strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Read That Face–Part V (Being Aware of “Meaningless” Expressions)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2009

As Rosenberg had promised, we were becoming more aware of facial expressions.  One manipulative jerk in class (me) promptly set out to turn his new knowledge to profit. When the local coffee shop was out of iced tea one morning, I put on a disappointed face without actually thinking about it.  But when I went back that afternoon, I decided that if they were still out, I was going to blast the barista with a withering AU7.  That would be a fierce tightening of the lower eyelids, the sort of expression David could have used to slay Goliath, if he hadn’t had a rock.  And in fact they were still out. But my seven seemed to have no effect.  I went for a bottle of fruit drink, and I think it was my AU1, a hapless lifting of the inner eyebrows, that caused the barista to give it to me for free.  And that just made me feel pathetic.

My classmates had weightier problems in mind.  One of them griped about the way a colleague back home never smiles when he passes in the hallway.  Instead, the corners of his mouth jerk briefly out to the sides, as if yanked by puppet strings.   “It’s like he’s saying, ‘I acknowledge that you’re there.  But I wish you weren’t.’”   Another was trying to figure out how to work with a subordinate whose face reveals flashes of hostility and resentment.

“You can’t just blurt it out,” said Rosenberg. “This is privileged information.”  People usually do not realize that their faces have just broadcast their feelings.  “So it’s very important not to call them on it:  ‘Why are you angry with me right now?’”    It can feel as if you have invaded their privacy.  Treat it as “a piece of data” to use later, she said, for steering a relationship in a more constructive direction:  “Look, I know this stuff is painful for you.  Let’s figure out how to make it easier.”

Our own habitual expressions also shape relationships, Rosenberg suggested, even when people mistakenly read an emotion into some meaningless quirk of bone structure or muscle.  At one point, we were talking about AU13, which pulls the corners of the lips up sharply and produces an odd puffing of the cheeks.  It’s the mocking smile that makes the Joker so disturbing in “Batman,” Rosenberg said, as we tried it in our mirrors.  Then she added that Hilary Clinton’s smile often includes a 13 and when my eyes went wide with recognition, Rosenberg exclaimed, “It doesn’t mean anything!  It doesn’t mean anything!”  And maybe so—except that the appearance of smugness or mockery may be one of those vague feelings that make some people hate her.  I took another look in the mirror:  Being aware of these effects is a way to avoid being victimized by them.

[Continues tomorrow]

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