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Stony silence as a defense

Masking strong emotions with a neutral expression may help diminish confrontation -- but at a cost.

June 09, 2003|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

The most offensive ethnic slurs, lewd cracks or political comments can burst from people's mouths with so little warning -- what did she just say? -- that the reflexive response in listeners is no response at all. A blank mask, a poker face, a willful emotional absence that offers zero acknowledgment of the remark or interest in the topic.

This non-reaction reaction can be handy, averting ugly confrontations about race, religion or, in recent days, war -- topics that rarely lead to agreement. It can also serve as an effective roadblock to any dreaded conversation, whether in a marriage, at work or with friends.

No matter how well practiced, however, the impassive mask is hardly a neutral expression. New research suggests that suppressing a strong emotion can significantly alter almost any social interaction, even damage relationships. The findings help explain why this form of nonverbal communication can be astute in some cases, disastrous in others.

Learning how the tactic subtly shapes our behavior and others' can help people use it more consciously and effectively, psychologists say. "The important thing to know is that there are costs to suppressing, both for you and for your conversation partner," said Emily Butler, a psychologist at Stanford University who studies emotion and social interaction, "and those costs ought to be weighed against the risks of expressing what you actually feel and think."

Psychologists have long said that masking strong emotion is one of many social deceptions that allow people to navigate everyday life. At a recent dinner out, Christopher Osborne and his wife, Sandra Fulmer, both lawyers in San Francisco, were talking to another couple, friends of friends, who suddenly began making racist jokes.

"We both just shut down completely, didn't say anything, didn't react, even avoided eye contact," he said of himself and his wife. After a couple of long moments playing to a silent audience, the other couple dropped the subject. "It was clear they felt something, and they wanted the dinner to go well too, so they just stopped talking about that stuff," Osborne said.

But in about a dozen experiments over the last several years, researchers have documented both physical and emotional distress when people hide their emotions, whether they're alone or in company, embarrassed or angry. In the latest of these, Butler and a team of investigators at Stanford and Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, analyzed interactions among 84 college-aged women. The women sat through a short, bloody film about warfare and then paired off to discuss the movie.

Unknown to their conversation partners, some of the women were instructed not to betray any emotion. By measuring blood pressure during the talks, investigators got a reading of how tense the exchanges were. Compared with the women who conversed naturally, those speaking with a seemingly indifferent partner showed significant increases in blood pressure -- as did women who were wearing the poker face. "It was a very odd experience for the listeners," said Butler. "They said they noticed that something wasn't right, but they couldn't tell us what or why."

They also reported significantly less desire to talk further with their oddly impassive partners.

This is an ideal effect when you're trying to dodge someone at a party or defuse a loaded conversation with an annoying acquaintance. The other person senses a vague chill and drops the thread of conversation, or at least changes the subject. When the relationship isn't important enough to justify a confrontation, a poker face can deliver just the right amount of social coolant.

As a standard evasion, however, emotional suppression is treacherous. "The problem is that, in any conversation we have, I'm going to have a theory about how you should be reacting to what I say," said Nicholas Christenfeld, a research psychologist at UC San Diego, "and I'm going to have another theory about why you might not be reacting that way."

When people react with affectionate attention and good humor, the effect is physically soothing. A poker face is upsetting because it defies even minimal expectations. As psychologists have found, people tend to mentally project onto a blank screen their own anxieties: He thinks I'm boring; she thinks I'm stupid.

The result is that the suppression of emotions comes across as mild hostility, even if it's not meant that way. "We use emotional expression to orient ourselves in conversations, and if you're not getting any feedback from the other person you begin to wonder whether it's safe to say what you really think," said Jeanne Watson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto.

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