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What’s in a Face?

“Faces always talk too much.  One line and all their plans are revealed.”  — Floriano Martins 

Martins, a Brazilian poet, is not the only commentator who believes we can read a person’s thoughts through their faces. Centuries earlier, Saint Jerome famously (though perhaps apocryphally) said, “The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart.”  Author Paulo Coelho whole-heartedly concurs with St. Jerome, articulating the connection between a face and the person-behind-the-face thusly: “The eyes are the mirror of the soul and reflect everything that seems to be hidden…” 

Can we read people through their faces?  Is it true that our faces can communicate our personality, character and emotional states? 

There are a number of research projects that have concluded that there is a correlation between what we express through our faces and our personalities and emotions. This research is consistent with my experience in my work as an attorney and mediator, as well as a person just living in this world. It turns out that we rely on the information we can glean from each other, a significant part of which comes from our faces, to effectively communicate. 

We begin to understand people’s nature, not so much by asking them directly, “Are you trustworthy?” or “Are you kind?” but indirectly by relying on physical cues. Changes in a person’s facial expressions, can reveal what’s going on in their minds, emotions, and even in their souls. Our visual analysis is done almost subconsciously, and assessments are capable of being made within seconds. Resting faces, also (as in a photograph on a website) can also tell a lot about a person. In other words, I believe Martins, Coehlo, and St. Jerome are accurate in their assessment.

It’s important to understand people in the context of my work. When I get a sense that a person is angry, I may need to know the reason.  It’s important to find out every piece of information that will help solve the problem we are dealing with. If I see the anger (or other traits) in my client’s face, I might gently probe by asking some questions to try to uncover the information.  Studies show that many character traits and emotions are reflected on a person’s face. Some of these are anger, disgust, happiness, as well as “interest” “concentration” “contentment” and “disappointment”. 

You can even see “still” photos of people on websites and make judgments about their character and personality, even though their expression in a web image is fixed and not moving or reactive. These “resting” or “neutral” faces reveal much. When I need to refer clients to attorneys in other states, I rely greatly on their websites, including how they project their personalities through their “headshots” on their websites.  Their style of dress also projects things about their character as well as their philosophy.  Some of them project an image like they’re ready to brawl!  (Not a good look for the type of lawyer I generally like to refer clients to). 

Micro-expressions are those fleeting expressions that pass on our faces for a very short amount of time – they usually last 1/25 to 1/5 of a second.  If someone takes a “burst” photo of you on cell phone you can see your changing micro-expressions in those 10 burst photos. Try it.  Micro-expressions reveal unfiltered emotions, and they are imbedded in some of the “still” photos we see. They are a good source of information as they are involuntary facial expressions that may unintentionally reveal much about a person.  

Some of the information that is written on our faces is a result of life experiences we have had, and our attitude towards life in general. Experiencing stress, anxiety and trauma can affect your physical appearance over time, including your facial expressions, because of the development of slight changes in your facial muscles. 

If we have many negative experiences in life, that negativity is likely revealed on our faces.  If we’re Pollyanna-ish (as I am frequently accused of being), it is likely our face will be relaxed, open and friendly.  (At least I hope mine is!)   Aspects of our faces develop and become fixed through repeated use, such as laugh or frown lines.  You can tell someone is generally a happy person because smiling can leave traces in wrinkle patterns around the eyes and mouth.  

Generally speaking, attorneys and mediators possess strong interpersonal skills. We tend to obtain valuable information from our clients through non-verbal communications, even if only interacting with them for a very short period. This is very important in helping us to accomplish our work in helping people.

We are able to obtain this “facial” type of information from people very quickly – even after only a few seconds.  Being able to do this has a name in the field of psychology —“thin-slicing.”What this means is that people are able to find patterns based on a very narrow slice of information. Much of this work is done by our subconscious, and the process unfolds very quickly and turns out very efficiently.  In the workplace (as well as meeting people socially for the first time) a good part of the information we glean comes from the face and facial gestures of those you’re interacting with.

Think about it. In the first five minutes of being with a new person, don’t you find that your initial impressions of the person often prove to be fairly accurate?  In that short time frame, you are able to assess many personality traits – or at least some of them — competence, warmth, likability, expressiveness, sympathy, compassion, honesty, intelligence, trustworthiness.  Hence, all of our life experiences ready us to help interpret the clues that we gather from a person we are encountering, if we just take the time to really look. 

author

Laurie Israel

Laurie Israel is an attorney, consultant, and mediator, concentrating her practice on both prenuptial and postnuptial agreements. She works as a consultant and mediator nationwide. She previously practiced for 35 years in the areas of tax law, divorce, collaborative law, estate planning, probate of estates and trust administration, as well… MORE

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