Mean Listening Face in Dementialand (or the Importance of Non-Verbal Communication)

I was diagnosed by my husband as having an affliction called Mean Listening Face about four years ago.

A college student that I had in class previously was at our house for pizza. She was telling me about how she had recently applied for a few positions at non-profit agencies. She looked at me and stopped in the middle of a sentence.

“Oh, is that not a good place to work?” she asked me. I had no idea why she was asking me this.

My husband jumped in and said matter-of-factly, “Elaine isn’t intending to give you that look of disapproval. She just has Mean Listening Face.”

This was the first I had heard of my Mean Listening Face. I didn’t argue with my husband, and there was no further discussion of this affliction between the two of us.

A few days later, I was out to lunch with a friend. I decided to ask her if I had Mean Listening Face. I anticipated that she would ask me what the heck I was talking about and then tell me that my husband was crazy.

Instead, she said, “Yeah, I totally see where he’s coming from. I don’t know if you’d make a good counselor.” I went from being annoyed that my husband was overanalyzing my behavior to wondering why no one had told me this sooner. Seriously, friends…you should’ve done an intervention long before this.

I went home and looked in the mirror. I tried to pretend that someone was telling me something important and personal. Sure enough, I got these lines on my forehead and my eyes got intensely squinty. Yep. I had Mean Listening Face.

I realized that when I concentrated on what someone was saying…when I really wanted them to know that I cared…when I was processing what they were saying with all of my attention…I looked annoyed. I looked angry. I looked like I was trying to shoot bolts of fire out of my eyeballs. It’s a great face for playing cards when I don’t want anyone to know what I’m holding, but not a great face for empathetic listening.

You might think this is a small thing, but it’s really not. College students come to my office and need assistance. They may be struggling with college life or feeling like they don’t belong. They might not know what major to choose or what direction they want to go in life. I’ve even had students who are dealing with depression or anxiety. And what do I do? I give them Mean Listening Face.

And then there’s the work I do with dementia caregivers. In my conversations with them, it occurred to me that I might be giving off Mean Listening Face when they were depending on me to reassure them. Most of all, my husband’s diagnosis of my Mean Listening Face made me realize that perhaps I wasn’t giving off the vibe I intended to when I spent time with individuals with dementia. As dementia progresses, the words themselves become less important. The non-verbal cues become more important. In time, they become everything.

It’s about body language. It’s about facial expression. It’s about tone of voice. Dementia can destroy a person’s capacity to understand language. However, the ability to decipher the non-verbal aspects of communication remain much longer.

And the non-verbals are pretty important for those of us who don’t live in Dementialand. I have to admit that I get annoyed with college students who sit in class and roll their eyes at me. (I have actually dropped my attendance policy because I prefer students who roll their eyes at me just not come to class.) Then there are those who sit in the front row and make eye contact. When a student asks for a letter of recommendation, I have to wonder if their non-verbal communication with me is just as important (if not more important) than their verbal communication.

I had a series of several doctor appointments and an ER visit last spring that ended in a diagnosis of a separated rib. (Apparently you can have a separated rib even if you have no idea that you’ve had a traumatic event that may have caused a separated rib.) This was after misdiagnoses of a hernia, a kidney stone, and a urinary tract infection. Visiting several doctors in a span of a few weeks made me realize the importance of non-verbal communication in the medical industry. One doctor who saw me made me feel like everything I said was important to him. He made me feel like he genuinely was concerned about my level of pain. After leaving the office, I realized that he hadn’t said anything different than the other doctors I visited. It was how he said it.

While receiving the “right” non-verbals can make your day, receiving the “wrong” non-verbals really put you in a foul mood. I recently sat on an airplane next to a person who made it his goal to take up as much of my personal space as humanly possible. Without exchanging a word, we engaged in a battle. It was a battle of non-verbals. A battle of physical space. A battle over tray tables, carry-on space, and arm rests. A battle that I lost and let ruin my afternoon. I’m getting angry again as I think about it. Yet, not a single word exchanged during the two hour flight.

I’ve heard that 70% of communication is non-verbal. My theory is that this percentage increases as dementia progresses. When someone approaches end-stage dementia, how we say something is more crucial that what we say. And showing people that what they say is still valued–by eye contact, posture, facial expression, and touch–may be more important than our verbal response. People read physical cues long after they become unable to decipher words and sentences.

Last year I was visiting an adult day center and talking to a guy with vascular dementia, Bob. Bob is one of my favorite people. He is what I like to call “pleasantly confused.” He cannot tell you what year it is or where he is. In fact, he once asked me if I had come to see him so I could “shave his sheep.” (His family later told me that he had not been a farmer and had never owned any sheep.) Everything he says, however, is delivered with a huge grin. He has a laugh that lights up the room–even if the people in the room have no idea what is so funny.

Bob was telling me a story about a dog he had that ran away and came back home with a litter of kittens and a baby skunk. I have no idea if this story was true, partially true, or not true at all, but it was a really good story. And I had no interest in figuring out if it was true. It didn’t matter. It was the funniest story I had heard in a long time. However, I had to be back at the office for a meeting, so I took a quick glance over Bob’s shoulder at the clock.

“You’re in a hurry,” he said, stopping the story. “You’ve got things to do. You’d better go.”

My heart sank. I was upset at myself for giving Bob the impression that I was in a hurry and spending time with him was not a priority. Furthermore, it blew my mind that a guy who seemed so out-of-touch with reality noticed my split-second sneak peak at the clock. I was busted. On that day, I failed with my non-verbals, and I ruined a great story.

I’m working on my Mean Listening Face. It’s a conscious effort. When interacting with someone with dementia, I sometimes silently tell myself to relax my eyes and stop clenching my jaw. Actually, I do this when I’m talking to people who don’t have dementia as well. I’m hoping this will also help to prevent wrinkles as I age, but that’d just be icing on the cake. If you think you might also have Mean Listening Face, let me know. Perhaps we can start a support group.

Outside of Dementialand, words can connect us efficiently. Yet, the deepest and most intimate connections are based beyond words. No place is this more true than in Dementialand…where words often fail us. If we want to connect heart-to-heart with people as they move toward the end of their dementia journeys, we must sometimes forget words and speak a different language.

8 thoughts on “Mean Listening Face in Dementialand (or the Importance of Non-Verbal Communication)

  1. I actually used to work in retail, and apparently one of my customers told my manager that I looked really angry while hanging up jewelry. I got called into the office and everything, when in reality I was just concentrating really hard. I’ve heard the same comment several times now, so apparently I have an angry face when I concentrate!


  2. I feel a support group is a great idea!! I, too, fall into this category and can feel my forehead tightening even as I type this very reply. My peers have referred to my “problem” as “Resting B*tch Face” over the years and I do what I can to be mindful of my face as I hate to give people the wrong impression. I find that when I become aware of my face, either by the tightening of my forehead or the change in non-verbals from those I’m giving my attention, I lose focus and miss pieces of the conversation because I have started to become overly self-aware and shift my attention. I work with adults with disabilities in a Day Habilitation program and know the importance of good non-verbal communication. I do appreciate your blog and recognizing the humor and seriousness behind this problem. I also welcome any advice for retraining my facial muscle memory without distracting myself from being present and in the moment with whom I communicate with.

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  3. Elaine, I have early-onset dementia, and I have Grumpy Face according to my wife. When she first told me recently I couldn’t believe it. In the 1980’s I taught speech communication classes at a university and was often asked by students why I smiled so much. Then in 1990 I went off to seminary, and later when I watched video tapes of church services I saw that I as a pastor looked spaced out and inattentive. I worked on that. It got better.

    So I looked in the mirror and my wife is right. Somehow in the past few years I’ve devolved into Grumpy Face. Granted, I actually am grumpy at times, but not always! I’ve begun working on it, but now I wonder if I’ll drift back to it as I lose more of my marbles. I’d rather be asked why I smile so much!


  4. Elaine, I do the same when listening and through life have had to work on my facial expressions. Love your blog. I read it to To ny just in case it happens to me.

    Deb bitner


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