The Guide to Face Expressions in Body Language - Part 1

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Hi there and welcome.

Today we're going to look at perhaps the most informative and versatile tool in nonverbal communication - our face expressions.

More specifically, we will talk about them from 2 aspects:

1. How and why we perceive faces.

2. How we can use these principles to better get along with others and even control our own emotions.

Let's start!

Faces, Faces Everywhere

The face is the main attraction of a person. It's the first thing we look at and the best thing we remember about anyone.

Think about it, how many people do you know and recognize - almost miraculously, by their face. It's not a small feat - can you think of anything else that you can distinguish so well or so quickly?

In fact, researchers debate about whether or not we have a special part in our brain that its precise job is to recognize faces.

Faces are not only easily distinguished, but are actively and unconsciously scanned for in our surroundings, from the moment of our birth. Babies are shown to search and respond to faces, they can recognize the shape of eyes and mouth, even if it's a doll with a goofy face. They also instinctively mimic the expression they perceive - smile and they'll smile back.

We can see faces where they don't actually exist - from the shape food makes on our plate to the surface of the moon, we're programmed to search and recognize faces in a very biased fashion.

But why exactly? What can we benefit from such tendency?

He got the hang of it

Face expressions are a communication blast

Face expressions are made for communication. Made for, designed by evolution to project our emotions or intentions to others.

This is a slight, but important distinction, because not all of what we call "non-verbal communication" is literally meant to communicate. Most of it is unintentional, a projection of internal thoughts and feelings. When you know how to read body language you know how to interpret such signs.

But face expressions are a different case, our face is a sort of a drawing board for displaying either true emotion or fake displays to achieve social goals (the polite smile for example). As a result we are very tuned to search and understand faces.

Note: the other major component that helps us understand emotion is the tone of voice. When voice and face tell the same story (angry face with an angry tone) the message appears clear and genuine.

It's easy to guess why we needed (and still do) this tool, as one of our trademarks as a species is our ability to understand each other and cooperate. And since we started living in groups even before we had verbal language, it's reasonable that face expressions became quite effective and specialized.

You can't do it by yourself

Image Source

Another strong evidence that facial expressions are evolved to communicate to others, and not for our sole benefit, is the fact that we do it much less when we're alone. If there's no crowd, why bother to perform?

Don't judge the book by its ... oh, it's too late

Even before we start talking about the different expressions and how they affect our perception, let's talk about face features.

We already established that we identify others by their face, and since we tend to make very quick judgments based on physical appearances (it's automatic, there's little we can do about it), your face becomes the window to your personality.

This means that some things, not really in our control, already shaping the way others see us. According to this research, these facial features are spread across 3 dimensions:

1. Approachability - quite simple as it sounds, does the face looks welcoming or not. Naturally, the more "smiley" the face is - the more positive effect it has.

2. Dominance - how dominant and authoritative the face appears. Hard, masculine features such as low and thick eyebrows, visible cheekbones, square jaw, and squinty eyes, are all contribute to this trait.

3. Attractiveness and youthfulness - of course it depends on the gender, but "baby face" features such as big eyes, small nose and mouth tend to have appeal for most, especially to men. 

Definitely falls under the "smiley" section

Image Source

Naturally, there's an interaction between such features, appearing young undermines the dominant attribute for example. Each can give an advantage in different circumstances (no, you can't have the best of all worlds!)

So the first step in reading someone's face - try to evaluate his or hers features. Take notice of such trait marks and other permanent signs (wrinkles are a story written on the face) to see how they affect your judgments. Some people appear more grim or authoritative simply because they have a square jaw and thick brows. You can't escape the natural bias you have - but you can take it into account when you evaluate a person.

And... Action!

Now let's talk about deceit and the face.

It's only natural that with so much emphasize on the face we learn to mask our emotions or use fake expressions when it's socially required.

We learn to smile politely and hide anger behind a blank face. But masking emotions and faking them isn't the same thing.

It appears that we have two main neural paths that control face expressions - one is voluntary and the other - isn't.

They can't judge what they can't see

The involuntary path is activated when we feel strong genuine emotions and doesn't require our attention. It's like a preset, ready to show all the right adjustments at the appropriate moments.

The voluntary is activated the same way you activate other muscles in your body, that's why such expression are usually isolated. When you fake a smile - you know consciously to pull the edges of your mouth, but you neglect the eyes, the brows or your nose (other components that appear in a genuine smile).

That's why forcing the display of genuine emotions can be extremely difficult. Acting angry, sad or surprised requires practice and full awareness to how your face features appear and move.

There's of course a more "natural" way to fake emotions, the way actors practice: using their imagination or personal memories of similar events, to awake such feelings in themselves and manipulate them for the scene. This method doesn't focus on the face expression itself, but rather evoke it naturally in response to own thoughts and feelings.

Moving On

So far I spoke about the principles behind face expressions, in the next page I will focus more on the self-work part - the little things that can help you, and some other things you should probably avoid.

Face expressions - Part 2 | Part 3

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