The 7 Universal Face Expressions

Welcome to the facial expressions acting class, warm up your facial muscles, get into the mood and let's roll.

In this article we will understand the 7 universal facial expression as introduced by Paul Ekman - and this time, we gonna learn by experience. This is going to be very simple :

1. Take a mirror or a camera to record the results

2. Read the characteristics of each expression and try to mimic them.

3. See if you got that face right. Sometimes it's not as it easy as it sounds.

4. After each face expression try to see if it affected your mood in any way

Ready? Yes!


A Genuine, fully expressed happy face includes:

  • Wide smile with open mouth - you should see teeth.

  • "Crow's feet" around the eyes (wrinkles around the eyes)

  • Raised cheeks

  • The eyes squint some

  • Possible wrinkles around the nose.

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When we fake happiness we just use a smile with our lips, but a true happy face also includes the upper part of the face, especially the muscles around the eyes (the orbicularis oculi) - Read on the difference between a  true and fake smile.

By the way, a fake or social smile doesn't mean it's a bad sign or deceitful expression. It's a courtesy gesture that sends a friendly message nonetheless, just a less "joyful" one.


The simple way to remember the features of a sad face is to think that it feels like the face "melts":

  •  A frown - we slant and raise our inner eyebrows. (a hard thing to fake)

  • The lip's corners are pulled down

  • There might be a tension in the neck and chin area (holding back the tears).

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When we fake sadness we tend to overdo it (like kids) - we stick out the lower lip and wear make a "sad smile". Real sadness however is hard to fake:

1. Real frowns require fine control of the brows, we need to slant and raise only our inner brows.

2. It's often a "quite" expression, it's as if someone is "switched off" - he might gaze down and look somewhat contemplative.


  • Open mouth. If it's a good surprise then it will shapes into an open smile, if it's bad it'll probably turn into an anger or fear face expression.

  • Raised eyebrows - all the way.

  • Wide open eyelids.

  • Forehead  may wrinkle

  • It's a very quick expression

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It's quite simple to fake a surprised face - nothing says I'm shocked better than wide open eyes with raised eyebrows. The real difference between a genuine and fake surprise is in the timing and duration of the expression.

When done on purpose, a "shocked" face is used to reveal  enthusiastic interest: "oh really? I can't believe this happened to you!"

It can also used to signal comic astonishment or to show disbelief to discredit what's being said at the moment. "Oh really? I don't believe a word you say"


The keyword here is tension - tension in the eyebrows, jaws, lips and around the eyes.

  • Closed 'V shaped' eyebrows.

  • Open and square mouth Or  closed mouth with tense chin and jaws.

  • Squinty eyes with fixed icy stare.

  • "Flaring" nose in the overdramatic individuals (kids...)

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Our brows gets closer and in  downwards V shape when we're truly angry. There is a lot of tension in the central point between the brows and a fixation with the eyes on the target of the rage.

Even if you see a smile, but also observe a tense forehead and a fixed gaze - you can be sure something is wrong.


  • Slanted and raised eyebrows

  • Open and tense eyelids

  • Mouth stretched backward

  • Curved and tense mouth

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When we're afraid are eyes fly wide open. It's part of our survival mechanism (the three F's - Freeze, Flight or Fight) -  we automatically expand our visual field to find escape routes or put our body on full alert. This is the opposite to the bored\disdain face expression - when our eyelids are almost halfway down - we're trying to block what's going on in front of us.


Just think about something disgusting and tense your neck and lips:

  • Wrinkled nose (did you just smell that?)

  • Lowered eyebrows

  • Tense and curved down mouth

  • Upper lips goes up

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  • A small wrinkle of the nose, just like in the disgusted expression may appear.

  • Curling of the mouth on one side, very similar to the smug smile but more tense.

  • Sticking out of the upper lip (optional)

  • One eyebrow may rise, to signify doubt towards what's being said

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The general feel you get from this expression is of condescending superiority. "Cut the bull$%^& and give me a break..". It's very disheartening and degrading gesture to say the least - use this expression in an argument and it automatically becomes personal.


Well done, we finished the class for today, but before you leave and start analyzing faces,  I want to point out several very important notes:

1. We automatically read face expression (or any other gesture) in its context. That's why it can be very hard to identify the emotion through a frozen isolated face, we some hints from the surroundings.

2. Genuine face expression can sometimes last for only a split second (the micro-expressions we mentioned).

3. Emotional blend. We rarely experience one "pure" emotion. For example,  When we're afraid we might be also angry at the same time. Our face shifts constantly to match our emotions and it can even be stuck in sort of a middle stage between different expressions.

4. These are not the only face expressions we have, obviously. There are many other emotions we project with our face, but they can vary from place to place and aren't so easily identified.

Not all emotions have a specific face expression for them. For example, love, is an enduring emotion that lasts through a long time and is expressed in many forms.

That's it! Have fun!

Return to the universal face expressions - Part 1

Try this animation website that creates a 3d face - associated with specific emotions.

Or return to Facial Expressions section

Return to Homepage - Study Body Language

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