A critical way we maintain relationships is by being in tune with others—reading facial expressions, interpreting emotions, and responding. But this has been tough over the last year. We haven’t seen each other as much, so we may be out of practice. Moreover, mask mandates have been integral to public health but affected how we read emotions. The eyes may be the “windows of the soul,” but over the last year or so, we’ve learned, eye contact alone doesn’t tell the whole story.
This is to say communicating feels different when portions of our faces are covered. But in the same way we are coming back from the pandemic, we can also renew our appreciation for the facial expressions and body language signs that helped build relationships and rapport. In particular, smiling has intriguing implications.
Challenges of reading emotions
Even in the best of circumstances, reading facial expressions is tough. Computer experts have even struggled to develop an algorithm that does it successfully. And despite the fact that facial responses are innate and automatic, the average person is often wrong about how they interpret expressions, or they are unaware of them. In addition, people interpret facial cues based on their own unique perspectives, which introduces even more variability into the process.
Our interpretation is also dulled when we can’t see a whole face. This is true when we’re wearing masks, but also when we’re wearing sunglasses and when we see faces from a distance or through a brief glance. A study by the University of Wisconsin found children struggled to identify expressions. When faces were covered with masks, they correctly identified sadness only about 28% of the time, anger 27%, and fear 18%.
How to successfully sync up
Reading others’ expressions allows us to empathize and relate to the people around us. And human connection is critical to our well-being. We are hardwired to connect with others. In fact, a study by the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain, and Language found when people were in conversations with others, their brain waves mirrored each other. In addition, we have an instinct to mimic facial expressions, which helps us experience and identify with others’ feelings, according to a research by the University of Wisconsin. We crave relationships, and seeing and interpreting signals from each other are important ways we form bonds.
There may also be a genetic component to the way we relate. According to research from Northwestern University, people’s ability to quickly recognize emotions was partly based on genetics, and those who recognized others’ emotions also expressed their own emotions more quickly; consequently, there is a reciprocal relationship between expressing and interpreting emotion. More research from University of Birmingham shows the speed at which we show facial expressions plays a role in our ability to recognize emotions in others—and faster is better.
Gender also matters, and women are typically better than men at reading emotions. This has been demonstrated in a number of studies, one at the University of Montreal. Culture also makes a difference in the ways we intuit emotions. A University of Alberta study found when cultures are more focused on emotional control (such as in Japanese culture), people tend to look to the eyes for cues about emotion. On the other hand, in cultures where emotion tends to be displayed more openly (such as in the U.S.), people focus more on the mouth to interpret emotion.
In terms of universally understandable emotion, positive emotions may be easier to read. According to a study in the journal Psychological Bulletin, happiness is one of the most universally recognized human emotions. When we’re interacting with someone from a different culture, happiness is the most familiar emotion and it unites us most powerfully.
You’ve heard smiling makes you appear more energized, but it may also cause people to conclude you’re older. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario found when people smiled they were perceived to be older than people not smiling. This was likely because of the wrinkles produced when we smile. But despite the interpretation of age, we should express positive emotions anyway, because we’ll be perceived to be more likable. A University of New South Wales study found when people saw others expressing positivity (gratitude was an example), they were more likely to conclude they could form a meaningful relationship with the person.
Smiling is also good for you emotionally. Research from the University of South Australia confirms the act of smiling can trick your mind into being more positive, simply by moving your facial muscles.
Reading facial expressions can be tough, but it’s worth it so we can empathize and renew the relationships which may have been compromised over the last year. Despite having genetic, gender, and cultural components, we can all get better at connecting and building relationships.
- Be attentive to others. Put down your device and be fully present as you’re chatting, relating, and bonding.
- Emphasize empathy. Think actively about what someone else may be feeling or experiencing.
- Seek information. When you’re not sure what emotions someone is feeling, ask directly.
- Share your own experiences. In addition, build trust by sharing your own stories and experiences. Opening up to others encourages them to share as well. This reciprocity builds relationships.
- Keep an eye out for smiles. Classic micro expressions include surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, and contempt/hate. But the negative emotions in this list tend to be hardest to read. On the other hand, positive emotions are easier to read, and the presence (or absence of) a smile may be one of the most reliable ways to distinguish feelings.
We are hard-wired to connect and we crave relationships. Even the confirmed introvert needs a few close ties and people on which to rely. Understanding the importance of reading others, and their nuances can pave the way to a great return as we move forward.
Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work-life, happiness and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase. She is the author of two books, The Secrets To Happiness At Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.