smile mask emotional masks

Smile Mask

Using emotional masks to pull off deceit

Excerpt from Telling Lies by Paul Ekman, PhD

smile mask emotional masks

The importance of the smile
Any emotional expression can be falsified and used to conceal any other emotion. The smile mask, which is the most frequently employed of the emotional masks, serves as the opposite expression of the negative emotions – fear, anger, distress, disgust and so on.

Who’s lying to whom?
The smile mask is often selected because many lies require some variation or signal of happiness in order to successfully pull off deceit. Another reason the smile is used as a mask so often is because smiling is part of many standard greetings and is required to be shown frequently to signal politeness throughout most exchanges. It is only when faced with a bleak situation, in which the other person feels terrible, is it deemed inappropriate to show a smile in a greeting exchange. In this scenario, it is often the unhappy party who is expected to conceal his or her negative emotions with a polite smile.

Grin and bear it
Emotional masks work because ignorance is bliss. It seems that, regardless of knowing the differences between a real smile and a falsified smile, a person’s true feelings will likely still go undetected. This is not because the smile is such a good mask but because in polite exchanges, we rarely care how the other person actually feels; all that is expected is a pretense of amiability and pleasantness.

All lies are (not) created equal
Others rarely scrutinize such smiles carefully because people are accustomed to overlooking lies in the context of polite greetings. One could argue that it is wrong to call these emotional masks “lies” because of the implicit rule that most polite greetings do not allow for the expression of true, negative emotions. Still another, perhaps simpler, reason behind the popularity of using the smile as a mask is that it is the easiest of the emotional facial expressions to make voluntarily.

Well before the age of one, infants can deliberately smile. It is one of the earliest expressions used by the infant solely to please others!


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.

Leave a Reply