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Five Tips to Better Understand Facial Expressions

How to Read Emotions Based on Facial Expressions

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Updated June 19, 2014

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Facial expressions convey a story about a person's thoughts and feelings.

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The ability to read facial expressions is an important part of understanding nonverbal communication. If you only listen to what a person says, and ignore what that person's face is telling you, then you really only have half the story. Often, words do not match actual emotions, and the face belies what a person is really feeling.

If you suffer with social anxiety disorder (SAD) you might have a hard time paying attention to facial expressions. You might have trouble with eye contact or read too much into any negative expression you see on the other person's face. Although it is important to pay attention to facial expressions, always remember that though you might know the emotion, you don't know the cause. If someone seems bored, upset or disinterested it could be for a number of reasons other than the current conversation.

The value in understanding facial expressions is to gather information about how the other person is feeling and guide your interaction accordingly. If someone appears disinterested she might just be tired, and it might be time to end the conversation.

Below are five tips to help you better read the facial expressions of others.

  1. Universal Emotions. Research by Dr. Paul Eckman tells us that there are a handful of universal facial expressions that cross cultural divides; even blind people make the same faces to express the same emotions. These are: surprise, fear, disgust, contempt, anger, sadness and happiness. Practice making the facial expressions that go along with these emotions and you will become better at recognizing them in other people.
     
  2. Microexpressions. Not all facial expressions stick around for a long time. Those that pass quickly are called microexpressions and are almost indiscernible to the casual observer. However, you might be picking up on these microexpressions if you get a "feeling" about someone. Don't ignore your gut.
     
  3. Eyebrows. Eyebrows tell a lot about what a person is feeling. They can be raised and arched (surprise), lowered and knit together (anger), or the inner corners drawn up (sadness). Watch someone's eyebrows to get a handle on how that person is feeling.
     
  4. Eyes. The only thing more telling than the eyebrows are the eyes themselves. They might be wide open (surprise), intensely staring (anger), or have crow's feet crinkles (happy). In addition, dilated pupils can indicate fear or romantic interest while rapid blinking might signal dishonesty or stress.
     
  5. Mouth. The final piece of the facial expression puzzle has to do with the mouth. Look for a dropped jaw (surprise), open mouth (fear), one side of the mouth raised (hate), corners raised (happiness) or corners drawn down (sadness). Other signals to look for are lip biting (anxiety), pursed lips (distaste), or covering the mouth (hiding something).

These are just a few tips to get you thinking about the facial expressions you see during conversation and what they mean. If you find that you are having a hard time reading other people's emotions through their expressions, you might need more practice, or you might simply have trouble decoding what others are feeling (as is characteristic of those with asperger's disorder).

If your inability to read facial expressions causes you distress, consider seeking help from a mental health professional to identify the issue and appropriate method of remediation.

Sources:

American Psychological Association. Reading Facial Expressions of Emotion. Accessed April 28, 2013.

Science of People. How to Read Faces: Emotion Detection 101. Accessed April 28, 2013.

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