How to Read People’s Faces

The face is the best indicator of a person’s emotions. Yet, it is often overlooked. Dr. Paul Eckman, whose research is the premise of the show Lie to Me, has done groundbreaking research on decoding the human face. He has shown that facial expressions are universal. In other words, people in the US make the same face for sadness as indigenous people in Papa New Guinea who have never seen TV or movies to model. He also found that congenitally blind individuals—those blind since birth, also make the same expressions even though they have never seen other people’s faces.

Eckman has designated seven facial expressions that are the most widely used and easy to interpret. Learning to read them is incredibly helpful for understanding people and relationships in our day to day life. If you want to practice reading people’s faces, it is important to know the following basic expressions. I would recommend trying the following faces in the mirror so you can see what they look like on yourself. You will also find that if you make the facial expression, you also begin to feel the emotion yourself! Emotions not only cause facial expressions, facial expressions also cause emotions.

1) Surprise:

-The brows are raised and curved

-Skin below the brow is stretched

-Horizontal wrinkles across the forehead

-Eyelids are opened, white of the eye showing above and below

-Jaw drops open and teeth are parted but there is not tension or stretching of the mouth

2) Fear:

-Brows are raised and drawn together, usually in a flat line

-Wrinkles in the forehead are in the center between the brows, not across

-Upper eyelid is raised, but the lower lid is tense and drawn up

-Upper eye has white showing, but not the lower white

-Mouth is open and lips are slightly tensed or stretched and drawn back

3) Disgust:

-Upper lid is raised

-Lower lip is raised

-Nose is wrinkled

-Cheeks are raised

-Lines show below the lower lid

4) Anger:

-The brows are lowered and drawn together

-Vertical lines appear between the brows

-Lower lid is tensed

-Eyes hard stare or bulging

-Lips can be pressed firmly together with corners down or square shape as if shouting

-Nostrils may be dilated

-The lower jaw juts out

(all three areas must be engaged to not have any ambiguity)

5) Contempt/Hate:

-One side of the mouth raises

6) Happiness:

-Corners of the lips are drawn back and up

-Mouth may or may not be parted, teeth exposed

-A wrinkle runs from outer nose to outer lip

-Cheeks are raised

-Lower lid may show wrinkles or be tense

-Crows feet near the outside of the eyes

7) Sadness:

-Inner corners of the eyebrows are drawn up

-Skin below eyebrow triangulated, with inner corner up

-Corner of the lips are drawn down

-Jaw comes up

-Lower lip pouts out

Practice these emotions on yourself, and see if you can detect them in other people. Sometimes knowing what emotion your seeing is also just as important as an emotion you are NOT seeing. For example, if you are talking to a friend about something good that happens, are they showing you genuine happiness? If you accuse someone of doing something do they show surprise or fear? If they are not surprised, they probably knew they did something wrong ahead of time.

I am very transparent in reading people’s faces when I am with them. I will often say, you are showing a lot of fear in your face, are you worried or scared about something we are talking about? Sometimes the people I am speaking with were not even conscious of some of their fears.

The underlying importance of reading faces is that it has to be done in person, without looking down at a Blackberry or iPhone, so we have to pay attention to the people are speaking with. This alone helps tremendously in connecting with them and gleaning their true meaning.


Eckman, Paul. Emotions Revealed

One Response to “How to Read People’s Faces”

  1. theo
    December 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    really helpfull email me more about reading faces very interested!

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