Putting on a Happy Face

  • Article's photo | Credit Dynamic Presenting
  • Nonverbal communicationOpens in new window plays a significant role in human interaction, often conveying messages more powerfully than words alone. Among the myriad of nonverbal cues, facial expressionsOpens in new window are perhaps the most universally recognized and understood. They can express a wide range of emotions, attitudes, and intentions, serving as a window into our inner thoughts and feelings. Within the realm of facial expressions, two distinct categories emerge: representational and presentational expressions. Understanding the differences between these types of expressions is crucial for decoding the nuances of human communication and improving interpersonal relationships.

Exploring Representational and Presentational Facial Expressions

Facial expressions, such as smiling, frowning, raising the eyebrows, and pursing the lips, serve as windows into our emotional states. Often, we encounter the advice to "Put on a happy face!" But how often do we follow such advice when our inner emotions don't align with the outward expression?

When we naturally express our inner feelings through our facial expressions, we engage in what psychologists term representational facial expressions.

Representational facial expressions refer to the spontaneous and genuine displays of emotions that reflect an individual's internal state. These expressions authentically convey our emotional states, providing glimpses into our true feelings.

In essence, representational facial expressions are involuntary reactions to internal stimuli, such as feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, or disgust. They are often characterized by their authenticity and immediacy, as they arise naturally in response to internal experiences.

Conversely, presentational facial expressions occur when we consciously manipulate our facial expressions to convey a message intended for public consumption.

This deliberate control over our facial expressions often leads to a somewhat altered or exaggerated display of emotion, which may not align with our true internal state. Engaging in presentational facial expressions can sometimes involve interpersonal deception, as we convey emotions that differ from what we genuinely feel within. In essence, we are performing rather than genuinely expressing our emotions.

Understanding the Dynamics

Representational and presentational facial expressions operate within a complex interplay of social, cultural, and situational factors. While representational expressions provide genuine insights into an individual's emotional state, they can also be influenced by societal norms and cultural expectations. For example, individuals may suppress or exaggerate their true emotions based on social norms regarding emotional display.

On the other hand, presentational expressions involve deliberate efforts to manage impressions and navigate social interactions effectively. Actors, politicians, and public speakers often utilize presentational expressions to convey confidence, sincerity, or empathy, regardless of their true feelings. These expressions can be highly nuanced and may vary depending on the audience and context in which they are displayed.

Strategies for Expressive Control: Understanding Facial Modulation

In our daily interactions, we employ various techniques to manage our facial expressions, influencing how we are perceived by others. These strategies include:

  1. Qualifying Facial Expressions: Sometimes, we modify our initial facial expression by adding another expression to alter its impact. This subtle adjustment can change the message conveyed by the original expression.
  2. Modulating Facial Expressions: We may adjust the intensity of our facial expressions to reflect emotions that are slightly more or less intense than what we genuinely feel. This modulation allows us to fine-tune our emotional displays to suit different social contexts.
  3. Falsifying Facial Expressions: Directly falsifying our facial expressions involves simulating emotions that we do not genuinely feel. This can include feigning an emotion, neutralizing a genuine emotion by displaying none, or masking a felt emotion with a different one.

Have you ever found yourself employing these techniques to "put on a face"?

Detecting Deception: Micro-Momentary Expressions

When we attempt to falsify our facial expressions, astute observers may detect subtle clues that betray our true emotions. These clues include inconsistencies in facial expressions compared to our words or actions, as well as involuntary micro-momentary expressions.

Micro-momentary expressionsOpens in new window, lasting only fractions of a second, provide glimpses into our true emotional states. These fleeting changes in expression occur when we try to conceal or disguise our emotions, revealing underlying feelings that may contradict our outward displays. For instance, a fleeting twitch of the mouth or eyebrow may indicate that the expressed emotion differs from what we genuinely feel. Despite our efforts to control our facial expressions, these micro-expressions often reveal the truth beneath the surface.

Implications of Facial Expression Engineering

The act of smiling can have profound effects on our mood, sometimes evoking a positive change in our emotional state. However, individuals vary in their susceptibility to deliberately engineered facial expressions. While some may experience mood enhancement through smiling, others may exhibit less responsiveness to such stimuli.

Conversely, conditions like Möbius syndrome, characterized by the inability to smile due to facial paralysis, present unique challenges in interpersonal communication. Individuals with Möbius syndrome may struggle to convey positive emotions through facial expressions, leading others to misinterpret their demeanor as unfriendly or disinterested.

Practical Implications

Developing awareness of representational and presentational facial expressions has practical implications for various aspects of life, including interpersonal relationships, professional settings, and everyday interactions. By honing our ability to interpret facial cues accurately, we can enhance our emotional intelligence, improve communication skills, and foster genuine connections with others.

Moreover, understanding the role of facial expressions in interpersonal deception can help us navigate situations where individuals may attempt to manipulate or mislead through their facial displays.


Facial expressions serve as powerful tools for communicating emotions, intentions, and social messages. Whether we are authentically expressing our inner feelings or strategically managing impressions, the language of the face plays a pivotal role in human interaction.

By delving into the nuances of representational and presentational facial expressions, we gain deeper insights into the complexities of nonverbal communication. Armed with this knowledge, we can navigate social dynamics with greater sensitivity, empathy, and authenticity, ultimately fostering more meaningful connections in our personal and professional lives.

  • Share

Trending Collections

Recommended Books to Flex Your Knowledge