Have you ever got the feeling that someone doesn’t like you, even though they’re nice to you?
There’s a thing that we do called “microexpressions.” They’re tiny, involuntary movements of the face that reveal what we really think or feel. They only last 1/15th to 1/25th of a second, and they occur when someone is making an effort to cover up how they really feel. They express a series of seven basic universal emotions, the expressions of which remain consistent across cultures and even from the sighted to the blind: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, contempt, and fear. I had first heard about them a few weeks ago in regard to lie detection, and since then, I’ve been looking for them.
And I’ve seen them.
I’m sure I’m probably not noticing all of them; the expressions themselves are so brief that you can miss the when blinking, or when glancing away for a moment. Even still, we see them all the time, and probably don’t notice them consciously. Like most paralingual communication, they’re interpreted by the brain without our realizing it… same as body language, so I’d imagine that consciously recognizing them takes some practice. And what I’m talking about isn’t a tick or tell, it’s a change in the whole face. And it’s not a way to tell if someone is lying to you specifically; it’s just a thing that happens when a feeling is being suppressed, or masked with a non-genuine expression of emotion. It’s a weird thing to see once you start noticing them, and since I saw it happen once in real life, I feel like I’ve discovered some kind of new superpower.
One of the most remarkable instances in which I saw it happen was from someone who I’ve suspected didn’t like me very much, even though we’ve been on cordial social terms. I was chatting with her, and a I saw, just for the tiniest fraction of a second, a flash of fear or suspicion on this person’s face. It seemed so out of place to the conversation that we were having that it really stuck with me.
I have found people and social situations bewildering throughout much of my life. People seem to do things that are against their best interests, they act in opposition to their feelings, and lie with no apparent reason for doing so. I’m no different, I’m sure that I do these things also. But it’s made social navigation difficult, since that was a thing I didn’t learn particularly well as a child for a variety of reasons that are too tedious to cover here. See, these skills of social navigation are things that we learn as children, and the complexity of the skill increases as we grow up. When you didn’t learn them at the same pace as your peers, and you’re dumped into the adult world, it can be difficult to manage. You can still learn, of course, and one does, but there’s so much more going on socially with adults than with children; the landscape is more layered and varied and complex.
This, of course, doesn’t solve that problem. What it does do is provide a window into the true feelings and possible motivations of the person that you’re socializing with, and that can go a long way toward explaining why they behave the way that they do. That, to me, is reassuring… it takes a lot of the mystery and strangeness out of behavior.
Now although you may not notice these expressions consciously, they do play a role in communication and social interaction between people. We communicate in overt verbal ways more than many animal species; most animals do the bulk of their communicating through body language and other non-verbal cues. Cats and dogs, for instance, display a complexity of body language that is not entirely understood by mankind… yet. But we retain body language and other non-verbal cues, perhaps one of the most primitive means of communication that our brain engages in (aside from things like pheromonal communication, which I won’t get into here), and a lot of those signals are decoded without our deliberate participation, just as our brains decode speech in our native language seemingly effortlessly, without our having to think about it. And this kind of communication is often at the root of our intuition about other people.
But the fact that I have seen some of them in real life fills me with a new confidence; another tool in my social toolbox. Regardless of how often I’m actually able to see these, it does make me feel a little less lost at sea, as though I now have a way to protect myself from people who may not have my best interests at heart, and maybe even a way to better manage friendships when people may be in some state of crisis and aren’t showing this overtly.
There’s more to it, also. The awareness that I engage in these expressions, very likely without realizing that I’m doing so, is also useful. It reminds me that even when I try to deceive (with the most innocent of intentions, of course) that my face will leak whatever it is I’m really feeling, and that for the most part, the best path is still that of genuine interactions and a policy of emotional honesty to myself and others.
We all wear masks. They’re a way to protect ourselves and to protect those around us. And that’s a good thing; the world would be unbearable if every exchange and conversation was a firestorm of immediate intimacy. The masks must be maintained. But being able to see through them without having to engage with what’s underneath is a great tool to have.
It’s important, though, to be able to employ emotional honesty when it is appropriate and helpful, and throughout my childhood and early adulthood, this was something I struggled with. I often didn’t even know what I was feeling… hell, sometimes I’m still in the dark. But you can’t create work that touches the lives of others without letting the mask slip a bit… that piece of genuine personal expression is what makes our work sacred.
Which is fine, because I’m a terrible liar.
Here’s a link to some more information about microexpressions, including to a link to a short test. It won’t make you an expert, but it might give you some idea of what these look like in real life.