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Updated: May 3, 2022

Photo(s) credit: Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Mirror mirror

Facial expressions are one aspect of nonverbal communication and are an outward indication of how we feel. We all want to be good at ‘reading' others, but do you know how YOU come across?

Have you ever spent time making faces at yourself in front of the mirror? Do you know what you look like when you are surprised, sad or really angry? If you don’t, sneak a peek in the mirror next time you feel an intense emotion. Look at the shape of your eyebrows, how wide your eyes are, the shape of your mouth, are the corners pulled up or drawn down?

With the help of six distinct muscle groups from the neck up, the human face is capable of making 1,000's of different expressions. These muscle groups include the muscles of the scalp, ears (auricular), eyes (orbital), nose (nasal), mouth (oral), and the neck. They work together in groups and variations to create the many different expressions we make to show emotions such as happiness or surprise.

In addition to showing our emotions, our facial expressions also indicate intent; when we raise our eyebrows in surprise or curiosity, for example, we indicate that we want to know more. This is also why we use emoticons and emojis in our texts and other messages, we want to communicate the emotions and intent behind the words on the screen.

The benefits of accurately interpreting facial expressions

We notice facial expressions before we engage in conversation with people. Think of a friend smiling at you from across the room as you enter, or noticing the expressions of colleagues during a meeting. We give meaning to what we see and base our responses on those interpretations. The ability to more accurately interpret someone’s facial expressions is hugely beneficial. Honing our observational skills will help us to gain more information from someone's facial expressions, giving us a better indication of their mood. When we know how someone is feeling, we can be more intentional about how we choose to act towards them. If, for example, we notice someone with tears in the eyes, the corners of the mouth pulled down and the chin wrinkled, we will most likely assume they are sad which may lead to us acting in an empathic way towards that person. On the other hand, if we see someone with the eyebrows pulled down and together, eyes staring hard and lips tightly pressed together, we could safely assume that the person is angry and our approach will be different.

Warning: Accurately interpreting the emotion behind facial expressions, does not mean we understand the reason behind the emotion. When we see someone who is upset, it is better to ask questions to ascertain why they are upset, rather than making assumptions. If we assume knowledge without clarification, it can lead to a breakdown in communication, which is exactly the opposite of what we want to achieve.

Maya Angelo said that people will forget what we said and did, but never how we made them feel. When we accurately interpret facial expressions and respond more intentionally and appropriately, people are more likely to feel seen, heard, and valued. If we can value people more and honour their experiences better, we in turn will be liked and trusted more.

(If you’ve ever wondered why people respond to you in certain ways, ask yourself how you may have come across to them.)

Universal vs Cultural

An important question that has been posed is whether we can be sure that we can accurately interpret facial expressions considering that we can make so many different expressions and come from such varied cultural backgrounds.

Charles Darwin was very interested in this subject. In his book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)1, he referred to observations made about Australian Aborigines concerning the expression of sadness; "The corners of the mouth are drawn downwards, which is so universally recognized as a sign of being out of spirits, that it is almost proverbial.”1

He quoted the descriptions of other observers of the facial expression of surprise observed in different cultures, e.g. in:

  1. the Dyaks of Borneo - ‘they open their eyes widely, when astonished…’,

  2. the workmen in the Botanic Gardens at Calcutta - 'when suddenly surprised, they first open their eyes and mouths widely’, and

  3. an Australian Aboriginal - ‘He stood … mouth open and eyes staring’.

Dr Paul Ekman has studied facial expressions and emotions since 1954. Based on his many years of global research, as well as drawing on the work of Darwin, he identified seven facial expressions that are universal.

The seven facial expressions include the involuntary expressions we make when we experience:

  1. joy

  2. sadness

  3. surprise

  4. fear

  5. anger

  6. disgust

  7. contempt

Part of our DNA

It may be argued that these universal expressions can be observed and learned through copying or mirroring behaviour. However, the seven universal expressions identified are even true for those who are from isolated tribes, as well as those who are born blind! It is well and truly part of our DNA.

Voluntary vs Involuntary

The facial expressions we make when suddenly surprised, shocked, or overjoyed are involuntary. It happens quickly and we have little to no control over them. These are called micro expressions.

Many of our expressions however, are within our control. We make faces at babies to make them smile, we choose to smile when our picture is taken, or we choose to stick out our tongue at someone (and then someone may choose to scowl at us for doing so).

Display rules

Speaking of scowling; some emotional expressions may be suppressed due to certain behavioural expectations and cultural or societal rules. I can choose to NOT poke my tongue out at someone, because it is considered rude to do so. We live in community, so, we tend to, or at least are expected to behave within certain parameters. When I laugh heartily, I may think to myself (or even be told), ‘Uhh, that wasn’t very lady like!’ The next time I may choose to suppress a hearty laugh and merely chuckle or smile. I could also decide to ignore that ‘rule’ and enjoy a good laugh.

Various research studies have focused on these parameters known as ‘display rules’. They vary between different cultures and even sub-cultures, and can be different in the context of a social setting vs a private setting. A common finding amongst these studies is that there is a greater suppression of emotional expression amongst cultures:

  1. who have a more collectivistic2 (group over individual) view,

  2. where emotion is considered less important3, and

  3. where the language used to describe the emotional impact of an event is less elaborate4

People’s expression of emotion may also differ depending on who they are with and whether they are in a group setting or on their own. Ask yourself, how you would respond to the same emotional stimulus in the context of:

  1. being by yourself,

  2. being with a group of close friends,

  3. being at work

  4. being with someone you trust vs someone you don’t trust

When interpreting facial expressions therefore, it is important to consider context and culture of both you as an observer and the person you are observing. We need to be intentional about attempting to understand each other and respecting our differences. It is equally important to understand ourselves, because our own backgrounds affect the way we interpret the expressions of others.

Have you slept enough?

Culture is one of the many things which play a role in how we interpret the facial expressions of others and even how we come across to others. Other than cultural differences, an important factor of note is fatigue.

We live in world where most of us don’t get the amount of sleep we need each night. Sleep deprivation negatively affects our ability to accurately decipher facial expressions. Instead of being able to spot more subtle expressions of joy and sadness, we miss those cues. When we miss the cues of sadness in a friend we may come across as uncaring. Interesting enough, the ability to accurately read anger and fear is not affected, most likely because those are emotions that trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response and are meant to keep us safe.

Accurately reading facial expressions come down to more than just noticing a smile or seeing the tears in someone’s eyes. We have to:

  1. become more self-aware, knowing how we come across, because that will affect how people respond to us

  2. understand that correctly identifying facial expressions without following up with an appropriate response is ineffective

  3. know that accurately reading facial expressions, followed with an appropriate response, may lead to great interactions

  4. understand [and respect] cultural differences

  5. be aware of display rules in different contexts

  6. get enough sleep

Make today AMAZING!



1. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) by Charles Darwin

2. Trommsdorff, G. (2012). Development of ‘agentic’ regulation in cultural context: the role of self and world views. Child Dev. Perspect. 6, 19–26. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00224.x

3. Dzokoto, V. (2010). Different ways of feeling: emotion and somatic awareness in Ghanaians and euro-americans. J. Soc. Evol. Cult. Psychol. 4, 68–78. doi: 10.1037/h0099299

4. Dzokoto, V., Opare-Henaku, A., and Kpobi, L. (2013). Somatic referencing and psychologisation in emotion narratives: a USA–Ghana comparison. Psychol. Dev. Soc. 25, 311–331. doi: 10.1177/0971333613500875

5. Hall, E. (1992). The Hidden Dimension. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith Pub.

6. Miyamoto, Y., Ma, X., and Petermann, A. G. (2014). Cultural differences in hedonic emotion regulation after a negative event. Emotion 14, 804–815. doi: 10.1037/a0036257

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