Reclaiming Manners: The Look on Your Face
December 14, 2016

“A man is known by his appearance, and a sensible man is known by his face, when you meet him.”
Sirach 19:29

It is the main thing that people see. So much about us, about our disposition toward those around us, is enshrined in our face.

We simply owe to others a certain kind of look on our face.

Perhaps we have all had an experience like this: you find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, and a signficant part of your insecurity comes from the forbidding look on the faces around you. And then your eyes fall on that one face in the midst of the others. It changes everything; nothing even need be said. All will be alright.

How often might a smile from us be a source of comfort, renewed hope, even renewed faith, to someone we meet. Perhaps it is someone we don’t even see but who sees us.

It’s not that we should have a perpetual smile. Some circumstanes certainly call for other looks. We should cultivate an awareness of our countenance, and we should seek to align it with the appropriate dispositions we should have toward those around us in various circumstances.

Are we listening? Do we have respect? Do we care? Are we willing to enter-in to the feelings or needs of others? Do we have confidence in ourselves, in others, in life itself? So will people judge from our face.

But not only is our countenance that by which others will judge our interior disposition; it is also the lens through which we look out on the world. Surely the very look on our face is a real factor in how we will experience life.

But what if we don’t feel hopeful, or happy, or sympathetic, etc? We can strive to have the face that expresses the feelings we know we should have, even if we don’t have them, yet.

This is the second in the series: Reclaiming Manners.

Image: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), portrait of George Henschel

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  1. I teach a student who would definitely say to striving “to have the face that expresses the feelings we know we should have” when we don’t, “Isn’t that being fake?” What would you say to that question? How would you explain it?
    Thank you kindly.

    1. Carie, What a great question; I’m very glad you asked. In short I would say this.
      We need to make an important distinction. On the one hand is the person who acts like something that he is not, fundamentally for the sake of appearance. This is a faker, a hypocrite: someone who pretends to be something for the sake of making others think he is something that he isn’t.
      On the other hand is the person who as part of his effort to become a better person tries to ‘act like’ the person he wants to be. This person is no faker; he is making a good faith effort to grow as a person.
      If I smile at you simply so as to deceive you into thinking I like you, I am a faker.
      If I smile at you because I am trying to overcome my negative feelings toward you and to improve our relationship, I am no faker.
      Thanks for asking, and I hope that helps.

      1. Yes, it was very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Recently I had some very disappointing news. Something I can do absolutely nothing about. I prayed, of course, but the cloud still remained. After a few days of this, I said, “Lord, this cloud simply must go.” So I resorted to my usual counting of blessings. I also asked myself, “How do I feel?” Honestly, the same. Then I told myself,”I feel great.” I put a smile on my face and decided to be grateful. As Madam Blueberry learned, “A grateful heart is a happy heart.” It showed on my face and others responded with well wishes and Christmas greetings.

    1. BeaKay, That is beautiful, and very much to the point. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Another interpretation from a homely example: athletes on the field put on their “game face”, filled with ferocity, power, and fearlessness, all emotions appropriate to their setting. But a person shouldn’t walk into a business meeting or social engagement with a face contorted like that of Usain Bolt crossing the finish line or Gennady Golovkin blocking a punch. You would appear frightening or ridiculous. There is a notion of appropriateness here: appropriate to yourself, appropriate to your company, appropriate to the moment. There is also your choice. If you are of the company and you are part of the moment, you may influence what is appropriate appearance. But it is always incumbent on you to act as is appropriate. That is the meaning of the word. And you will be the better for it– it is _reasonable_ to appear and act as is appropriate. You may not _feel_ just yet as you appear, but you will, _if_ you are trying to appear as is appropriate.