Sealing a deal or making a key connection can often depend on reading the signals colleagues or potential clients are sending with their facial expressions. But new research finds there's a significant risk of misreading others' faces.

If you've done much traveling and interacted with other cultures, you may have noticed that appropriate facial expressions aren't necessarily a universal thing. While we've come to expect big smiles from servers in American restaurants, you're more often greeted with a neutral stare in many northern European countries and it's easy to mistake this for rudeness as a foreigner when it's really just the local social norm. 

Now researchers at New York University say that it's also easy to misunderstand the expressions on faces of people from the same culture. They explain that our own pre-conceived understanding of the emotions we perceive on the faces of others influence how we interpret those expressions.

"These visual perceptions may differ across people depending on the unique conceptual beliefs we bring to the table," said professor Jonathan Freeman, senior author of a new paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. "Our findings suggest that people vary in the specific facial cues they utilize for perceiving facial emotion expressions."

The researchers set up an elaborate series of experiments designed to determine how participants see six key emotions on the faces of others:  anger, disgust, happiness, fear, sadness, and surprise.

Many scientists have long held that these specific emotions are universal across societies and built into our biology along with the facial expressions that go along with each.

But the new research contrasts with these ideas and finds that our interpretation of expressions can say something about us as well as the face we're trying to read. 

"The results suggest that we may all slightly differ in the facial cues we use to understand others' emotions, because they depend on how we conceptually understand these emotions," says Freeman.

The study authors believe their work could have implications for artificial intelligence and how machines spot emotions on human faces, but there's also a lesson to be learned for those of us non-computers.

It's probably best not to rely on your keen sense for reading people. A healthy dose of open and emotionally intelligent facial expression fact-checking is the best prescription.

If you think you're reading a negative emotion on the face of a prospective client, check that you're actually seeing what you think you are. This can be as simple as asking:

"I might be reading this wrong, but has something upset you?" 

Or, a little more playfully:

"Just checking, but is that your angry or your surprised face?"

You get the idea. Just remember the key take away here: It's not a good idea to take any expression at face value. 

Published on: Jul 23, 2018
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