Microexpressions: A Universal Language You Wear on Your Face



A facial expression in a fraction of a second? Microexpressions help us communicate, whether or not we speak the same language!

There are about 6,500 spoken languages in the world. Cultures even have different gestures, like peace signs, that are unique to them. Is there any form of communication in the world that everyone can understand – across languages & cultures? 


Anthropologist Dr. Paul Ekman says yes – facial expressions! He traveled the world studying emotions in other cultures and found that there are seven human facial expressions called microexpressions that are universally understood – happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, contempt, fear, & surprise.


After even more study, Dr. Ekman found that when we experience emotions, we can’t help but display them on our faces, even for a fraction of a second. These glimpses into what we’re truly feeling are called microexpressions. Our brain is so linked to these muscle movements that we can make ourselves feel these emotions by performing the right expressions 

Headshot of Anthropologist Dr. Paul Ekman

Let’s make some faces!  

You will need: 

  • A mirror 
  • Yourself
  • Optional: A partner who you live with or can connect with via video call!

How to practice recognizing microexpressions:

Woman face with neutral expression

Relax your face.

Observe what you look like with no expression – this is your “neutral” face. Note how your muscles feel.

Woman face showing happiness with smile


Smile! Look at your eyes – are your eyelids narrowed? Real smiles combine the contraction of the zygomaticus major at your mouth and the orbicularis oculi at your eyes.


Try to think of a joke and see if your expression changes!  

Woman face showing sadness


Turn your lips down into a frown. Raise your cheeks as high as you can. This part is tricky – see if you can turn the inner corners of your eyebrows upwards.


Notice how your face feels – there’s a lot of tension in a sad face. Do you feel any emotions? 

Woman face showing anger


Tightened eyelids, eyebrows lowered and drawn together, and lips pressed together are displays of anger. In more intense expressions of anger, the jaw comes forward.  

Woman face showing disgust


Think of a nasty smell – what does your face do? Wrinkle your nose, bring your eyebrows down and together, and make your upper lip into an upside down “U” shape.   

Woman face showing contempt


Contempt means thinking that someone is beneath you. It’s not a nice emotion. Raise one corner of your lips and try to look overconfident.


Notice that this is the only emotion displayed unilaterally – on one side of the face only.

Woman face showing fear


Think about being scared – open your eyes wide and tense your lower eyelids. Raise your eyebrows and bring them together. Try to pull the corners of your mouth backward, towards your ears.  

Woman face showing surprise


This expression is very similar to fear – think about being startled! What does your face look like when a balloon pops? There should be less tension in your eyebrows – raise them, but don’t bring them together. Relax your lower eyelids, but keep your eyes wide.


Do you look surprised?  

What did you feel making these expressions? Did you notice any emotions beginning to form? Did any memories surface while you made the faces? Our brains’ emotion centers are very connected with the muscles in our face.  


So what’s the point? 

Dr. Ekman coded each facial muscle movement’s actions into a computer program. His program has been used by law enforcement to help catch criminals, healthcare professionals to better understand their patients, even poker players looking to up their game by reading microexpressions of their competitors! Some actors even study Dr. Ekman’s work to help them portray emotions more truthfully.  


Now that you’ve learned about the muscle movements that create these expressions, you can recognize them better in yourself and other people.  


Want to learn more? 

Check out www.paulekman.com to learn more about microexpression research!  

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