What Is Resting Sad Face?

Janet Coburn
3 min readApr 9, 2023

Resting bitch face is a thing, you’ve probably heard. Some people — usually women, though I suppose some men have it too — look mean when their face is still and their muscles are slack. People who see them assume that they are grumpy at the least or maybe sulky or angry — hence the name resting bitch face.

I have resting sad face. Once when I was working at a restaurant, the manager saw me sitting while on my break and told me that I should smile. I replied that I was paid to smile at the customers, not on my break. Of course, that was a bad response, though I know that women are often told to smile more (men, not so much). I probably would have gotten along better with my coworkers if I had smiled more.

But I was suffering from depression at the time, or at least the depressive phase of bipolar disorder, and was untreated. Smiling was something I had neither the inclination nor the energy to do. Sad was my natural expression.

When I didn’t have resting sad face, I had resting worried face. (A different manager asked me, “What does a girl your age have to worry about except ‘Am I pregnant?’” As it happened, that was the one thing I knew I didn’t have to worry about.) I was also suffering — again, untreated — from an anxiety disorder.

What I haven’t had is the mask of “smiling depression.” Many people with depression pretend to be happy most of the time, at least in public. You can see it dramatized in depression medication commercials when someone holds a happy face symbol in front of their face. (In real life, I’ve noted that the depression or sorrow sometimes leaks out around the eyes, though, even past the mask.)

There are two different kinds of smile — the “Duchenne” smile (named after a 19th-century scientist whose major contributions centered on mapping the muscles that control facial expression) and the “Pan Am” smile. The Duchenne smile is the sincere smile of a truly happy person. It’s easy enough to tell when someone is giving you a Duchenne smile. The muscles at the corner of their eyes crinkle, making little crows’ feet. It happens automatically when you think of a happy memory or greet a person you like a lot.

The Pan Am smile is the one where the smile does not reach the corners of the eyes. (It got its name from airline attendants who were required by their job to smile at all times, whether they were at rest or not, happy or not.) No one has resting Pan Am smile face. It’s impossible. It takes a number of facial muscles to smile and when you’re resting, you don’t use those muscles. No, the Pan Am smile takes intention.

The Pan Am smile, however, is the one a person uses when they do have smiling depression. (I used it once when, at a different job, we were all posing for individual portraits. My results were so fake-looking that the photo was never used. They didn’t even let me see it, much less anyone else.)

I’m kind of hoping that these days, I have at least resting neutral face. That sounds like the right expression for a stable person.

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Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.