people during lockdown. Mostly. And, yeah, I want to catch up with them, find out how they’re feeling, chat about whatever nonsense we’ve been watching on TV. I want to stay connected.

However, I really wish I could do so over the phone, sans webcam. Because, when we’re all stuck in FaceTime mode, everyone’s far more inclined to point out that I look far more worried, focused, devastated, or confused than any normal person has ever been in their entire lives. And keeping on top of all that is, quite frankly, exhausting. Far more exhausting than I have time for during the Covid-19 quarantine, in fact.

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With this in mind, then, I believe I speak on behalf of everyone with an overly-expressive face when I say: please, please, please don’t contact us via Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime. Pick up the phone, dial our number, and let’s chat using our voices instead. 

If you really must bring webcams into this, then please be aware that you will be served a buffet of facial expressions. We cannot help it. This matter is beyond our control. And, no matter how you interpret our tortured expressions on screen, we don’t want to hear a word about it. 

Thanks.

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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