Universal Facial expressions

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If I ever go to a distant foreign country, far away and with an entirely different culture and customs, will the natives understand me on some basic level? Do they laugh the same? Cry the same? Love the same? After all, what can seem to be very fundamental in my society, might not be the case everywhere, right?

If you did wonder, you’re not the first – scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and other very smart people tried to answer this basic question: are our facial expressions inborn, or are they learned through culture and education (and therefore may differ from place to place)?

In this 2 parts series, we will try to answer this exact question and more: How good we’re at decoding facial expressions? And what are micro expressions?

How learning to identify basic facial expressions can help us?

What are the main features of each expression and how we can distinguish between a genuine and fake display of the associated emotion? As always, we shall start with the basics:

The Study of Human Behavior

The question of whether our behavior is genetic or learned is quite new (as the whole academic study of body language). It just wasn’t that relevant centuries ago, when people didn’t even know the term “genetic.” But it was a general knowledge those days that you simply learned the “right” behavior from your culture and your parents, otherwise, you were just some cultureless barbarian.

Even when genetics was a well-known fact, our behavior was related to the way we were raised. Even basic things like smiling were considered things you “pick up” on the way subconsciously. For example, a baby smiles at his parents because he mimics their smiles towards him. (and there is much truth in that theory, but more on this at another time)

But Charles Darwin assumed otherwise, he concluded that if animals have some innate behaviors they are born knowing (like a mating dance), then humans must have something too. And we do, a lot of it actually.

Since then, it’s been an ongoing debate on what’s instinctive and what we learn through mimicry.
There’s much evidence, however, that supports the idea that we do have some basic link between us when it comes to expressing our emotions. Blind people have the same facial expressions as seeing people, even though they never saw how to make them, and even blind babies smile and cry the same as seeing babies. But how deep is this basic connection between us? What is the absolute baseline between all humans and cultures, even those who live on a tiny island without any Wi-Fi?

why babies smile

To answer this question, an anthropologist named Paul Ekman and his associates traveled the world in the 60s to identify these emotions and categorize them. They even traveled to Papua New Guinea, a very isolated jungle island at the time, where the natives almost had no contact with the outside world (so couldn’t be affected by the pop culture and media). They found out that people display 6 basic emotions the same way, no matter their culture and education (later Paul Ekman and his associates added a few more expressions, in this article, I concluded the contempt facial expression, but later on this)

Is this the end of the story?

Not really, even today some researchers challenge Ekman’s methods and findings, so there isn’t an absolute agreement in the scientific community. But for us, the common people, it’s safe to assume that in most cases – we are very similar in how we express our feelings around the world, with only minor adjustments here and there. Yes, you can travel to that isolated island with peace, just bring a pocket dictionary, just in case.

How Good we’re at recognizing emotions via facial expression?

Very good actually, recognizing emotions through facial expression is one of the things that is a brainer to us. We are programmed to recognize faces instantly and be drawn to them. Faces stir emotional responses in us, as we try to figure out how that person feels and do we like it or not.

Note: by the way, that’s one reason we dislike blurred images of people in photos. We don’t mind if the background or some other objects are blurred (we may even prefer it). But when the face is not in focus – it severs that “human connection”, and we find it hard to connect on an emotional level with that “non-person.”

reading facial expressions

Our limbic brain constantly picks up nonverbal signals from the face and decodes them fast and without any help from us., we’re so good at it in fact that we even see faces where non exist (*ahem* the moon *ahem*), and we can recognize emotions even from minimalistic drawings of faces (someone said smilies?).

The only “problem” is that we don’t always understand what we see. We might feel that something is off in how another acts, but we can’t be too sure what it is, and why it makes us feel uneasy.

This might be because we had a glimpse of “micro-expression” – a genuine display of emotion in the face that can last for a split second, it’s an emotional leak that reveals the true attitude of the person in front of us. Very few people can recognize these expressions and decode them in time, but this skill can be learned and used.

The rest of us may just get a gut feeling they cannot truly explain:

  • “We had a very pleasant meeting but somehow I got the feeling that I’m unwelcome”
  • “He acts all jolly, but something about him feels very sad”
  • “I think we arrived at a bad time, even though Diana denies it,” and so on.

When there’s a contradiction between what we see in the face, and how we feel about it – it might be due to a glimpse of a microexpression and other nonverbal cues.

Why you need to correctly read Facial Expressions

Since most of us are not anthropologists or psychologists, we’re only mildly interested in how it came to be – as long as it works. If I can understand and be understood on a basic level, what more is that to it?

I love practicality too, so believe me when I say there is a good reason for it:

First of all, we’re truly great at identifying these expressions when they come in their pure form, a face expression by the book, so to speak. But this is often not the case. We learn to control our facial muscles, restrain ourselves, and mask our emotions.

We often feel that if others will know how we truly feel we will be vulnerable and they will take advantage of us. Even if we like someone, we won’t show it right away, we want to make sure they like us too, right? These little games are the reason why it’s often hard to identify how others feel by their expressions. Especially when you take into account developed habits of holding face in a certain way that leaves almost a permanent expression on an individual’s face.

Secondly, let’s do a quick acting exercise: I’ll note the emotions and you will correspond with your face (happy, afraid, angry, disgusted, sad, surprised):

Try to capture your face while expressing these emotions, and then decide (or even better, let someone else decide) if it’s a genuine display of that emotion. It should look as natural as possible and not overly dramatic. Not that easy, huh?

These 2 points lead to a simple yet interesting result – While we’re born with the understanding of emotions through facial expressions and we’re able to express them easily without a single thought when we take manual control, we sabotage this route of communication. Why? Because most of us suck at it (except those with a natural talent for acting) and we can easily misunderstand each other when we mask our feelings.

And I don’t mean to judge, this is our existing reality like they say it in “house” – everybody lies, sometimes for this reason or another. And we better be ready to deal with it when it matters, right?

This is where learning the basic facial expressions can actually help you: You will be able to identify when someone is genuinely expressing his emotions or just masking another feeling instead (and which one?).

Another option is to take the acting class yourself and practice your face to express whatever emotion you want. It’s not an easy task and it can take a lot of practice, but can pay off. Just be warned, even the best actor, in extreme emotional peaks, cannot hold his guise completely – something will show, and the careful observer can sense and expose it, so play this game at your own risk.

How to Master the 7 Universal Facial Expressions

7 universal facial expressions 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 easy as it sounds.

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

Ready? Yes!

How to tell if someone is Happy?

Are they Happy?

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.

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 a deceitful expression. It’s a courtesy gesture that sends a friendly message nonetheless, just a less “joyful” one.

Identifying Real Sadness

Identifying Real Sadness
  • 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 tension in the neck and chin area (holding back the tears).

When we fake sadness we tend to overdo it (like kids) – we stick out the lower lip and 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 “quiet” expression, it’s as if someone is “switched off” – he might gaze down and look somewhat contemplative.


Surprise body langauge
  • Open mouth. If it’s a good surprise then it will shape into an open smile, if it’s bad it’ll probably turn into an angry or fearful facial expression.
  • Raised eyebrows – all the way.
  • Wide open eyelids.
  • Forehead  may wrinkle
  • It’s a very quick expression

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

How to Spot Anger

How to Spot Anger

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 a fixed icy stare.
  • “Flaring” nose in the overdramatic individuals (kids…)

Our brows get closer and in a downward 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.

This is what Fear Looks Like

  • Slanted and raised eyebrows
  • Open and tense eyelids
  • Mouth stretched backward
  • Curved and tense mouth

When we’re afraid our 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 of the bored or disdain facial expression – when our eyelids are almost halfway down – we’re trying to block what’s going on in front of us.

How to Spot Disgust

  • 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 go up

What you need to know about Contempt

  • 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 about what’s being said


The general feeling you get from this expression is of condescending superiority. “Cut the bull$%^& and give me a break..“. It’s a 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 facial expressions (or any other gesture) in their context. That’s why it can be very hard to identify the emotion through a frozen isolated face, we have some hints from the surroundings.

2. Genuine facial expressions 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 facial expressions we have. 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 facial expression for them. For example, love is an enduring emotion that lasts for a long time and is expressed in many forms.

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Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
Articles: 787

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