Reading Aggression on the Face

Did you know that most of what you say is not with your words—around 90 percent of communication is non-verbal.  Around 55 to 60 percent of non-verbal falls into the category of body language.  Why is this important to mention here?  Because reading body language correctly lends itself greatly towards perceiving aggression and potential violence.

Several great books have been written on the subject of facial expressions, as they are a key place to look for affect display, i.e. emotions.  It’s hard for us to completely hide what we feel, and though we may diligently try, we often unconsciously reveal what is going on in our brains in the form of micro-expressions.  One of the world’s leading experts on facial expressions is Dr. Paul Ekman, who is also expert and inspiration for the TV show Lie to Me.  He literally mapped out facial expressions based on the musculature utilized and catalogued facial expressions.  It turns out that we cannot make certain expressions on purpose—they happen under our own conscious radar.  There is a direct link between emotions and the face, and we are even able to create emotions, working backwards, by assuming certain facial expressions.  Very fascinating stuff.  I say all this to let you know there is a lot of scientific study in this area!  I have yet to get around to Ekman’s book Unmasking the Face, but it is on my to-do for this year.

In other resources, including Management of Aggressive Behavior, I have discovered interesting bits of information as they pertain to the face and aggression.  Smiling, apparently, is akin to snarling in the wild (we are still members of the animal kingdom, after all).  A smile with just the mouth (and not the eyes) looks a lot like primates bearing their teeth.  Tension often shows in the face, as the muscles in the face tend to contract when we are under mental duress.  In addition to tense facial muscles, here are some other possible signs of potential aggression:

  • Teeth clenching
  • Pale skin (also possibly fear)
  • Darkening of skin (anger)
  • Distortion of the face on the left side
  • Bearing teeth (a snarling smile, perhaps?)
  • Lips quivering (anxiety)
  • Lips tensing (anger, high potential for physical violence)

These are just some signs, and as I am discovering in Allan Pease’s book Body Language, we often have to read expressions, micro-expressions, gestures and micro-gestures in clusters to get the full picture of what is going on.  Not impossible to do, but it takes a little practice.  One easy way to practice is to watch people out in public, or even mute shows on TV, and attempt to discover the emotional gist of the situation by reading the face and the body.  Keep in mind that the hearing-impaired have to do this all the time!  Nevertheless, the rest of us rely on it more than we realize to size up situations.

I will be writing more on body language in future posts.


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