Adventures of Mrs. Pastor: Episode 4 – My awkward-moments toolbox

Chapter 1: My least favorite question and the Duchenne smile


These days my least favorite question is: “What does your husband do for a living?”

My husband is a pastor and people are usually quite friendly until they realize that I am a pastor’s wife. It’s as if a warning switch flips in their brains. Alert! Alert! Proceed with extreme caution!

Telling people your husband is a pastor is right up there with telling people your husband is a tax examiner for the IRS or the President of the United States.

Responses range from guilty joking (“I need to watch what I say around you!”), to uncomfortable comparisons (“I knew a pastor one time”), to genuine delight (but that’s only happened twice, and they both ended up being church ladies).

But the worst and unfortunately the most common response is stunned silence followed by a forced smile. Then an invisible sign floats over our heads, reading “Awkward” or “Dead end conversation, turn around”. I can see it in their eyes. And every time I see it, I feel a little sad.

What is it about the eyes that tells me a person’s true feelings?

The secret lies in the Duchenne smile.

Dr. Duchenne was an early nineteenth century French physician who studied the physiology of facial expressions. Through his studies, he learned that there are two kinds of smiles: the fake smile and the real smile (known as the Duchenne smile).

The difference? The authentic, Duchenne smile is controlled by the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain).

When you genuinely smile, both voluntary and involuntary muscles contract. The voluntary muscle contraction (from the zygomatic major) raises the corners of the mouth. The involuntary muscle contraction (from the orbicularis oculi) raises the cheeks and shows movement around the eyes.

When you force a smile (for your coworker who has just told you that her husband is a pastor) a different part of your brain controls the smile. It’s the motor cortex.

Unlike the Duchenne smile, a fake smile involves only voluntary muscle contraction (from the zygomatic major). Because we cannot voluntarily contract the orbicularis oculi muscle, a forced smile never makes it to the eyes.*

Chapter 2: My awkward-moments toolbox


Understanding the difference between the Duchenne smile and the forced smile helps me to field the dreaded what-does-your-husband-do-for-a-living question. A rare Duchenne smile response tells me everything is okay. The forced smile response tells me that the situation has risen to awkward levels and that I need to quickly move into the recovery phase in order to save the conversation and the relationship as a whole.

When that happens (which is pretty normal), it’s time to pull out my awkward-moments toolbox. I’ve been developing my awkward-moments toolbox my whole life. Apparently, my life has been a training ground for awkward and embarrassing moments.

Just a few examples, when I was 8, I fell out of my classroom chair and my legs, along with my skirt, flew over my head. The entire class held onto their glue bottles and stared. That was the same year my friends laughed at the hot dog floating in boiling water in my lunch thermos. And the same year I got in trouble for chewing grape Hubba Bubba gum and publicly lying about it. (It’s hard to tell a lie with a mouth full of grape bubblegum.)

When I was 13, I participated in a spelling bee competition. (I was the class alternate, a.k.a “the last resort”.) I asked for the definitions of the words, bury and raisin. (I was stalling.) And then promptly spelled both words incorrectly (b-a-r-y and r-a-i-s-a-n). I can still see my dad and my spelling coach in the back of the auditorium, holding their foreheads and shaking their heads. You probably guessed it, but we lost.

When I was 14, I wore my first two-piece bathing suit to an eighth grade pool party. I felt so cool. Everyone was there, even Brian. As I confidently jumped out of the pool, there was a malfunction with my top, causing those around me to scream in horror.

When I was 15, I wore my first mini-skirt to school. Someone should have stopped me at the front door. The skirt was hot pink and too tight. Oh, and did I mention I had cut it from a longer skirt and “hemmed” it with tape? Not only was it nearly impossible to step up into the school bus (I managed by turning sideways, grabbing hold of the railing, and hoisting myself up), but when I arrived at school, there was definite laughing and pointing.

When I was 19 and working at a day camp, I spent an entire day with seven “kick me” signs on my back. I got kicked a lot that day. Even Ken, the 70-year old kitchen volunteer, kicked me twice with his heavy, white tennis shoes before I figured out what was going on.

When I was 21, I had another bathing suit catastrophe. This time, I was swimming laps in the college pool. When I got out, my friend gently told me that the back-end of my old, Speedo bathing suit had worn through. (How long had my rear been sheer?)

When I was 24, I went horseback riding with some friends and the horse, who hated me, ran off the trail and into a tree with low branches. The same thing happened two years ago with a pair of cross-country skis. I could go on, but you get the point. I am an expert at awkward.

So how do I cope when I am forced to answer the dreaded what-does-your-husband do-for-a-living question? What’s in my awkward-moments toolbox? Well, first of all, I don’t lie about what my husband does. Grape Hubba Bubba taught me that valuable lesson.

Second, I try to remember that I am very proud of my husband and I love how he uses his job to care for people. And that is something admirable. Maybe if I had been happy with my floating hot dog (I really do love hot dogs) or my hot pink mini-skirt (I designed it myself!), I would not have been so embarrassed by people’s negative responses.

Third, I consider the fact that my answer may have made the other person feel uncomfortable as well. (Remember: I can see it in their eyes.) That’s when I confidently move the conversation along, so as to save face for both of us, not just me.

For example, to continue the conversation, I might ask, “So what does your spouse do for a living?” Or I might change the subject completely by asking them about horseback riding or their favorite camp experience or if they have ever flashed the entire eighth grade class and lived to tell about it. I have found that in moments like these, it’s generally not the best time to ask them what church they go to or whether or not they love Jesus.

At this point, I can usually put my awkward moments toolbox away. Because the conversation has either: A. Relaxed. Or B. Ended abruptly (like any potential spelling career I had). Either way, it comes down to the fact that I cannot control another person’s response. No more than they can control involuntary muscle movements in their polite, forced smile.

But what I can control is my own response. And I have learned, that over time, awkward moments are really just material for great stories that make you smile. Duchenne style.


*Information regarding the Duchenne smile was retrieved from:



Filed under Miscellaneous thoughts, Mrs. Pastor, Relationships

4 responses to “Adventures of Mrs. Pastor: Episode 4 – My awkward-moments toolbox

  1. Debbie

    Thanks Rachel. I can so relate

  2. MaryS

    Be proud sister. The fakers probably won’t make for a good relationship anyway 😉

  3. MaryS

    P.s. That post made me laugh out loud 😜

  4. MaryS

    P.s.s. This just happened to me at Toby’s baseball game. The drunken fan/mother kept shushing her conversation around me after that. I felt really sad…..for her.

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