Why You Can not Fake Your Feelings
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I was once asked by the Senior
Vice President of Human Resources to work with a leader whose
micro-management was limiting her team’s effectiveness. When I met with
the client, (let’s call her Judith), she was effusive with her praise –
going on and on about how much she had heard about me and how delighted
she was to have me as her coach. Soon, I noticed that her smiles,
however bright, were seldom genuine.
Smiles are often used as a
polite response to cover up other emotions, but these social smiles
involve the mouth only. Unless you are expressing genuine pleasure or
happiness, it’s hard to produce a real smile – the kind that crinkles
the corners of the eyes and lights up the entire face.
Knowing that, I expected to
discover that Judith wasn’t as delighted with me as she claimed, and
that she was putting on a show for the HR executive’s sake. As time
went on, it became clear that was the case. Judith had no interest in
working with me (or any other coach), and no intention of changing her
The one area of body language
that is identical in all cultures is the seven basic emotions that
people around the world express, recognize, and relate to in the same
way. Discovered and categorized by Paul Ekman and his colleagues at the
University of California in San Francisco, the universal emotional
expressions are joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and
contempt. Here is how they can be identified:
Joy: The muscles of the cheeks raise,
eyes narrow, lines appear at the corner of the eyes, the corners of the
mouth turn up.
Surprise: The eyebrows raise, there is a
slight raising of upper eyelids and dropping of the lower jaw.
Sadness: The eyelids droop as the inner
corners of the brows raise and (in extreme sorrow) draw together, and
the corners of the lips pull down.
Anger: The eyebrows are pulled
together and lowered, the lower eyelid is tensed, the eyes glare, and
the lips tightened, appearing thinner.
Fear: The eyebrows draw together and
raise, the upper eyelid raises, the lower eyelid tenses, and the lips
Disgust: The nose wrinkles, the upper
lip raises, and the corners of the mouth turn down.
Contempt: The only unilateral expression.
The cheek muscles on one side of
the face contract, one corner of
the mouth turns up.
Whenever any of these emotions
are felt strongly, their display is intense and can last up to four
seconds. Subtle expressions are emotions experienced with a lower
intensity, or emotions just starting to show. Micro expressions (facial
displays lasting less than one-fifth of a second) can also give an
astute observer a glimpse into your true emotional state.
On more than one occasion, I’ve
seen a fleeting expression of anger or disgust between colleagues that
has spoken volumes about the underlying feelings between the two
people. (I tend to watch the eyes. The small muscles around the eyes
are often the site of real emotional giveaway – one part of the face
that reacts before you even know how you feel about something that’s
been said or implied.)
In general, expressions that are
not genuine can be identified by the following behaviors:
• An expression that does not
use all the muscles in the face typically associated with that
expression. One case is previous example of Judith’s smile -- which
included the mouth but didn’t involve the eye muscles.
• Because all genuine
expressions (with the exception of contempt) are symmetrical, any
display of other expressions that are asymmetrical, are suspect.
• An expression held for more
than five seconds is typically not genuinely felt. Most real
expressions last only for a few seconds.
also difficult to hide your feelings because many emotional displays
are almost impossible to eliminate. The Adam’s-apple jump
(especially noticeable in men) is one such emotional cue – an
unconscious sign of emotional anxiety, embarrassment, or stress – often
displayed when someone hears something he strongly dislikes or
if you are successful masking your emotions, an audience will still
know that something is “off.” Stanford University’s research on
emotional suppression shows a surprising reason why it’s so difficult
to hide your true feelings: The effort required to suppress an emotion
takes a physical and psychological toll. Subjects instructed to conceal
their emotions reported feeling ill at ease, distracted and
preoccupied. And this was validated by a steady rise in their blood
another, quite unexpected finding showed a corresponding blood pressure
those who were only listening to the subjects. When you try to suppress
what you really feel, the resulting tension is internally registered
with your audiences.
Even babies know when you are
faking. In a study recently published in Infancy: The
Official Journal of the International Society on Infant Studies,
psychology researchers at Concordia University demonstrate that infants
– as early as 18 months old -- can detect whether a person's emotions
are justifiable given a particular context. In fact, the infants
clearly detected when facial expressions did not match the experience.
They also showed empathy toward the person only when her sad face was
In the workplace, you constantly
express emotions -- enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence as well as
arrogance, indifference, and displeasure -- through your facial
expressions. My best advice is to always be as transparent and candid
as possible. Doing so will help your body language align authentically
to reflect that emotional openness. Remember: If you try to fake how
you really feel, your audience (team, staff, co-workers, boss) probably
won’t buy it.
About the Author
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an international keynote speaker and body
language coach who helps business executives, politicians, female
leaders, and sales teams align their verbal and nonverbal messages for
greater impact and professional success. Authors Google+
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