Types of Facial Expressions

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.


Emotional Signals


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.


Macro Expressions


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.



Genuine Expressions

Facial expressions of emotion are both voluntary and involuntary. Genuine expressions happen automatically and mirror our internal emotional states, i.e., smiling when we're feeling happy. These expressions may be mediated, however, to voluntarily align with each of our cultural and societal norms. For examples of this, see the Fabricated Expressions section below.

Fabricated Expressions:
False and Masked

Macro facial expressions can occur both naturally (as we experience that emotion), and they can also be deliberately displayed. The expressions can be fabricated, meaning they signal emotions that are not actually genuine or being felt by the person at that time.

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.

Micro Expressions

Micro expressions are full-face emotional expressions that are compressed in time, lasting only a fraction of their usual duration—half a second or less—and are so quick that they're usually missed altogether. Micro expressions can occur as a result of conscious suppression or unconscious repression, revealing a person's true emotions they may not be aware of or are trying to hide.
Most people do not notice micro expressions when they occur during a conversation, when a micro is competing for attention with words, the tone of the voice, and gestures. They are also missed because we are often distracted by thinking about what we want to say next, rather than listening and watching out for micros. Even without any other distractions, most untrained people do not report seeing many, if any. However, with even just an hour of using micro expressions training tools, people are able to significantly improve their detection skills.

Subtle Expressions

Unlike micro expressions, subtle expressions often appear in just one region of the face, typically in the brows, eyelids, cheeks, nose, or lips. These expressions may occur when a person is trying to conceal a strong emotion, momentarily exposing their true emotion in a tiny change of expression. These small facial movements may also occur when an emotion is just beginning, often before the person is aware of their emotional state.

Conversational Signals

While we often focus on the seven universal facial expressions of emotion, many facial expressions actually have nothing to do with how we are feeling. In fact, scientists have catalogued thousands of facial expressions, each unique from one another based on our cultural, societal, and individual differences. The most common non-emotional facial expressions are conversational signals such as facial illustrators, facial emblems, and facial manipulators.

Facial Illustrators

Similar to illustrator gestures, which are expressed through body movements, facial illustrators emphasize our speech or provide syntax such as facial question marks or exclamation points (often shown through lowering or raising one's eyebrows). Some of the facial illustrators are much like hand illustrators, providing emphasis to particular words as they are spoken.

Facial Emblems

Facial emblems are expressions used to signal specific messages whose meanings are familiar to others in a particular group or culture. Like emblem gestures, facial emblems can be used in place of a word or when words can't be used. There are different emblem vocabularies for each country and, often, different emblem vocabularies for regional groups within those countries. This is why considering cultural context is a crucial step in interpretation. In the US, two commonly seen examples of facial emblems are "winking" to indicate a shared understanding of something and the "one-eyebrow-raised-in-skepticism" look.

Facial Manipulators

Facial manipulators are expressions in which one part of the face "manipulates" another part, such as lip biting, lip sucking, lip wiping, and cheek puffing. Manipulator gestures are also commonly found within other parts of the body.

Additional Resources


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.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


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.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions in his best-seller, Emotions Revealed