Frowny Friend


    Dear Miriam,

    I have a friend who always appears to have a surly expression on her face. I know her to be a kind, interesting person, even a happy person, but for some reason she often looks annoyed. I know she wants to make new friends, get out and date more, but I think her facial expressions are holding her back. Is there any way I can talk to her about this?

    Frowny Friend

    Dear Frowny,

    If only people waited to characterize someone until they had a personal conversation, but alas, I think we all know that’s not the way things typically go. You’re being a good friend by looking out for your friend in this way. You’re also right to be cautious in approaching her.

    Try complimenting her often. If it fits with the ethos of your relationship to talk this way, say things like: “You look so pretty when you smile,” and “Your eyes really sparkle when you laugh.” When you catch her with her “surly expression,” ask her what’s wrong. Tell her she looks mad, or annoyed, or just disengaged, and that it worries you to see her upset. Then see how she reacts. It’s possible that she’ll say, “Why are people always telling me I look angry?” in which case you’ll have an entry point for a longer conversation. It’s also possible that she really has no idea she appears this way.

    Either way, you can say as gently as possible, “Sometimes, when you’re not actively engaged in what’s going on around you, you look like you’re upset. I’m sure it’s just because you’re concentrating or maybe zoning out or something, but I do worry that you’re unhappy when I see you like that. Even though I know and love you, when you smile, you’re more approachable to other people as well.” This might be a really uncomfortable conversation for both of you, and if she gets defensive, your friendship will probably benefit the most from dropping the subject.

    If she seems receptive to working on correcting this misconception, though, you could offer her more explicit suggestions. When she’s in a bar or restaurant, suggest that she sit near a mirror so she can check herself and see how she looks to others. That might be enough to get her to adopt a more pleasant expression. You could also advise her to think happy thoughts when she’s walking down the street and maybe even to make a point of smiling at a couple of strangers. Depending on how close you are and how much time you spend together, ask if it would be helpful for you to work out some sort of code so you can remind her at parties or wherever that she’s got “that look,” or you could just take it upon yourself to tell her a joke at those times.

    My husband the psychologist says that, in general, people reflect back the expressions that they see. While that could get you into an infinite loop of asking who’s reflecting who, it could be worth pointing out to your friend that the more people who see her looking friendly and open, the more friendliness and openness she will see reflected back at her.

    If this goes very badly and your friend is unwilling to consider the impact her expression is having on her social life, you may need to consider the possibility that it’s not just an expression but actually a reflection of how she feels about the world. I hope that’s not how it goes, but since it’s another option in all this, it seemed only fair to mention.

    Good luck to both of you, and be well,