What is Your Face Saying?

Is it correct to assume that a person’s facial expression is an accurate indicator of what’s happening inside?
series of LaTrese Ferguson photos

series of LaTrese Ferguson photos

“Your face says it all” is a common phrase used to suggest that a person’s facial expression reveals what they’re thinking. But, is it correct to assume that a person’s face is an accurate indicator of what’s happening inside? 

“A lot of times, people are not aware of what their face is presenting,” said LaTrese Ferguson, manager of Workplace Learning and Professional Development in Tech’s Office of Human Resources. “Reading a person’s facial expression becomes problematic if someone misinterprets what they see.” 

Ferguson recalled feedback she received from a former manager when a colleague thought Ferguson was disengaged during a meeting.  

“My manager said to me, ‘I know you well enough to know you’re not disengaged. I know that when you have a certain look on your face that you are processing information in the moment,’” Ferguson said. Her manager understood that Ferguson was actively engaged, but, because she was deep in thought, it looked as if she was disengaged.  

So, is there a way to control your facial expressions and avoid misinterpretation?

“Expressions are driven by many factors: culture, gender, class, education, among others,” said Karen Head, executive director of the Naugle Communication Center (CommLab) and associate professor and associate chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication. 

“One of the things we always focus on with students in the CommLab is understanding your audience’s expectations in order to prevent misunderstandings. That is to say, your preparations must engage two aspects: understanding yourself as a speaker and understanding your audience’s likely reception of your nonverbal actions,” said Head.   

She said that for presentations, the responsibility for nonverbal cues is always on the presenter. But, in everyday, informal communication, there is more of a balance of responsibility. 

“Each side should (although doesn’t always) take some responsibility for considering how they might be misinterpreting nonverbal signals,” said Head. 

Ferguson agrees. 

“It would be nice if everyone would lead with good intent, ask questions, and gain clarification. But that doesn’t always happen,” Ferguson said. 

“Typically, humans go toward negative thinking, particularly when you don’t ask questions or try to get beneath the surface. So, if I see someone with a blank facial expression, I will just ask what’s going on or ask if I said something that offended them,” she said. 

“We have this international campus with all types of people misreading each other. The danger is that when you don’t gain clarification, you are carrying your own biased way of thinking. Sometimes, it can cause unnecessary conflict,” Ferguson said.

Other factors that can lead to confusion or conflict include how introverts and extroverts may communicate differently. There is also the problem of gender bias in communication, with one example being a derogatory term used to describe some women’s normal, non-reactive expressions — frequently abbreviated as “RBF” — as unpleasant or even angry. And women with a somber expression might sometimes be instructed — even by strangers — to “smile more,” whereas men who display somber expressions are usually perceived with more gravitas.

“These are the faces that our parents gave us,” Ferguson said. “There’s nothing I can do to change my face. 

“Even when you have a pleasant resting facial expression, people may ask ‘Why are you so happy?’ You have to find a happy medium, and I don’t know where it is,” she said. 

Ferguson said she is glad her former supervisor brought the comments to her attention. It made her aware of a situation that she did not know existed, and it allowed her to think about how — or if she wanted to change it. 

For those who think people are misinterpreting their facial expression, Ferguson has some suggestions. 

First, acknowledge that your face may be saying something very different from what you are thinking or feeling. Second, decide if you will accept the situation as it is, or if you want to change it. Third, if you decide you want to change the response you are getting from others, you should over-communicate your thoughts (instead of leaving it up to someone else’s interpretation), and build relationships so that coworkers will better understand your demeanor or feel comfortable asking you questions instead of making inaccurate assumptions.