The Power of the Poker Face

By: Abigail McNeece

The twitch of your lip. The subtle shake of your head or a brief smile can betray your innermost thoughts, so many people have learned to develop a “poker face” to maintain control of their situations. 
 

Having a poker face can affect people in the simplest, yet most intricate, of ways and there are so many ways in which learning to execute one can become significantly beneficial in personal, professional and even academic settings. 
 

What exactly is a poker face? A poker face, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to, “an inscrutable face that reveals no hint of a person's thoughts or feelings.” The phrase comes from the game of poker, in which it is invaluable for people to hide their emotions while cards are in play. Were someone to be visibly elated about the cards they received, the other players would automatically know that they received a good set of cards to play. 

Professional poker player and online streamer, Lex Veldhuis, has been trained to see meaning in the slightest movement of faces and hands in his profession.  He explains, “…I think the most important thing is to not give obvious things away. When someone is new you can see their range of thoughts on their face, or they think with their hands when deliberating how much to bet. They'll engage in conversation during a hand giving away how comfortable they are... You learn to read different little things like emotion, comfortability. The thing that poker teaches you is to interpret why those things are happening and I think you can do that [in real life] too.” 
 

So how exactly can a poker face help someone? One example could take place at a yard sale. Someone could be buying an item from the yard sale. If they exude an energy that shows they’ve fallen in love with an item that someone else has for sale, that person can use this knowledge to their advantage to drive up the price for the object. However, if someone were to maintain a level of coolness and have a poker face, the seller would likely not sell it for as much.

A poker face doesn’t just help with buying things, it can also help in the workplace. Mandy Gilbert, in “Why Good Leaders Don’t Show Emotion,” for Inc. Magazine, stated, “Many leaders are unaware of how their subtle reactions, or micro-expressions, can affect their team. Eye rolls, exaggerated exhales, and other passive aggressive gestures are equally as damaging [as big reactions].”

If a leader were to continually use passive aggressive gestures, it can lead to a feeling of unease by the workers under them. Imagine a leader, such as a boss, rolling their eyes when someone asks a question. It immediately creates an image of frustration. However, if a boss were to simply smile, nod, and answer the question, then the employee is none the wiser that the boss is annoyed by the question. This keeps the relationship between the employee and boss in a normal place. 

Not only can a successful poker face be utilized in business, it can also be applied to politics as well.

During diplomatic negotiations, it is essential that a leader use a poker face to deal with foreign powers.

Teri Citterman wrote an article titled “Five Tips to Cultivate a CEO’s Poker Face” for Forbes, saying, “[T]he best leaders don’t let their face show what they’re thinking. President Obama is one of the leaders who I think does this remarkably well. He’s outwardly calm no matter what, which gives him an unrivaled advantage in how others respond to him. I recommend CEOs cultivate this same poker face and leverage it as a unique edge.”

 

A poker face doesn’t only apply to the face. It can also apply to the body as well. For instance, if someone’s face were in its natural resting position, but their entire body was tense, they wouldn’t be having the best poker face because people can observe their tenseness based on body language. It’s important to practice your poker face and develop control over the entire body while applying it. 
 

Developing an awareness of micro-expressions is the key to hiding emotions and exerting control over challenging situations. Kirstie Brewer wrote an article for The Guardian titled “How to read a poker face: the art of deciphering microexpressions” saying, “While mastering your own subconscious [micro-expressions] isn’t easy (it is nigh-on impossible), you can learn to read and react to other people’s – a very useful skill in an interview situation.” 
 

For instance, in an interview, an interviewer and interviewee may be talking about a potential salary. If an interviewee suggests a number, but immediately notices a hesitant body language from the interviewer, they can quickly backtrack and go with a slightly lower number to appease the interviewer and make them feel like they’re getting a great deal. 

The principles of the poker face are particularly important in an academic setting.  Imagine a student is helping a classmate raise their grade in math class by tutoring them. It’s crucial to have a poker face while tutoring.  The person being tutored will often have questions that seem basic, so it’s important for the tutor to remain stoic and have a good poker face to communicate calmness and patience in the face of sometimes annoying questions.
 

There are so many important lessons for young people to learn in negotiating an increasingly complex world, and the poker face can be a significant tool for personal growth and improvement. The power of a poker face is multidimensional, as it can be employed from interviews, to yard sales, to tutoring, and so many other situations.

The next time you face a tense situation, try using a poker face, and see if the tension melts away with the expressions you use. 

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash