Eckman and Friesens’ work of decoding facial expressions reveals that the information on our face is not just a signal of what’s going on inside our mind but it is what is going on inside our mind. But what about politicians or celebrities and other figures constantly in the public eye? Do you believe they are always feeling their expressions or are they just camera-savvy posers who defy Eckman and Friesens’ expression theory? How about extremely stoic individuals? Do they have diminished emotions in keeping with their limited expressions? Have you ever been ‘two-faced’ or watched someone else speak badly about another individual only to then turn around and greet them with a warm, gushy hello? Is that ‘friendly’ expression false or an attempt to make amends?
In Chapter Six of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the author focuses on the subconscious use of facial expressions to identify certain behavioral characteristics in different categories of people. Gladwell discusses how Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen adapted the Facial Action Coding System developed by a Swedish anatomist to catalogue facial expressions. As Gladwell describes it, Ekman and Friesen laboriously, over seven years, identified and catalogued thousands of facial expressions: “Ekman and Friesen identified about three thousand that did seem to mean something, until they had catalogued the essential repertoire of human facial displays of emotion.” They identified combinations of facial tics or movements that suggested certain thought processes or reflexive reactions to external stimuli. Earlier in his study, Gladwell quotes another psychologist who studied human emotions and external manifestations of those emotions, who described a test subject who incorrectly believed she was adroit at controlling outward expressions of emotion:
“We had one woman whom we thought of as extremely emotional, but she said that she had no idea that she was so emotional. She said that she thought she was stoic and gave nothing away. A lot of people are like that. They think they are more forthcoming than they actually are, or more negative than they actually are.”
That individuals can be trained to control and manipulate facial expressions for the purpose of concealing their true emotions or thoughts is hardly news. Actors train precisely for the purpose of conveying emotions they may – and usually don’t – actually feel. In fact, the crucial distinction among actors who simply play a role and so-called “method” actors who immerse themselves so deeply into the character they portray that they continue to “be” the character even when in their dressing room and having lunch between shots. They stay in character so that they can provide a more convincing or realistic portrait of whomever they are supposed to be playing. The former category of actor, however, simply conveys the facial expression called for in the script. Many politicians are similarly practiced at conveying positive images that don’t necessarily reflect their true feelings. Having spent twenty years working for politicians, I can attest to the superior ability of many of them to adjust their mannerisms and facial expressions as necessary depending upon the presence of cameras, constituents, lobbyists, colleagues with whom they do or don’t get along, etc. Those who fail to develop or practice that skill are routinely labeled “grumpy” or temperamental, and reporters love to catch politicians “letting down their hair,” so to speak, and revealing their true selves.
Most people, at one time or another, have been “two-faced” or hypocritical in their interactions with other individuals. For one reason or another, it is sometimes necessary to present a certain face to the public or to relatives, friends, business associates, and others that may not reflect our true feelings. We do this to spare others’ feelings, to manipulate processes, to “hold our cards close to our chest,” etc. The ability to maintain a “poker face,” for instance, can be the difference between success and failure in certain endeavors. Stoicism can be a practiced trait, such as the old adage about “keeping a stiff upper lip” in times of adversity has been a defining characteristic of the British, many of whom pride themselves on their ability to refrain from outward expressions of emotions. Not letting the other person read your mind through interpretations of facial expressions or other mannerisms is an essential component of face-to-face negotiations in certain professions, including law and politics. We are all human, and inherently flawed. We may feel the need to smile when sad, or appear contrite when actually feeling guiltless. It all depends upon the circumstances.