Actions speak louder than words, but facial expressions speak louder than actions. I learned this lesson in the fourth grade when I got in trouble for rolling my eyes at my teacher. My words and behavior were respectful enough, but my face broadcasted annoyance and contempt.
When Zixia, one of Kongzi’s students, asked him about how to be filial, Kongzi replied, “The tough part is having the right demeanor. The young should take on the harder physical tasks and defer to their elders when food and wine is passed around, of course, but filiality is more than that.”
Philospher Amy Olberding expands on this message in her book, The Wrong of Rudeness: “Indeed, we might say there is a hidden rule residing underneath many of our most significant etiquette rules: look like you mean it…above all, you need to avoid adopting any bodily style that fouls the act: do not apologize through gritted teeth while sneering; do not condole with the bereaved while smiling and laughing; do not forgo interrupting only to sigh audibly and roll your eyes while another speaks.”
Research from the fields of psychology and communication demonstrates that when our facial expressions, tone, or body language conflicts with the content of our speech, the recipient perceives the non-verbal message as being more important than the verbal one.
In other words, if I say “thank you” but my body language, facial expression, or tone of voice express annoyance, the annoyance is louder than the expression of thanks. It “fouls the act,” as Olberding might say.
The Ruist ideal, of course, is sincerity. If my intention is sincere, then my words, tone, facial expression, and body language should naturally be aligned and there should be no need to “perform.”
An ideal, however, is a finishing line, not a starting point. I am no sage, so I’ll have to “fake it ’til I make it.” And because my behavior influences my internal dispositions, I can reasonably hope that “performing” congruity even when I don’t feel sincerity may help me get a little closer to being the kind of person I aspire to be.