Reading the Confidence Tells of the Face

We’ve trained our faces to lie.

Social order depends on the cooperation of people to accomplish tasks, people that may not otherwise get along. From the Great Wall of China to your office this week, we’ve all put on a happy face to make a situation less confrontational. If you’re looking for truth, the face is one of the least likely places to find it.

Is this smile real or fake? How do you know? Image "t smile" by halbag, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
Is this smile real or fake? How do you know? Image “t smile” by halbag, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

It makes life easier for everyone.

The face is controlled by 43 muscles, adding up to a wide variety of expressions! Even if we can control our facial muscles to an extent, our limbic system still reacts. It’s difficult for most people to maintain a mask covering their true emotions, especially when they feel they’re not being observed. These reactions may be far more subtle than what we see when we’re watching actors on a screen.

People’s faces will be tense when under pressure or displaying discomfort. A relaxed, smiling face is a displays comfort. Because a smile can be faked, however, it’s wise to look for additional tells.

Eye muscles will squint when someone is truly smiling. If the smile isn’t reflected by the eyes, there’s a good chance that it’s fake.

Eye squints without a smile is a form of blocking, trying to avoid the thing we’re looking at. It can also help to broadly focus our eyes, preparing for the flight response.

The downward gaze indicates discomfort or low confidence. Image "day 067" by Holly Lay, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
The downward gaze indicates discomfort or low confidence. Image “day 067” by Holly Lay, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

More than squinting, though, people might eye block by completely close their eyes, cover them with their hands, rub their eyes, flutter their eyelids, gaze downward, or take a very long blink. These are all signs of discomfort or low confidence.

Your pupils act like a camera that changes its aperture to produce a photograph with a blurry background. When your eyes see something they like, your pupils will dilate to gain focus only on that thing. Our attention is momentarily commanded by this good thing, our pupils dilate, and other visual information is lost.

When a person feels threatened or has low confidence, however, the pupils will constrict to gain clarity and focus on a wider visual field, in case of a flight response. They may squint to increase their wide perception.

Arched eyebrows are a gravity defying behaviour to indicate confidence and comfort. Image " L1009153 A Big Smile from the High Tibetan Plateau" by DaiLuo, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
Arched eyebrows are a gravity defying behavior to indicate confidence and comfort. Image “L1009153 A Big Smile from the High Tibetan Plateau” by DaiLuo, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

Eyebrows will arch when someone is happy, defying gravity. They’ll lower and tense up when displaying tells of low confidence. The face as a whole will reflect this same behavior. A raised chin or forehead displays confidence; a lowered chin or forehead indicates stress and discomfort.

Lips will purse when someone is thinking. They lick their lips to pacify themselves, or tighten them to a grimace when stressed. As someone tightens their lips and pulls them more and more into their mouth, they’re increasingly anxious and uncomfortable.

This chapter has additional information on non-verbals of the face. I recommend you add it to your library.

One excellent point that Joe Navarro makes in Chapter Seven of What Every BODY is Saying is that people’s words and behaviors may tell two different stories. We’re always on the lookout for multiple tells that confirm the body’s limbic response. If you’re getting mixed signals, it’s wise to strongly consider the negative message as the valid one.