German Bitchy Resting Face: The Suspicious Grimace

Above is a mildly amusing video seeking to 'raise consciousness' about people who have naturally bitchy expressions. This is a universal problem. For one thing, the British newspaper the Daily Mail quickly embraced the phenomenon, and who can argue with the World's Tabloid?

For more proof, look at this photograph, taken at a German automatic restaurant in 1965, taken from a historical article in Der Spiegel about automat restaurants:


The woman on the right has the archetypal German facial expression, which I call the 'suspicious grimace', or SG (misstrauische Grimasse in German). It's a look that says 'What the hell is he doing here? Why is he looking at me? Is he going to come up to me and fondle me or hit me or ask me for money? I wish he'd go away.' This is the default facial expression of all Germans over 30, especially middle-aged and older females. I see it at least 15-20 times on my 10-minute bike ride to work.

I could go out right now with a hidden camera to any German city and, within an hour, bring you at least 50 photographs of random strangers — mostly older women — with exactly this expression. In fact, I've often thought of doing just that, but you can get in trouble in Germany for using someone's image without their permission, so I haven't actually done this. Note that as with BRF, the SG is not necessarily a sign of bad temper. If you strike up a conversation with one of these people and defuse the initial assumption that all strangers are potential perverts or criminals, even the grumpiest-looking frump often proves to be quite pleasant.

What explains this national trait?  Is it genetic? Is it because most Germans are more fearful and insecure (pdf) than many other nationalities? Is it a lingering national memory of totalitarian government? Is is a curdled form of the remote, serious facial expression considered to convey personal dignity and reserve? Your guess may well be as good as mine — we'll see in comments.

If you want to see what Swedes do when they notice strangers paying attention to them, follow the jump.

Stockholm 2 Windows in Soedermalm (Andrew-PC's conflicted copy 2013-08-12)

OK, that was a cheap shot (but dig the horse-curtain!). Swedes and Norwegians are, though, quite a bit friendlier in everyday interactions than Germans. 

7 thoughts on “German Bitchy Resting Face: The Suspicious Grimace

  1. Take a look at Angela Merkel! My husband thinks it’s just normal that the corners of the mouth hit downward when one reaches a certain age. But then I’d rather be dead than look like that. One of my friends, a Kenyan, advised me to smile a lot every day, so I will remain young (at heart) forever, certainly something to heed ;)!


  2. PS: Recently I saw an election poster featuring Angela Merkel and I perceived something odd about it. I had the definite feeling that it had been photoshopped. The corners of her mouth appeared to have been lifted ;)!


  3. “up to me and fondle me or hit me” … fondle? obviously your are quite a bit too fondle of yourself. this is just the normal welcome for people who violate the right of informationelle selbstbestimmung. AND it was taken in an automatenrestaurant … ever seen anybvody smile there? at strangers with cameras who threaten to show the pictures to lawyers?


  4. I think it’s a way to ensure personal space. Germany is much more densely populated than for example the US.

    In Germany every person has only 4434m² (47,729ft²) for himself.
    In the US every person has 30650m² (329,909ft²) for himself.

    So build a shield around yourself that keeps people at bay unless they really have a good enough reason to break through that visible barrier.


  5. I’d say, there’s four reasons to smile in public in Germany without obvious reasons:
    – You’re in love
    – You’re a maniac
    – You’re on drugs
    – You’re a tourist
    If nothing else is hinted, the second one would be suspected.

    Smiling is taught to be an active showing of emotion, not a preset state. If you got no reason, you don’t smile. And being outside surrounded by strangers certainly does not count as a reason.


  6. Spot-on, you have really captured the SG. The next level after the SG is encountered when setting foot in one of the Eckkneipe (corner pub) dotting lower middle-class neighborhoods in German towns and cities, which is to say most everywhere. The seemingly random assemblage of patrons that you encounter is in fact a carefully calibrated ensemble that took years, if not decades, to be worked out. Note the polished brass sign STAMMTISCH dangling over the empty table. Ignore this at your peril, but it doesn’t mean that elsewhere is safe. Note the un-occupied bar stools invisibly labeled Heinz, Erna, Schorsch. It does not matter if nine out of ten seats in the house are not taken, they only appear to be so to you. The same goes for the places in front of the one-armed bandits and the right to choose a selection from the music box. Hence the looks that you, a stranger, get: the jaw dropping incredulously; the stuporous gaze; the eery silence followed by muttered groans. Enjoy your pilsener!


  7. Smiling is not considered the normal state of being in Germany, being “neutral” is. You’re only supposed to smile when you’re truly happy and who is truly happy all the time (esp. in an Automatenrestaurant, bleh). Putting on a smile if you don’t feel happy or earnestly friendly towards another person is considered fake and more or less a form of lying which automatically makes you a bad person. Which is why most Germans either naively think that Americans are so much more happy and friendly than Germans or constantly feel that Americans “with their fake smiles” are sort of trying to trick them in some way. American smiles really arouse suspicion in those Germans who are not completely naive and mistake the “default smile” for real friendship.


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