Poker face? What exactly does it mean?
Derived from the necessity of not giving your hand away in a game of poker, according to Thomas Jones, founder at JeffBet, an online casino website puts it, it’s “a person [who] is deliberately trying to hide their emotions by showing no obvious facial expressions.”
The concept of the poker face has some specific applications at the office.
“In the workplace, maintaining a poker face means regulating your emotions so your facial expressions and body language, including vocal tone, remain neutral,” said Sarah Doody, career strategist and founder of the Career Strategy Lab in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Rachel Coffey, an expert voice and communications coach based in London, agreed. “A poker face is a neutral expression which makes it impossible to read someone’s thoughts, emotions or intentions,” she said.
“However, a truly well-worn poker face will have just a hint of confidence living behind the eyes, subconsciously suggesting to others that you have the upper hand.”
As Jones noted, facial expressions are extremely powerful, and, in most instances, you don’t need verbal cues for your colleagues to know what you’re thinking. “While this isn’t always a negative thing, in the workplace, it could cause conflict. If you disagree with something and would prefer to keep your opinion to yourself, maintaining a poker face can be a safe option,” he said.
Coffey said there are three main ways a poker face can be useful at work. “Firstly, negotiation — from discussing a pay rise to getting a client to agree to go that extra mile,” she said.
“A poker face will encourage your counterpart to step in and fill the gap, thus putting in that bit more than they’d planned. Secondly, it can denote confidence as it removes any emotion. It can be great for hiding nerves or concealing any sense of weakness.”
Last, but not least, Coffey noted that if you’ve made a slip-up on the job and don’t want to be found out, a poker face is the way to go. “Guilty people often overreact, [so] maintaining a poker face will deflect attention and have people looking elsewhere for the culprit!”
(For obvious ethical reasons, employ this with discretion and only use it for minor faux pas versus serious blunders where you should come clean.)
Jones also highlighted that maintaining a poker face in important business meetings with clients when you don’t want to reveal too much information is a smart move.
Job interviewers may also benefit from maintaining a poker face, “especially when they aren’t getting the right answers from a candidate. It can avoid disheartening them and making them feel uncomfortable,” he said.
Another reason to lay your poker face on thick? In the workplace, employees who struggle to regulate their emotions tend to take up more of their manager’s time, said Doody. “They tend to need more attention, explanation and coaching.”
Excelling in the realm of poker face-dom may help you climb up the totem pole faster.
“Managers consider how much time people take up. There’s also the emotional energy that managing people who can’t regulate their emotions can have on a manager and team,” she continued. “By learning to regulate your emotions, you will come across as more mature and thoughtful, which makes you an attractive candidate for more responsibilities or other opportunities.”
You may also want to pay closer attention to your manager’s body language.
“Watch his or her body language, breathing and eyes,” said Coffey. “When people are trying to conceal something they’ll often take a step back or cross their arms or legs, subconsciously trying to create a barrier. They also tend to avoid direct eye contact and hold their breath.”
Doody stressed that identifying facial changes, body language and voice cues takes time, so be patient. “During each interaction with your boss, try to heighten your observation skills,” she said. “If you have close work colleagues, you might consider crowdsourcing this,” added Doody, since they might notice things you may not and vice versa.
Should you always use a poker face? Like anything in life, moderation is a good rule.
“A poker face isn’t suitable for every situation as sometimes we need people to see how we’re feeling to build trust and form new relationships,” said Jones, adding that, by becoming more aware of our emotions, we can regain control of our facial expressions and potentially change the outcome of a situation.
Unlike at the table, you may not win $10,000 worth of chips, but a $10,000 bonus down the line sure sounds nice.
Finesse your poker face
It’s all about mindset
“Don’t try to hide anything, you’ll come unstuck,” said Coffey. “Think confidence, calmness and strength. Regulate your breathing — this will help you deal with the adrenaline in your system and steady your voice. Practice a long, focused, expectant pause, and you’ll have people desperate to jump in and break the silence — giving you more time to take control and make your move.”
Doody suggested asking colleagues or friends for feedback about patterns they’ve noticed in your facial expressions and body language. “Perhaps you blink excessively, roll your eyes, speak fast or drum your fingers,” she said.
Slow your speech
“Many people speak faster when they get agitated or frustrated. A good practice is to slow your pace consciously,” said Doody, adding that you should allow for pauses, thus creating time for thinking.
Develop default responses
People may get defensive and this comes out verbally. “Develop a few go-to sentences you can use,” said Doody. “For example, if you’re feeling pressed to give an answer, you could say, ‘To be honest, I don’t know. I will get back to you tomorrow after I do some quick research,’ ” she said. “Or if you don’t agree with someone, you could say, ‘That’s interesting, say more.’ ”
Focus on your breath
“Many people forget to breathe when they get agitated, which can lead to tension in the face,” said Doody. “By taking deep, mindful breaths, you’ll help your face and body relax.”
We also like this advice from Thomas Jones: “Keep your face relaxed, and avoid tensing any muscles, so you aren’t frowning or smiling,” he said. “In a high-pressure situation, when you’re feeling a lot of emotion, it may also help to disconnect from the situation by thinking of something totally unrelated for a few moments.”