Emotional Cues

Overview of Emotional Cues

An emotional cue is a facial expressionOpens in new window, body movementOpens in new window, or tone of voiceOpens in new window indicative of emotionOpens in new window.

Some obvious emotional cues are making a fist when angry, dropping your jaw when surprised, or clearing your throat when you are not sure of something.

Though there is a ‘rich vocabulary’ in verbal language regarding emotions, ‘words are often less trustworthy than nonverbal signs’. The words we used to describe emotions are conventional and cannot really capture the emotions which are spontaneous—’usually unintentional, involuntary, and unconscious’ (Givens, 1999).

The faceOpens in new window is the most informative channel for expressing emotions. GesturesOpens in new window, posturesOpens in new window, and bodily movements are the second channel for emotion; they are, however, less informative than the face.

People do not always display the emotional expression that corresponds to their emotional state. There are ‘display rules’ governing which emotion may be expressed and there are often very good reasons for not showing what one is feeling. In general, however, it is quite difficult to control emotional expression, even impossible to control some aspects of it, like pupil dilation and perspiration.

Emotions are recognized from a whole pattern of nonverbal signals, which are usually consistent with each other and also with the expectations created by the context. They provide information about intensity and about the tense versus the relaxed dimension. A tense person sits or stands rigidly, upright or leaning forward, and often with hands clasped together, legs together, muscles tense. In such a case, the hands and feet display emotions that the face tries to conceal.

Those who have observed infants will have realized that they, too, have their ‘language’ to express their emotions and moods. One can tell that they are happy through their gestures such as bright eyes, bulging (smiling) cheeks, giggles, squeaks and belly laughs accompanied by joyful sounds (monosyllabic). Whereas, when they are sad, their mouthOpens in new window will be twisted into a grimace, cheekOpens in new window will droop, and they will utter grunts and growls.

Emotional Cues & Behaviours

There is a relation of behaviour to emotion. Behaviour refers to everything we do which is overt or observable. It involves the whole gamut of verbal and nonverbal actions and reactions which we are capable of. Body language is a particular group of nonverbal behaviours that are always directly observable; they include facial expressions, gestures, and body postures.

Behaviour is central to human relationships and is visible to people with whom we relate. The people we relate with can see our facial expressions and hear our words. The conclusions they reach about us are primarily based on this visible behaviour. Similarly, the conclusions we reach about them are based, quite naturally, on our observations of their behaviour. In a sense, our behaviour is all we have got going for us in our face-to-face dealings with people.

Some examples of emotion related behaviour:

Extreme inhibition

Withdrawal movements, stereotyped movements, hair gestures, general motor unrest, unnecessary movements.


Movements are slow, few, hesitating, non-empathic, using of hiding gestures.


Movements are fast, expansive, rhythmical, spontaneous, emphatic, self-assertive, affected.


Gestures involving the hair, hiding the face, wringing and interlocking of hands, opening and closing fists, plucking eyebrows, scratching the face, pulling the hair, aimless fidgeting.


Touching of the lips with both hands.

Negative feelings

Constricting of facial muscles, frowning.

Pleasant feelings and moods

Relaxed facial muscles, raised eyebrows, laughs; in some cases, intense joy also brings tears to the eyes.


Narrowed or closed eye, raised cheeks, lowered eyebrows, with wrinkling on the bridge of the nose, or raised upper lip with wrinkling at the side of the nose (Givens, 1999).


Bent body, lowered gaze, pouted lips, slumped shoulders. Sadness shows most clearly in the eye area (Ekman, Friesan, and Tomkins, 1971).

Regarding emotion cues, however, there is an ongoing debate about whether they are universal. Darwin (1965) held that ‘the different races of men express their emotions and sensations with remarkable uniformity throughout the world’. Birdwhistell (1971), on the other hand, was of the opinion that ‘there are probably no universal symbols of emotional states’.

Ekman and Friesen (1969) observe that emotions mobilize the facial muscles in similar ways in all cultures, but the cause of the emotions, and the effects, the ‘display rules’ with consequent behaviour patterns vary considerably across cultures.