Communicative Meanings of Facial Expressions
Facial expression refers to certain movements or conditions of the facial muscles that facilitate the nonverbal communicationOpens in new window of some thought, emotionOpens in new window, or behavior.
Facial expression is the main channel we use to decode emotional states or reactions of others to a message, and they generally mirror the intensity of people’s thoughts and feelings. Quite simply, faces talk, and chatter oozes out of their every movement. In fact, it is wise to depend on facial cues to facilitate person-to-person interaction.
It is important to note that facial expression does not occur in isolation. It occurs in clusters because every part of the face—the mouth, lips, nose, eyes, eyebrow, chin, and so on—each contributes to form an expression. Besides, there are other accompanying features such as head-nodding or head-shaking and change in postureOpens in new window and gesturesOpens in new window.
The expressions on faces tell us many things, including the following:
- Whether parties to an interaction find it pleasant or unpleasant
- How interested an individual is in sustaining or terminating contact
- The degree of involvement of the parties
- Whether responses during contact are spontaneous or controlled
- The extent to which messages are understood and shared
The face is also the prime communicator of emotion. Our ability to read the emotions depicted in facial expressions determine whether we able to respond appropriately to others’ feelings.
For the most part, facial expressions are learned like language and are displayed under conscious control, and their meanings are culture-specific and rely on the context for proper interpretation.
Facial expression is a basic mode of nonverbal communication. It helps form significant impressions of friendliness, trustworthiness, and status. Researchers have attempted to categorize facial expressions that express emotion and typically agree on six principal classes: happiness, sadness, surprise (interest), angry, disgust, and fear. These represent the six basic human emotions.
- HappinessA happy face, which signifies an happy mood, is typically expressed through a smile. Smiles are often used as a gesture of greeting and to indicate varying degrees of pleasure, amusement, and happiness.
- SadnessA face devoid of expression usually signals that the bearer may be experiencing sadness, disappointment, or depression. Such expression is characterized by a turning down of the corners of the mouth, a downward look, and a general sagging of the features. In some extreme cases, sadness may be characterized by the appearance of tears, trembling of the lips, and attempts to shield the face from view.
- Surprise (Interest)Our interest towards someone, something or some event is expressed by a wider opening of the eyes than normal, a slightly open mouth, and propping up of the chin with the fingers (to show attentive listening or careful observation.) Interest is sometimes identified by the term headcock—holding the head at an angle to the subject of interest.
- AngerAlthough the expression of anger varies from person to person, it is commonly expressed by a steady gaze at the subject of offence, frowning and scowling, or a clenching of the teeth. In some persons, their posture gets tense as if ready to spring into immediate offensive action.
- DisgustDisgust and contempt are characterized by a narrowing of the eyes and a grimacing mouth, which becomes more pronounced with increasing intensity of feelings. Here, the nose will also probably be wrinkled and the head turned aside to avoid having to look at the cause of the reaction.
- FearFear is characterized by wider open eyes, an open mouth, and a general trembling which affect the face as much as the rest of the body. In some people there may be signs of perspiration and paleness.
We also use facial expressions to identify persons and distinguish one person from another. Just as security analyst makes use of faces to identify potential terrorists, crime victims give description of suspects’ faces for police artists to draw, parents of missing children also give a description of their children’s faces to authorities. Similarly, relatives, friends, and acquaintances describe your facial features to others.
Aside from identifying you, your facial appearance influences judgments of your physical attractiveness and approachability. In addition, your face affects whether others assess you to be dominant or submissive. Thus, we speak of a baby face, a face as cold as ice, a face as strong as a bulldog’s, and so on. What words would you use to describe your face, a friend’s face, or the face of your spouse?