The Eyebrows

Body Language Signals of the Eyebrows

raised eyebrows
Raised eyebrows. Image courtesy of Daily BeastOpens in new window

Eyebrows are the arch of short hair above the eyes. Being near the eyes, the eyebrows are highly visible major sendersOpens in new window of signals, although the limited control of muscles around them can limit what they say.

People raise their eyebrows to express surprise, doubt, disbelief, exasperation, or exaggeration, or unconsciously when giving orders, making demand, or arguing important points.

There are four basic posturesOpens in new window involving the eyebrows and the eyes:

  • Eyebrows in repose and eyes in repose—this is the expression of the face at rest.
  • Eyebrows in repose and eyes widened—this is the threatening facial expression of anger, sometimes involving lowering of the brow.
  • Eyebrows raised and eyes widened—this is the facial expression associated with the prototypical fear response.
  • Eyebrows raised and eyes in repose—the facial expression of submission.

— Collett, 2003

When people want to demonstrate that they are not a threat, they frequently raise their eyebrows. This makes them look attentive and impressed. When the eyebrows are pinched together at the centre, they create an impression of concern.

Of course the eyebrows can be raised with or without being pinched. When they are raised and pinched, the result is a hybrid gesture that conveys submission and concern.

The following headings give specific details:

1.   Raised

When we first see someone we are attracted to, we give them a quick eyebrow flash. If the person of interest is attracted to you, they will return the flash. Watch out for this. This form of interaction is one of the most common in the human species, even more so than the smileOpens in new window.

People raise their eyebrows to express surprise, doubt, disbelief, exasperation, or exaggeration, or unconsciously when giving orders, making demand, or arguing important points.

They also raise their eyebrows when they might want to say or clarify something, end the conversation, or have disagreed with something that has been said.

Raising the eyebrows adds intensity to a facial expression. Brow-raising can strengthen a dominant stare, exaggerate a submissive pout, or boost the energy of a smile.

When elevated, the eyebrows form prominent, horizontal furrows in the forehead, making almost any gesture look and feel stronger.

In tandem with head-tilt-back, raising one or both eyebrows suggests a supercilious air of disdain, haughtiness, or pride. The word supercilious comes from the Latin word for eyebrow. We unconsciously lift our eyebrows to give orders, make demands, and argue important points (Givens, 1999).

According to Morris (1994), an eyebrow or one eyebrow raised, is used everywhere to signal skepticism. And the flashing of eyebrows is a universal sign of welcome (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989).

2.   Emotions

If you lift your eyebrows when you meet a person for the first time, it will be a sign of friendliness towards that person. If the feeling is mutual:

you will get the same up-down motion of eyebrows in response.

It looks funny from the side, especially if one of you has bushy eyebrows, it will look as if one cannot see the other clearly through them. But this is one of the oldest ways of winning sympathy.

When both eyebrows are raised for a few split seconds during a greeting, it is a sign of submissiveness, a way of saying “I come in friendliness.”

It also expresses openness in that it lets the other person see ones eyes. When people greet someone with a very excited ’Hey!’, they raise their eyebrows rapidly.

Eyebrow raised to express surprise typically happens as a part of opening the eyes wider, perhaps to see more clearly what is going on. The more the surprise, the higher the eyebrows are raised.

Raising the eyebrows can also signal a question. When a question is asked and the eyebrows raised afterwards, this is a clear invitation to answer the question.

Raising a single eyebrow is something that only some people can do and can be a bit more wry in its meaning, for example, finding out whether the other person is sure of what he is saying when he appears to be talking with limited accuracy.

3.   Middle-raised

By pushing together the eyebrows and pulling up the forehead, the eyebrows can be made to slope outwards. This can indicate relief (“Whew!»). It can also indicate anxiety (”Oh no!”).

4.   Lowered

People lower their eyebrows to protect their eyes from openings in a kind of nonverbal lock-down. Emotionally, the expression is a response to their gut feelings.

Lowered brows show anger (Ekman and Friesen, 1975) or puzzlement when it appears in a cluster of gestures: curving of the mouth downward, lowering of the eyelids, dropping of the jaw, and constriction of the forehead muscles.

“Lowering the eyebrows is a sensitive indicator of disagreement, doubt, or uncertainty. Slightly lowered eyebrows may telegraph unvoiced disagreement among colleagues, as comments are presented at a conference table” (Givens, 1999).

Lowering our eyebrows is what we use to display aggressiveness, dominance, or sadness; they are also lowered to display concern or authority.

Lowering the eyebrows conceals the eyes to a certain degree. Particularly with a lowered head, this can thus indicate deception or a desire that eye signals are harder to see.

Lowered eyebrows may also indicate annoyance, perhaps effectively saying ‘I am so displeased, I do not want to look at you’. Related to this, lowered eyebrows are a sign of a dominant person. People lower or knit their eyebrows when they show disagreement for displeasure, frown or scowl when in a temper, or while viewing something with full concentration.

5.   Middle-lowered

When the middle of the eyebrows are pulled down so that they slope inwards, this often shows that the person is angry or frustrated. It can also indicate intense concentration.

6.   Oscillating

When we see people we know, we often give a quick up-down flash of the eyebrows in recognition and greeting. Rapid and repeated up and down movement may be an exaggeration signal, meaning “Well how about that then!”