How to Learn to Read Facial Expressions

What is she really saying?What is she really saying?

Read facial expressions is important for social success. An inability to read facial and social cues is a known disability, as seen in those with the disorder of Asperger's syndrome. But for normal people, learning to translate and digest the meanings of different facial expressions can help determine other people's needs and foster true communication.

Reading Facial Expressions: The Eyes

Learn the different modes of facial expression. Start with the building block basics: what does anger, disgust or surprise look like? Realize that one building block of reading facial expressions is to discern that the words being spoken may not necessarily reflect the true inner emotions.

Watch foreign movies to build your facial reading skills. Study how the actors respond to different activities and situations. This is a way to "see" each emotion, because--unless the movie is subtitled--you'll be concentrating on nonverbal signals instead of dialogue.

Realize the meaning of the principle, "The eyes have it." For many people, the eyes reveal the emotions behind the words. Even if a person is angry and hiding it with polite words, a wrinkling at the edges--with the eyes held at half mast--tells a different story. So does the smile on a sad person trying to hide their tears in public, but is looking away. Learn to read these cues.

Reading Facial Expressions: The Face

Review facial expressions that signify emotions of happiness--including people with a wide open stare, who move in closer, show an unaffected smile or relax their eyebrows. Playing with hair is a positive sign for women. So is sitting up straight and extending a hand with an honest smile--this shows the person is receptive, not closing themselves away. Eye contact is increased and hands are open.

Listen carefully to whatever words are said, but examine the overall body and facial language--such as clenched teeth, angry piercing eyes or a set, hard mouth. Some people have subtle tics that worsen under stress.

Reading fear in faces can be discerned, even on a subtle level--pupils will dilate, the person's breathing will become deeper, the mouth will open wider to take in air and the eyes will wander around much more than usual.

Reading Facial Expressions: Hiding Emotions

Realize that people hide many of their true feelings under social discourse, from trying to protect others from negative emotions, to out-and-out deception. Often, the words do not match the emotions being conveyed.

Look for overly-intensive stares--overcompensation, rapid blinking or small smirks in the face--children, especially, cannot help but smile a little when thinking that they are "getting away with it." Liars will either avoid direct eye contact or overcompensate by looking you right in the eyes to assure you of their "sincerity."

Learn how body language plays into facial expressions. Many body positions tell more than what the speaker is saying. For example, folding the arms across the chest--even while smiling and saying nice words--is a known "on guard" position. The opposite posture, then, is someone sitting with legs spread out, slouched in a relaxed position.

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  • There are many tests online in which you practice discernment of facial expressions (see the Resources section).


  • Be careful not to stare too intently while seeking to read someone's facial expressions--they may not enjoy yours!
  • Watch for sociopaths, who can be far more skilled at hiding true emotions and manipulating facial expressions. Often, this overcompensation translates into lack of affect (emotion).

About the Author

A former teacher and social worker, Lisa Quinlan is an artist and writer with disabilities. She specializes in writing articles about painting and cartooning for various websites and also covers culture- and health-related subjects.

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