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Body Language of the Month: Learn How to Read Faces


Have you ever had a conversation with someone where they gave you vague responses and you suspected their actual thoughts were stronger than they said? It’s a frustrating situation to be in but one that is easily solved when you know how to read faces. People’s faces often reveal far more than the words they say. Even when someone tries to appear calm and neutral, their faces will flicker brief expressions that reveal their true feelings.

A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that is shown on the face of humans according to the emotions that are being experienced. Unlike regular prolonged facial expressions, it is difficult to fake a microexpression.

Researchers have discovered seven universal microexpressions that every person, regardless of where they live in the world, displays.

Decoding the 7 Universal Microexpressions

The seven microexpressions correspond with emotions that drive human behavior. Here is a brief overview of each:

Anger – Being able to spot the anger microexpression is key for recognizing it in people who don’t feel comfortable vocalizing or acting on the feeling.

read faces

Contempt – This means hatred or disdain. It’s the most dangerous emotion because once people feel this way about someone or something, it tends to be permanent.

read faces

Disgust – In addition to being the default reaction to gross things, people also show disgust toward anything they think is morally wrong.

read faces

Fear – This microexpression is a sign that someone feels threatened and/or is confronted with uncertainty.

read faces

Happiness – Unlike the others, happiness is more significant when it’s not shown. Many people will fake happiness to be polite and/or hide their true emotions. The genuine happiness microexpression is characterized by engaged eye muscles as seen in the photo on the right.

read faces

Fake Happy      Real Happy

Sadness – Many people are uncomfortable sharing their sadness with others. When you spot this expression, know that the individual is upset and may need space.

read faces

Surprise – This microexpression signals that someone was startled which can be both positive or negative. To understand how someone felt about the surprise, watch for the microexpressions that follow after.

read faces

How to React to Microexpressions

To harness the full power of reading microexpressions, you must respond to them with caution. Unlike with full emotional displays where people are conscious and accepting that they are showing an emotion, with microexpressions people typically believe they are hiding their emotions and will be startled, and at times offended, if you call them for their feelings. Instead, take an indirect approach that doesn’t disclose your face reading abilities. Here’s how:

  • First ask yourself, is this an emotion that needs to be addressed? If the emotion behind the microexpression is expected and/or acceptable for the conversation topic then it may be best to not acknowledge it. For example, if you’re cancelling plans with a friend and they tell you it’s okay but flash a sadness microexpression, the best solution is probably to ignore the expression and make it up to them later. Their expression is fitting because having plans cancelled can be upsetting. But, as your friend, making you feel guilty is worse and forcing them to explain their sadness will make the situation more emotional.

On the other hand, if you’re speaking to a colleague about a project you are collaborating on and they flash a fear microexpression, then you should investigate the source of the fear. In this case, the microexpression hints that there is a problem that could become more severe if left unresolved.

  • If, like the second example, a microexpression suggests that the individual you’re talking to is hiding something that needs to be resolved, redirect the flow of your conversation to focus more on what they or you were saying when they flashed the microexpression. Don’t call them out on the emotion directly. Instead, ask them how they feel about the subject or for them to explain what they were saying more in-depth.
  • Be aware that sometimes microexpressions are unrelated to the current conversation. We’re all guilty of letting our minds wander to other topics while talking to people and sometimes it can show on people’s faces. Sadness in particular may flash when someone is dealing with a personal issue that their thoughts are frequently drawn to. If after answering your questions for more details someone is still showing negative microexpressions, assume that they may be having a rough day. If you were talking about a serious issue, follow-up with them to see if they still appear emotional about the subject.

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About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.


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