Universal Emotion Messages

Emotion Communication: The Signals and Messages of Universal Emotions

What your emotions communicate to others


Universal Emotion Messages

The messages of emotion communicate how we are responding to the world around us.

Emotions evolved to prepare us to deal with important events without having to think about them. While there are differing views among experts, most emotion scientists agree that there are at least five core emotions. Dr. Ekman’s research shows the strongest evidence to date of seven universal facial expressions of emotions. Each of the universal emotions has certain characteristics, signals and messages. Here’s a look at how some of the core universal emotions are displayed (their signal) and the basis of what they communicate (their message). 

Keep in mind, there are endless individual variations of emotion messages and signals based on context and personal differences, though the following basic themes are considered universal in emotion communication:


  • Signal: In the voice, anger generates a roar if not controlled; when anger is controlled, the voice may have a sharp edge that is very detectable. In the face, the signal includes glaring eyes, lowered brows, and narrowed, tightened lips. When people hear or see an angry signal, they are typically hurt just by the perception of the signal, and may retaliate with angry actions.
  • Message: The message of the anger emotion is “get out of my way.” Anger can carry a message ranging from dissatisfaction to threat.



  • Signal: Common signals of the fear emotion are very wide open eyes, horizontally stretched lips, and raised, drawn together eyebrows. There may be movement away from the target. Screams may accompany intense fear. Lesser fear signals can include heavy breathing, a head position slightly backwards and away, and horizontally stretched lips accompanied by tightened neck muscles.
  • Message: The message of fear is “help me”; it can range from showing low-level concern to conveying panic.



  • Signal:There are three facial expressions associated with disgust. The first is sticking the tongue out as if the person is getting something out of their mouth. The second is raising the upper lip, but it is relaxed and not tense, which can display gums and teeth depending on the shape of the mouth. The third is wrinkling of the nose and raising of the nostrils. These expressions can occur separately or in unison.
  • Message: The message of disgust is “get away from this.” It can show others that the target of disgust is to be kept away from or that the target is unclean, dirty, or socially/morally reprehensible.



  • Signal: The signals of the sadness emotion include a frown (lower lip pushed up slightly and lip corners pulled slightly down), the inner corners of the eyebrows drawn up and together in the center of the forehead, raised cheeks, and tears. The vocalization of sadness can include sobs and heaving and quavering of the voice.
  • Message: The message of sadness is “comfort me.” It encourages, or intends to encourage, empathy from others.



  • Signal: Enjoyment emotion signals include the Duchenne (authentic) smile, activation of a smile (lip corners pulled obliquely up), and activation of the orbital eye muscles that tighten the lower eyelid and create wrinkling around the outer eye corners (especially with age). Enjoyment also includes vocal signals such as the sound of relief (a sigh or exhalation) and the sound of amusement (laughter or giggling).
  • Message: The message of the enjoyment emotion is “this feels good.” It encourages engaging in social interaction.


Test Your Knowledge of Facial Expressions of Emotion


Can you tell what people are thinking by their expressions? Take this facial expressions quiz to find out!

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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