The Guide to Face Expressions

Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks


Table of Contents

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!

How do we Perceive Faces?

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?

147xNxbaby smiling.jpg.pagespeed.ic.T8iO3vQTXwHe 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.

135xNxhuman ladder.jpg.pagespeed.ic.Si5QXkGOzW

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?

Face Features

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. 

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.

Faking and Hiding Expressions

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.

hiding faceThey 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.

Unveiling the Mask

We saw that faking emotions isn’t an easy feat, so spotting the fake ones is a matter of observation, to see when the expression is strained and deliberate.

I do want to list some markers to help you distinguish fake from true. I also recommend learning the features of the universal face expressions to get a better understanding of how they appear naturally.

1. True emotions don’t last long on the face.

A true smile doesn’t last forever, keeping it too long and it looks plastered or simply idiotic. In fact, some of the more genuine signals we have are micro-expressions.

Note: Micro-expressions are face expressions that last a split second. They’re relevant in times of stress, when someone keeps an appearance, but for a split second the mask drops and the genuine emotion spills out. It’s an emotional leak that doesn’t’ last long.  The problem of course is noting such expressions, if you’re really interested, there are programs that teach just that.

2. It doesn’t need to be exaggerated.

People who want to fake feelings often turn to drama actors. Their problem is that they make it excessive; they want others to see that they feel in a certain way, but in reality, genuine emotions are often barely visible.

3. They’re not always in “pure” form.

When it comes to reality – you’ll see that it’s quite hard to isolate emotions solely from facial expressions, even if you know their signs, simply because they’re not static. That’s why you get mixed expressions or face expressions in “transition”.

That’s why it’s often hard to identify the correct emotion in a snapshot. Without the context and seeing what preceded and followed that certain expression, we can’t be sure what it is about.

4. How do you Feel?

Even if you did everything right, you must remember that very often, your strongest tool in reading body language is your own emotion. 

Definitions and methods can get you this far, but sometimes it’s impossible to put an expression to words. So don’t cling to it, use your intuition and allow your mirror neurons do the work they are designed to do.

Your Default Facial Expression

Let’s talk about how your face is usually set – what’s your “default” natural face expression.

I already talked about face features and how they affect first impressions. You can’t change that, but you can alter and regulate your expressions if you’re dedicated enough and have some good friends.

Considering that you don’t actually see yourself, except from the times you look in the mirror, you don’t really know how you look “normally”.

This means that how others see you, and what you imagine yourself to look, isn’t quite the same.

For example, you may have a grave or grim face, just because you’re used to hold that expression, even when you actually feel quite content.

Other people, of course, don’t know that and may feel uncomfortable around you. On the other hand, you may appear juvenile and perhaps a little naive if you smile too much.

You aim to be friendly but others can judge you as weak and needy, and some of them may even try to take advantage of you.

170xNxgrim face.jpg.pagespeed.ic.Hg8BrQqyD7He might be very cheerful inside…or notImage Source

If you do have an image that bothers you, it may involve your natural face expression that undermines you.

And that’s where your friends, family, or people who know you well can help.

Ask them, what do they think about you, do you have any “default” expression or some quirks they’re used to see when looking at your face?

If you suspect this to be true – you need to take manual control. 

First step is self-awareness, I don’t expect you to be aware to your face all day long, but you can practice, and be more attentive at specific occasions.

If we return to the grim face example, you could try smiling more when you’re participating in social gatherings. Yes… it’s fake, but sometimes it’s better than nothing.

Don’t be afraid to practice in front of the mirror too! 

Feel how the muscles rest in different expressions and try to imitate them without looking at the mirror.

This may sound trivial and minor, but remember that’s a loop – the way you look affects how others judge you and treat you – what in turn affects your feelings and your impression of yourself – and back to square one, it affects what sort of face and posture you wear.

If you intend on breaking this cycle, you need to change one of the steps. Since it’s hard to control how you feel, and perhaps even harder to change what others think about you, the weakest link is your own behavior and beliefs, start there.

Use your Eyebrows

Learn to control and be aware of your brows. We generally don’t think about eyebrows when we talk with people, but they can add flavor and drama to your words if you know what you’re doing.

Let’s see some examples on how to do just that:

The eyebrows flash – whenever we meet someone familiar we automatically raise our brows slightly as a sign of recognition.

It’s our body’s way of saying something like “Oi! What a surprise to see you here!” It happens unconsciously and quickly, we don’t really mind it.

Unless it’s missing, and when it does, it gives the impression that this someone doesn’t really know or like us.

And how can we use it?

First of all, by remembering this you automatically have one more tool in your belt to send a positive or negative message right from the start of the encounter.

You can willfully set the tone of the meeting by choosing to show or neglect the eyebrows flash.

And of course, it’s also a great way to greet and meet new people!

You see, making eye contact, showing a little smile and quickly raising and dropping your eyebrows slightly, is equivalent or even better than saying “hi” to people you don’t know.

Learn to incorporate this flash to your verbal greetings or even learn to greet solely by this gesture, and you’ll see that you automatically get more positive reactions from strangers.

How to Sow doubt

Raising one brow is an expression of doubt. If you pick the right moment with the right people you can easily take advantage of it to undermine someone’s authority.

Naturally, the more extreme you make it – the more comical it becomes, so don’t afraid to adopt it in humorous or flirty scenarios.

It’s a nice bonding gesture too, similar to the wink – since it’s like sending a secret private message to someone else. It’s similar to saying: “look, this guy doesn’t really know what he talks about, am I right?”

You don’t impress me! – Raising one brow, just like in the previous example, but intended towards the speaker – shows a skeptical and somewhat superior attitude without uttering a word.

Whoever is doing the talking should try harder to convince you, you’re not impressed. Done right, it can help you get better deals or discourage unwanted chatter.

Poker Face and Emotional Regulation

We know the poker face as the blank face. It’s supposed to be the most neutral and unassuming position of our facial features.

But despite its pretense at neutrality – it’s not always so.

When it’s unintended – it can be boredom, a process of deep thoughts or evaluation\decision time, in some cases it can even be viewed as hostility.

Why hostility?

Because the lack of expressed emotions can be interpreted as lack of cooperation.

When you smile at someone and he or she doesn’t smile back – you won’t see this as a good or neutral sign, it’s the same as not responding to a greeting, it shows lack of rapport.

But a poker face can be handy, and not solely in the game of Poker. In fact, it’s one of the proven ways we have to regulate our emotions to certain events.

It’s called expressive suppression, one of the psychological techniques proven to help our emotional system deal with negative images.

It involves keeping a straight face when encountering with threatening, stressful events. The theory is that there’s a tight link between how you feel and the way you express it, in this case it’s reverse engineering, we suppress emotions by not allowing them to show.

By the way, the other technique is called cognitive reappraisal. This is sort of the opposite route, you change the way you see something in order to feel better about it. 

In this method you learn to describe the event to yourself in a more positive or neutral light, not by changing what you see – but adding background details to convince yourself to see it from another angle.

Now comes a big question?

Should i regulate my emotions? and if so, what is the better technique?

First of all, regulating emotions is often a sound idea – and you probably do it anyway unconsciously – sometimes you want to hide anger and to keep your cool, in other times you want to increase it because you believe it can serve you better, for example when you want to reprimand someone.

By consciously regulating your emotions however, you have more control and awareness to how you feel – and therefore act.

I showed you 2 ways to do it, and empirically the reappraisal technique works better than suppression.


Because apparently if you choose to treat a certain issue before you actually encounter it – helps you lower the amount of negative emotions you may feel afterwards.

Suppression on the other hand, works once you already in the process of the feeling – you’re already angry/sad/disgusted – you just don’t show it out.

So most of the findings today on emotional regulation show that both technique work on some level, but reappraisal has better psychological effect.

It doesn’t mean that adopting a poker face is useless, since It works on the principal that your brain and body are a 2 ways feedback system, if you act habitually more calm and neutral – you’ll feel more calm and neutral.

But if you try to ignore or suppress ongoing emotions you can cause strain – and in prolonged terms, even health problems related with stress.

In Summary

Acting “zen” like may sounds cool and wise, but in order to work it requires a good understanding of your emotional and psychological position.

So if that’s important to you, deal with it on both fronts:

1. If something really bothers you, and there’s not much you can do about it now – approach it from a different angle: Often an objective, “cold”, “looking to the facts” attitude  can help you focus and relieve you of the emotional tension associated with the situation.

2. Learn positive and calm body language. If you habitually adopt powerful, open, comfortable and steady position with your body, you easily adopt a more calm and focused mentality. It doesn’t work only in one direction – “if I’m calm I’ll act calm” – but also the other way around.

Try it, practice it, it really does worth it.


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