In the Aug. 5 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating article, “The Naked Face,” about a psychologist named Paul Ekman and his studies of facial expressions. It turns out that, despite what Margaret Mead thought, people all over the world, whatever their culture, interpret facial expressions the same way; furthermore, with sufficient training we can learn to interpret not just the obvious smiles and grimaces but every fleeting “microexpression” that reveals what another person is trying to hide. In fact, we can learn to tell whether someone is lying, and pretty much what they’re thinking.
But it’s not just that our expressions reflect our feelings; they also cause our feelings. Ekman and a colleague began noticing that when they practiced moving their facial muscles into expressions of anger and distress, they felt terrible. They did a study in which one group was told to “remember and relive a particularly stressful experience” while the other “was told to simply produce a series of facial movements…. The second group, the people who were pretending, showed the same physiological responses as the first.” In another experiment, people who were holding a pen between their lips (making it impossible to smile) did not find cartoons as funny as people who were holding a pen between their teeth (forcing them to smile).
So do we want to learn to read faces? What would be the effect? Ekman quotes Erving Goffman, who “said that part of what it means to be civilized is not to ‘steal’ information that is not freely given to us.” Goffman wrote:
“When the secretary who is miserable about a fight with her husband the previous night answers, ‘Just fine,’ when her boss asks, ‘How are you this morning?’ — that false message may be the one relevant to the boss’s interactions with her. It tells him that she is going to do her job. The true message — that she is miserable — he may not care to know about at all as long as she does not intend to let it impair her job performance.”
Would it be better for him to take note of her sadness? Would we benefit by recognizing the constant play of emotions that surrounds us, or would it make it impossible for us to function? Read the article — I’ve barely scratched the surface. And reflect on what language is, and what it’s not.


  1. Thanks!

  2. It’s now pretty clearly established that there is no royal road to lie detection through facial expressions or anything else.

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