Reading the Messages on Our Faces
For many of us, our feelings are private; we can feel embarrassment or shame when others see us experience them. Our feelings often seem so hard to hide from people too, leading people to wonder ‘why is something so embarrassing so visible!?’
Out of control feelings
It’s an understandable point of view. Sometimes our feelings are often out of our control and can then seem inappropriate for our circumstances – at work, with people we don’t know, in public – we can go to great efforts to try to hide them behind smiles and brave faces. Further, it is natural for people to wonder ‘why on earth are my angry/ sad/ fearful/ anxious thoughts written on my face? It isn’t true of my other thoughts!’.
Naturally it isn’t the thoughts that are written on our faces, but the feelings and more precisely the affects. Affects are the external manifestations of our emotions, and I have . One of the interesting things about affects is that they look much the same for people across all cultural, age and ethnic groups. This tells us two things.
We are all the same
The first thing that this tells us is that these are part of the way humans are wired. No matter who we are, when we experience, say, sadness, all of us express it in similar ways if we allow ourselves – the widening of our mouth, distending of the nostrils, softening of the shape of the eyes, feeling in the throat. It’s not our fault that we feel these things, nor express them visibly – it’s biology and it’s unconscious.
Feelings are meant to be seen
The second thing that it tells us becomes more apparent when we think of the maxim that ‘form follows function’; feelings are meant to be visible, and they are also meant to be responded to by other people. The response required might depend on the affect being expressed; when we express fear it is a signal for other people to watch for danger too; an expression of anger signals ‘stay away!’. As for sadness, it is a sign that something is very wrong at the moment and that quite possibly we might need the help or understanding of another.
– Tim Hill
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