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How to Read Facial Expressions

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of different types of facial expressions. You will learn the importance of reading facial expressions, and how to read a myriad of expressions that relate to various emotional states.

What is a Facial Expression?

He was one of the best poker players in his country because of one discernible skill--his ability to read other players' facial expressions. Leo could tell if an opponent had a good or poor hand--and sometimes exactly what hand he or she had-- just by looking at his or her facial expression.

Often facial expressions can be quite telling in card games, especially poker.
Reading poker players facial expressions

A facial expression is a motion or gesture made by one's facial muscles. Facial expressions, along with body language and content of one's words, are a vehicle in understanding another's interests, likes, dislikes, mood, and desires. Unlike body language which can vary amongst cultures (example: a nod in the country of Turkey means no instead of yes), facial expressions are pretty universal around the world. Studies have shown that even blind individuals (who have never seen a happy or sad facial expression, for example) use the same facial expressions as those that can see.

Reading others facial expressions is an important social skill. Picking up on others grimaces, sarcastic smirks, or forced smiles can tell us a lot about whether or not a person is comfortable, happy, entertained, or just plain bored.

Reading Facial Expressions

Sometimes it's difficult to read others facial expressions if they are deliberately (or subconsciously) masking their true emotional state. Usually people show macro expressions that involve the entire face and last for about 0.5 to 4 seconds. These are usually easily discernible, especially if one knows what to look for in reading facial expressions.

But there are facial expressions that last only a fraction (sometimes only 1/30th!) of a second and are often difficult to see in real time. These micro expressions are usually indicative of a person's true emotional state he is consciously or subconsciously trying to mask.

Following are nine of the most common emotions, and the specific qualities of the facial expressions that they create.

Fear

Your friend jumps out of the bushes to intentionally scare you. Your friend knows you are scared because your:

  • Eyebrows draw up and form a straight line
  • Eyebrows form a wrinkle between them
  • Upper eyelid raises and lower eyelid tenses
  • Mouth is wide open and lips are tense

Raised, straight eyebrows and a wide-open mouth are indicators of fear in a facial expression.
Fear face

Disgust

You're watching a TV show where the contestants are challenged to eat live worms. Your brother can tell you are disgusted because your:

  • Nose is wrinkled
  • Upper lip is raised
  • Upper eyelid is raised
  • Cheeks are raised

Upper raised lips and a crinkled nose are a sign of disgust in a facial expression.
Disgust face

Happiness

Your boss just informed you that he is giving you a raise. He can tell you're happy because:

  • The corners of your lips are curved upwards
  • There's a smile wrinkle from the corner of the mouth to the bottom of the nose
  • Your cheeks are drawn up
  • Your lower eyelid is either wrinkly or tense
  • Crows feet wrinkles extend from the eye
  • Your mouth parts and exposes your teeth (although some happy facial expressions don't have a parted mouth)

Smile wrinkles, engaged eyes, parted mouths, and lifted cheeks are all indicative of happiness.
Happy kids

Anger

Someone steals your parking spot at the mall. Your sister in the passenger seat can tell you're angry because your:

  • Eyebrows are lowered and drawn together
  • Eyes are bulging
  • Eyes are staring
  • Lips are pressed together
  • Nostrils are dilated
  • Eyebrows have wrinkles in between them

A hard stare and wrinkles between the brows are representative of anger.
Angry man

Sadness

You just lost your beloved pet. Your significant other may try to comfort you if:

  • The corners of your mouth are curved and drawn downward (in a frown)
  • Your eyes are glossy or watery
  • The inner corners of your eyebrows are brought together and faced upwards
  • Your lower lip is pouty

A frown and glossy eyes are indicative of sadness.
Sad facial expression.

Surprised

You walk into your house and are surprised with a birthday party. Your family and friends know you are surprised because your:

  • Brows are raised and curved like an 'm'
  • Upper eyelids are stretched
  • Wrinkles are stretched across your forehead
  • Eyes are wide open
  • Mouth is wide open

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