strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

Read That Face: Conclusion (Can it Change Your Life?)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2009

So has FACS changed my life?  Yes and no.  Watching a video at home, I found myself hitting the pause button so I could check out Claire Danes’s corrugator muscles, a first for me in that anatomical region.  And in the supermarket one day, I looked up across the produce aisle to watch a dad yelling at his young son, and I wanted to say, “Oooo, hey, wait, do you really want your kid seeing that much hatred on your face?”  Then the dad looked up as if he were about to shift his aggression onto me (4d+5d+7c = time to run), and I grabbed three avocadoes and bolted for the checkout.  (Guacamole, anyone?) 

In the interest of science, I even stopped in at the casino up the road to study the gamblers.  But it turned out that I hadn’t gotten any better at spotting a bluff.  Instead, I got distracted by the grim, tight-lipped expression on the face of a woman playing blackjack, and the way her husband was flirting with a woman off to their left. I came away broke and not much wiser for it, much as on previous casino visits.

So I can hear the women out there practically yelling, “Yes, you stupid turnip, but did it make you more empathetic?” And in fact thinking about facial expressions had reminded me in particular of one critical factor in the male-female dynamic.  Studies have suggested that men specialize in expressions of anger.  Our evolution as protectors (and aggressors) has made us masters of the scowl and the stern glance.  Women, on the other hand, specialize in smiling.  They actually have thicker zygomatic majors, the muscles running up from the corners of the mouth to the eyes, possibly because they need to spend so much of their energy smiling surly males into submission.  

Smiling is of course generally a good thing, and anger isn’t necessarily always bad. Even the happiest couples inevitably quarrel. “Anger has energy,” said Rosenberg.  “It wants to pull me in.”  But the dark side of anger is when it slides down into contempt. “There’s a dismissive thing about contempt.  It’s not worth putting energy into it.” Studies by University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, PhD, have demonstrated that expressions of contempt (yours as well as hers) reliably predict divorce.  So taking the FACS course made me aware that I needed to minimize the eyerolls and the lopsided dimpler smiles—the ones where one corner of the mouth twists up in contempt. 

And it reminded me of the single radiant expression that is at the heart of any good relationship, the expression any man wants to see and produce in a woman.  In the Duchenne smile, the cheeks lift and the corners of the eyes crinkle, a movement that’s not under voluntary control for most people.  And it equals happiness.  If you get a Duchenne smile when you come home at night (and you’re married to somebody other than Susan Smith), your relationship is probably just fine. So, yes, I came away from the FACS course with my social radar clearly twitching.  I was freshly attuned to vast new empathetic possibilities. 

But something in me, or my gender, also held me back.

Back home, my wife had found out that our dog Maggie was dying of cancer.  (This is, I promise, a story about human facial expressions, so bear with me for a moment.)  We didn’t talk about it much; it was too painful.  Instead, we stuck to our routine. So I was able to manage my sadness, to tuck it away in a compartment somewhere.  But after a few weeks Maggie’s condition became too obvious to hide.  One day I ran into a neighbor on our walk, and I had to tell her about the cancer.   Her face collapsed into a mask of sorrow, and seeing that, my face did, too, and I could feel the emotion welling up.  “Come on, Maggie,” I said, “let’s go.”   Women readers will probably think this is weird, men maybe not much.  But as we walked away, I started to code what I had seen in my neighbor’s face–the 1 + 2 of the lifted eyebrows, the 4 where they bunched up in the middle, the terrible tremble-chin 17.  

I recognized in that moment that being open and empathetic about facial expressions was probably a smarter way to live.   But in its stupid way, being systematic worked, too.  With a little bit of both, I figured maybe I could start to do better than just making it through to bedtime.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s