So You Want to Be An Expert (part 1 of 3)?

Why Focus on the Face?

I wrote previously about how nonverbal behavior (NVB) is a major component of communication, and how facial expressions of emotion are the most important and complex signal system (way of communicating) that humans have. There is evidence to suggest that up to 90% of the meta-messages communicated in any interaction is nonverbal, not verbal. That is why we focus our efforts on understanding what’s up with the face.

I also mentioned that research has documented seven universally expressed and recognized facial expressions of emotion: happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger, contempt and disgust. This idea about universal emotions started earlier than you might think: Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) shared his ideas about the face and emotions in a book he wrote later in life, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872). Darwin thought that all mammals showed emotion reliably in their faces. By the way, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s life. If you are interested in his work, check out

Let’s get back to the face. There are other emotions and of course there are moods (we’ll cover the difference in another blog) – but the impact of this particular finding is immense. It means that all people – regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, age, gender or religion – express these seven emotions in the face in exactly the same way. It makes sense then that being able to read signs of emotion in the form of macroexpressions, microexpressions and subtle expressions is an important skill for effective communication. When you are able to accurately read signs of emotions in others, it is easier to establish relationships, build rapport, elicit information you might need, negotiate and so forth. It increases your emotional intelligence. Simply put, learning this skill can help you relate better, work smarter and see what others are really feeling.

Face Basics Redux

We defined macroexpressions, microexpressions and subtle expressions in a previous blog. Here are those definitions again just so you have them handy.

Macroexpressions. These last from ½ second to 4 seconds: we see them in our daily interactions with people all of the time. It is the face that people show when they have nothing to hide.

Microexpressions last less than ½ second and occur when people are consciously or unconsciously trying to conceal or repress what they are feeling. Most people miss microexpressions, all though there are a few people in the world who are naturals and can spot them without training. Want to know if you are one of them? Go to the Play and Discover section of this website and take the pre-test. If you aren’t a natural, don’t worry.  We know that people can be taught to spot microexpressions relatively easily with about an hour of training.

Subtle expressions are a little different.  We don’t identify them by the amount of time it takes them to move on and off the face; subtle expressions are associated with the intensity of the emotion.  They occur when a person is just starting to feel an emotion, or when their emotional response to a situation, another person or the environment around them is of low intensity. Recently published research showed a high correlation between recognizing subtle expressions and being able to detect deceit.

Learning to Be An Expert

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 12)

There are a few “naturals” in the world that can read faces with nearly 100% accuracy and no training: they just know. Look up Silvan Tomkins on the web. Psychologist and mentor to the modern study of the face, he was an amazing face reader – some people say he was the best the world has ever seen. For the rest of us, the good news is that we can learn it. Just about everyone can get the basics with an hour of training. Like most things in life, in order to get really, really, really good requires that you practice, practice, practice. Let’s break down a basic approach in this blog (and the next two) to learning how to read faces.

Step 1: Learn What to Look For

Given that we’ve got 40 muscles in the face all moving independently of each other – with the possibility of thousands of expressions – the first step is to understand the kind of information all that moving around can provide. One caveat – remember that no matter how good we are at seeing the signs, it is natural for us to apply our own cultural bias and judgments to what we are seeing. For example in most western cultures, nodding the head up and down means “yes” and side to side means “no”. But if you grew up in Pakistan, it is the opposite. Let’s say I am an American talking to a visitor from Pakistan. I ask them if they are enjoying their stay in the U.S. They say “yes” and nod their head from side to side. This will confuse me and I am likely to think that they are lying to me. It looks odd: why would they say they liked something and shake their head “no” at the same time? In reality they are not. It is simply that I am making a judgment about what I am seeing based on my own cultural background. I don’t know that “yes,” means “no” and “no” means “yes” in Pakistan.

Step 1 Take Home Point

Since the face conveys lots of information, you want to learn what to look for given your specific interest or profession and what you should ignore. You will need to observe an individual in order to establish a baseline of their normal facial expressions (a tic for example), typical nonverbal behaviors (do they fidget all of the time or play with their hair? If so, that is part of their baseline) and any behaviors that might be specific to their culture (“yes” means “no” and vice versa).

Next blog I’ll write about recognizing what you are seeing and figuring out what it all means. Stay tuned.

4 responses to “So You Want to Be An Expert (part 1 of 3)?”

  1. Rob says:

    This is a very interesting subject, one which I have been reading a little about in the past. I’ve purchased one or two of Paul Ekman’s books, from which I’ve learned for the first time about the 7 universal emotions. For me, I have the succinct feeling that I’m a very bad face reader. So, some serious aid in improving my ability would be very welcome. I’m looking forward to reading more about this subject.

  2. […] don’t forget that facial expressions are an important part of communication. 5  This means that the more you express with your face, the better you will communicate with other […]

  3. […] don’t forget that facial expressions are an important part of communication. 5  This means that the more you express with your face, the better you will communicate with other […]

  4. […] don’t forget that facial expressions are an important part of communication.[ref][/ref]  This means that the more you express with your face, the better you will communicate with […]

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