The expression “you should probably tell your face that” is a way of telling someone that their facial expressions don’t match the situation.
Thousands of times a day, we are exposed to the opportunity to decode visual clues. When someone says “I love you,” we look into that person’s eyes as a means of detecting sincerity. When we meet someone new, we are watching to see if they are trustworthy, friendly or approachable. And it is the nonverbal cues that cause us to walk away mumbling – “I don’t think he liked me,” or “I don’t think she’s very happy.” Whether you realize it or not, a lot of that nonverbal intelligence is coming from the human face.
If you saw me grinning, for example, with my eyes twinkling, you’d say I was amused. But that’s not the only way we interpret a smile. If you saw me nod and smile exaggeratedly, with the corners of my lips tightened, you may assume I had been teased and was responding sarcastically.
If I made eye contact with someone, gave a small smile and then looked down and averted my gaze, you would think I was flirting. If I followed a remark with an abrupt smile and then nodded, or tilted my head sideways, you might conclude that I had just said something a little harsh, and wanted to take the edge off it. And you likely wouldn’t need to hear anything I was saying in order to reach these conclusions.
The face is an extraordinarily efficient instrument of communication. It is like a palette, but instead of being speckled with brightly colored paints, it is a tapestry of micro-signs and signals. Your face has a lot to say, even when your mouth is closed.
Smiles, for example, can range from lips pressed together and corners barely turned, to the open-mouthed, uninhibited laughter of children playing. Downward turns of the mouth are often perceived as negative, while upward turns are seen as positive.
The telltale nature of eyes, often the most expressive part of our face, leads some poker players to wear dark glasses, which is also why security personnel at airports, for example, will ask you to remove your sunglasses when answering their questions.
Eyes react to a variety of stimuli and some of these reactions are involuntary. If you ever wondered how, as a youth, your parents caught you lying, it might have had to do with the size of your pupils, which can dilate during a lie. (Of course, there are plenty of other reasons for your pupils to dilate, including an adrenaline event.) Even a slight squint can impact what the listener sees on your face. Are you lying or do you need glasses?
You should also be alert to minute muscle movements. People make unconscious micro-muscular movements all the time in advance of what they might be thinking. When you can detect these, you’re getting early warning information that can be super helpful in keeping a conversation flowing smoothly.
Take personal space invasion. ‘How do you know if you’re standing too close?’ When ‘the other person moves back’ is an indication that it’s already too late, you’ve invaded someone’s personal space. But if you’re able to pick up the signals being broadcast before they move back, you’ll be able to stop yourself unconsciously invading.
When moving closer to people, be on the alert for slight changes in the eyes, often an almost imperceptible narrowing. And watch out for the chin moving back towards the neck. When you get those signals, stop.
Picking up the early forming signals always puts you more in control of the conversation. You get more time to take immediate action, change what you’re doing or adjust to what’s coming. That split-second head-start can make or break the conversation.
Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.