My cat has an extremely communicative face: Nature fixed his mouth in a permanent smile, but it curls into an eerily disdainful sneer at the smallest annoyance. In those moments, his eyes, usually large and round like dinner plates, narrow into slits of venomous disgust. Sometimes, his nose seems to squinch up, as if he were smelling something acutely unpleasant (you).
The scorching judgment is truly something to behold, and if I am being honest, it’s also one of my favorite things about this regal beastie: He contains multitudes. But unfortunately, what I read as a sign of my prickly tabby’s unnerving emotional intelligence may actually just be projection. My cat, according to an overdue treatise on feline behavior published in the Atlantic, probably doesn’t mean to telegraph internal rage; more likely, he just has RBF.
For the uninitiated, RBF stands for “Resting Bitch Face,” occasionally referred to as “Not Face.” It boils down to an utter lack of expression: Some people, me for example, go blank when feelings and emotions aren’t pulling their features this way and that. Many observers intuitively understand this void as apathy; others assume it belies some kind of inherent snobbery, even sociopathy — in humans and in cats.
People, particularly those who dislike/distrust cats, have long stereotyped them as ice-cold psycho killers, simply because of the cool and inscrutable feline gaze. The cats may abide their keepers as a steady food source, this camps says, but they would feel little remorse at our demise — how could they, when are dead inside? But as Mikel Maria Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in cat behavior, explained to the Atlantic, judging a cat’s capacity for empathy solely on its perceived demeanor sets them up to fail.
Per the Atlantic (with my emphasis), “Cats … simply don’t have the facial muscles to make the variety of expressions a dog (or human) can. So when we look at a cat staring at us impassively, it looks like a psychopath who cannot feel or show emotion. But that’s just its face.” And despite all this, they still manage to be excellent actors.
If you want to know whether or not a cat disapproves of what you’re doing, you have to watch its ears and tail, which will respectively flatten and slash in instances of anger. Meanwhile, you may never know what a dog is really thinking, because we humans have relentlessly domesticated them to be our mirrors: “We like things that remind us of us,” Delgado told the Atlantic. “We like smiling. We like dogs doing what we tell them. We like that they attend to us very quickly.” That is some true ego monster bullshit, and I think it’s pretty clear who the real psychos are in this equation.