Every time you walk into a room, you naturally begin to assess all of the people around you.  You’re looking through the crowd to determine if there is anyone that you need to keep an eye on because they are showing hostility towards and also looking for any familiar faces. Beyond recognizing people we know, realizing who doesn’t like you is a huge reason why learning to read true facial expressions (expressions convey emotion) is so important.

It has been a while since we’ve written any articles about facial expressions but during a class last week I watched a boss tell one of his employees a joke (the joke wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t very good either) and watched the employee do his best to put on a “happy face” to appease his boss.  I don’t know if the boss knew his joke was a flop or not, but realized we should talk about expressions.   In social settings, happiness is an expression that people are constantly trying to fake because they don’t want to be rude to the person they are talking to.  They will put on a fake smile while they choke down a meal that you spent hours making and don’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you how bad it really is.  They might put on a fake smile for the picture you just forced your way into to make you feel appreciated.  While it may be good to realize when a person is trying to be polite to you, there isn’t a great deal to gain by uncovering these false displays of happiness.

Those social situations though are different from a situation where a person is faking a smile in an attempt to disarm you.  If they think a smile, no matter how forced it looks, will keep you from seeing the way they really feel, that becomes important.  Smiles used to cover anger, disgust or contempt are important because the underlying negative emotion could be the one that we need to take notice of.

Learning to distinguish between true happiness and fake happiness doesn’t require a great deal of practice and once we distinguish between the true and fake emotions, you will quickly realize this is something that you have observed (and done yourself) throughout your entire life.  The difference between the two can be seen in the person’s “smiling eyes.” When you are experiencing genuine happiness, you will see the eyes squint and little wrinkles form off of the corners of the person’s eyes. These “crows feet” that form are very difficult to fake and can often times be the indicator needed to help you distinguish between true joy and a forced smile.

Look at the two pictures of John Edwards showing a fake smile and a genuine smile. The one on the left can be identified as being fake because you can see smooth skin around the corners of his eyes.  If you weren’t looking at the eyes, you might get deceived because you would see that he has the corners of his mouth upturned like you would expect to see in happiness.  He also has a deeper crease coming from the side of his nose (his naso-labial furrow), which is another indicator that you would expect to see in happiness.  Even though he has those two pieces of a happy expression, the fact that the skin around his eyes did not move provides the clues that we need to classify it as being fake. Compare this to the picture below and you can easily see the difference. The crow’s feet that have formed around his eyes are distinct and can let you know that at that moment, his smile is one of real joy.

Smiling In Your Life

I use John Edwards as an example because he is probably close to the top of the list for scumbag of the century.  While he was campaigning for the Presidency, he cheated on his wife with filmmaker from his campaign and got her pregnant, all while his wife was dying of cancer.  He then added to the mess by trying to cover the whole thing up by having another aide take credit for the baby.

He’s not the example because he acted this way, but because there was probably a change in his smile around his wife and family while this affair was occurring. A person who thinks they are supposed to appear happy (like when coming home to see your wife) might try to disguise his lack of interest through a fake and forced smile.  A fake smile DOES NOT MEAN that he was cheating, and shouldn’t be read that way, it should just be noticed as any change in behavior that requires further examination.  Before you go calling your significant other a liar and a cheater, understand that there could be a hundred different reasons for this.  Things might be stressful at work, they might just be exhausted, something more important might be on their mind, they might be depressed, and any other reason you can think of why someone might not be as happy to see you as you hoped they would be.  An expression doesn’t tell us anything concrete other than the fact the expression is occurring.  Identifying what is causing or triggering that emotion is the next part of the process for you to investigate.

To develop your ability to recognize true and fake smiles, first practice expressing the emotion in front of a mirror.  Do it initially when you are not in a smiling mood and then try some “method acting” where you think of times when you were so happy that you couldn’t stop laughing and witness the changes in your facial expression.  Once you’ve got it down, take a look through your Facebook feed and see how your friends show their smiles as well.


Information Regarding the Expression of Happiness has come from Paul Ekman’s writing and research in Emotions Revealed and Telling Lies.  Additional training can be found in his online Micro-Expression Training Tool program.