Putting on a Face

Overview of Representational and Presentational Facial Expressions

Facial expressionOpens in new window such as smiling, frowning, lifting the eyebrows, and pursing the lips, are reflection of our emotional states.

We often hear the advice “Put on a happy face!” Have you ever followed such advice when you did not feel happy within?

The thing is when we use our facial expressions to communicate genuine inner feelings, we exhibit what is called representational facial expressions.

Representational facial expressions involve conveying facial expressions that genuinely communicate our inner feelings. The reverse is when we consciously control our face to communicate a message meant only for public consumption, for all practical purposes, we are not conveying are genuine feelings but merely giving a performance. This is called presentational facial expression.

We exhibit presentational facial expression when we consciously control our facial expression to communicate a somewhat more or less intense emotion other than what we are truly feeling within, and in so doing we likely are engaging in interpersonal deceptionOpens in new window.

Techniques for Putting On a Face

  • We may qualify our facial expression—that is, we add another expression that modifies the impact of the original expression
  • We may modulate our facial expression by simply changing it to reflect feelings that are somewhat more or less intense than what we actually feel.
  • We may falsify directly. This implies that we stimulate an unfelt emotion, neutralize an emotion by showing none when we actually feel some emotion, or mask a felt emotion by displaying one that we do not really feel.

Which of these techniques have you caught yourself using to “put on a face”?

When we fake a face, usually we leave an array of clues for astute observers. For example, our “face-work” may lack spontaneity or be out of sync with our words or actions, or we may exhibit involuntary cues, in which an expression appears on our face for only a fraction of a second. What begins as a smile becomes ever so briefly a grimace and then is reengineered back into a smile.

We call these fleeting emotional changes, lasting no more than one-eighth to one-fifth of a second, micro-facial or micro-momentary expressionOpens in new window. Such expressions reveal our emotional states and typically occur when we attempt to disguise or conceal those states. Thus, a twitch of the mouth or the eyebrow can suggest that the emotion being communicated is not the emotion actually being felt.

Important Hint! 

Micro-facial/micro-momentary expression refers to an expression lasting no more than one-eighth to one-fifth of a second that usually occurs when an individual consciously or unconsciously attempts to disguise or conceal an emotion and that reveals an actual emotional state. Learn more hereOpens in new window!

Sometimes the simple act of smiling actually evokes a positive mood change in the person smiling. Still, the degree to which people demonstrate susceptibility to deliberately engineered facial expressions varies greatly.

On the other hand, the total lack of the physical ability to smile, a condition called Möbius syndromeOpens in new window, leaves one with a perpetually grumpy look, making it difficult for individuals afflicted to experience normal interpersonal relationships. Though it may be unintended, the lack of a smile causes others to perceive the unsmiling person as unfriendly or bored.