Putting your best face forward — not just on Facebook

Many famous artists have recorded their adaptation of  ‘When you’re smiling — when you’re smiling — the whole world smiles with you’.  The beautifully simple lyrics of this well-loved song give a life lesson in how others see us — either as smiling and happy or as ‘frowning and bringing on the rain’.

As I peruse Facebook I am constantly surprised by how many posts describe happy events in people’s lives and how many photos show smiling faces.  We want others to see a cheerful, carefree image.

How often does this same cheerful and happy person show up in day-to-day interactions?   Does life make it too easy to lapse into a frown — especially in interactions with those with whom you live and work?

We like to think that we put our best face forward 

Before leaving home we spend time trying to look our best.  Women fix their hair, apply make-up and check the mirror to get the right look for the day.  Men spend time grooming — shaving, adjusting collars, shining shoes.  We try to put our best face forward — just as on Facebook.

But how much time is spent attending to those non-verbal communications muscles that affect the face ?  Those muscles that control how the eyebrows furrow and whether the lips are pursed give away the feelings being experienced.

Do we take time to breathe and to focus on the emotions that our facial expressions are communicating?  Are we aware that our faces communicate our feelings?

A life crisis will show on your face

Our faces show the positive as well as the negative life events that we experience.

When we are experiencing joy others can see it in the face — eyes twinkle and lips naturally curl upward.

Our faces also show others when we are in pain.  Lack of sleep shows up and we look as tired as we feel.

Stress affects body hormones and it’s effects usually show up on our faces.

Emotions show up in the face 

Perhaps the emotion that is easiest to recognize in people’s faces is happiness.   Almost everyone who feels happy exhibits some type of smile.  Many happy people just can’t stop grinning.  Because happy expressions are easily recognized, sometimes people disguise and hide other emotions by sporting a fake smile.

Anger is another emotion that is easily spotted.  In our culture anger and the associated stress and frustration are deemed as negative emotions. Many people try to hide anger as its expression is often associated with conflict and even violence.  Anger doesn’t attract others so people often try to conceal anger — sometimes with a fake smile.

Closely related to anger, a turned-down mouth shows  the dismay, loss, and hopelessness associated sadness.   Sadness is another negative emotion that our culture tends to censure and, thus, many people work hard to deny it along with the associated despondency and hopelessness.

The facial emotion most often seen in public spaces is boredom.  I am constantly amazed by how often a blank and empty face is seen on the subway, in a lecture hall or in a waiting area to convey disinterest, neutrality and detachment. This ‘nothing matters – don’t bother me’ look is common among adolescents but is increasingly becoming the look for stressed and over-worked people.

No matter how hard we try to conceal them, facial expressions do reveal aspects of your emotional state.

Is it possible to hide what you are feeling?  

We all know people who show very little emotion.  Many professions are well practiced in displaying a poker face.  This is required in many situations where showing emotion could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Men, especially, work hard to try to control and mask emotions.  Unfortunately, for many men, social disapproval has occurred when emotions are expressed openly. The stereotype of the strong silent male is slowly disappearing but, in too many situations, men must still try to bottle their feelings.

Conventionally for women, more overt emotional reactions to life situations have been allowed and accepted. This may come from their traditional roles as mothers and caregivers in the family where they are more aware of the feelings of others around them.  In the workplace, women are sanctioned for showing their feelings and becoming ’emotional’. Many have also learned to mask their feelings, put on a corporate face, and to ‘take it like a man’.

Cultural differences affect the display and recognition of emotions  both in facial expressions and in social situations.  In a racially and ethnically diverse city like Toronto, it is important to recognize that many cultural norms exist. Dangerous judgements and assumptions based on broad generalizations need to be avoided.

Because facial expressions are a non-verbal form of communication, they play a key role in human interactions.  Facial expressions let the world know what you are thinking. They may be a form of bonding or a form of rejection.

Awareness of your own emotions and how your face may convey your emotional state is important.  Put your best face forward — and not just on Facebook.

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