Types of Facial Expressions
Meaning of facial expressions
What our facial expressions communicate
The human face is incredibly expressive, capable of communicating all sorts of things: how we are feeling (both physically and emotionally), things we'd like to say, and sometimes even the things we're trying to keep hidden! While facial expressions can provide a window to a person's inner-world, they can also be the proverbial curtain that prevents or distracts us from seeing the truth.
Explore the types of facial expressions using our interactive chart below. You can click on any of the boxes or continue scrolling for more information.
Much of Dr. Ekman's research has been focused on the seven universal emotions and how they are expressed on the face. Over decades of cross-cultural research, Dr. Ekman discovered that emotional facial expressions are both universal and culturally specific! His findings showed that while there may be different guidelines (display rules) taught to each of us for how and when to show our emotions, we all share a common set of universal facial expressions for these seven emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness.
The timing and way that our emotions are expressed on the face can be further categorized into various types including: macro, micro, subtle, false, and masked. Understanding these various expressions is key to building greater emotional awareness as well as for distinguishing genuine emotion from false ones, and for detecting deception.
These are what most people consider to be "normal" emotional expressions. They are the most common and generally most visually obvious, lasting between half a second and four seconds. They match the tone and content of what is being said if the person is talking.
False and Masked
False expressions are when someone deliberately displays an emotion they are not actually feeling at that time.
- An example of a false expression is when you find out your friends are throwing you a surprise party beforehand but show a surprised look on your face when you walk through the door so as not to upset or disappoint your peers.
- Another example is one nearly every person has experienced: posing for a photo with a non-Duchenne smile.
Masked expressions occur when someone covers an authentic emotion they feel by purposefully displaying an entirely different emotion.
- An example of a masked expression is if your colleague at work gets a job promotion you were hoping for and, upon seeing them in their new office, feel contempt but utilize a smile mask to feign congratulations instead.
Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.
Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.
Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.