This time I want to talk about facial expressions. It’s something that most people do intuitively, I am told, and interpreting the facial expressions of others is equally intuitive. Not to me, though. It may come as a surprise to you, but I didn’t even know that I couldn’t read facial expressions until I was a teenager. When I was in my early 20s, I think, I wanted to learn more about facial expressions and their meanings, so I tried my best to learn.
It was far more difficult than I had expected and in the end, I had to give up. I am sure I could have persisted, but honestly it was just too stressful. Apparently, I am quite good at reading negative emotions like disgust and anger, but I get the facial expressions for happiness, sadness and surprise mixed up all the time. Constantly struggling to analyse every little thing that happens in a person’s face is very stressful just with one person, but if there are more than one person it becomes close to impossible. I can’t look at everyone’s face at the same time!
Not only that, but the expressions change too quickly and I can barely keep up.
I still try to catch what I can, but I try not to worry too much about it. It doesn’t even bother me as much as it used to, I even tell my friends quite openly that I can’t read faces and they accept it without really thinking about it. To be fair, I doubt they understand or even really care. The important thing is that they tell me if something is wrong – because I can rarely tell without them telling me.
Sometimes, to make up for this inability to read their faces, I ask if they are okay. It’s for no apparent reason, I just ask. You know, like I check in on them to see if they are really fine or if something is wrong. Sometimes, nothing is wrong, and then at other times they thank me for being so perceptive (how strange is that? If they only really understood the truth, I doubt they would say so…) and explain whatever has been troubling them. 90% of the time I am just checking to make sure, but I do sometimes sense that something is wrong and that accounts for the last 10%.
Now, I do honestly care about my friends, family and colleagues very much and making an effort like remembering to ask once in a while if they are okay is not something that bothers me at all. In fact, I enjoy being able to support them if they need it. It may seem unnatural or forced to you if you can actually read people, but imagine if you couldn’t? What would you do?
I am sure you would do what I do. You would do your best to be there and support and love those you care for in whatever way that is possible. I don’t force myself to randomly ask if a friend is okay, I ask because I quite often wonder about whether they are okay or not– I think about it exactly because I can’t tell the way most people can.
You are probably wondering how I am able to sense those crazy 10%, aren’t you?
Well, it’s not just one thing. It’s several things combined.
Most important is body language. Body language is often easier to see and analyse, I don’t know if this is just me or if it’s more of a general opinion. It doesn’t matter. In cases such as this, when we face challenges that prevent us from being happy, then we must adapt and find what works for us.
When I gave up on facial expressions, I devoted myself to studying body language and watched everything from dating advice on YouTube to in-depth scientific documentaries. I needed to understand as much as possible. I didn’t watch the dating advice videos to learn how to pick up possible dates, I wanted to learn how to tell if someone was interested in me in some way – either as a friend or a possible romantic partner.
Romance is stress even without knowing any of the unwritten rules. Unfortunately, watching those videos didn’t actually help me much – although I can now tell if two people like each other in some way, but I can never tell if I am one of the people involved in the interactions.
The documentaries and books I read on body language were the most helpful, but the signs are often very vague. I can tell if someone is uncomfortable or nervous, but I can’t necessarily tell why. Still, learning all that helped me navigate better in conversations because I can at least tell if something is wrong, if a person actually wants to talk about some topic I bring up or if I should find a different one.
Another thing that helped is rephrasing what a person says and saying it back to them. This is great for small talk as well, because apparently people like it when you repeat what they say back to them. I will never really understand why, but it works and I don’t mind as long as I can survive the small talk without major embarrassing incidents.
Rephrasing what they say sometimes also clarifies if I have understood them right and it has saved me sometimes, when I assumed they felt one way but in reality, I completely misread the situation. This is not something I can use too much, because if I do people tend to get annoyed as well. It’s a balance, really.
These three things are what helps me the most in my everyday life; asking randomly how someone feels, learning to read body language (and accepting reading facial expressions will never be my strong point) and rephrasing what people say and saying it back to them.
I guess, being honest with people about how I can’t read facial expressions is sometimes the best option. Some people won’t get it, some people think I am a freak, but all the right people will forgive this and accept it. Sometimes, we have to let go of all the wrong things in our lives if we ever want to have room for all the right things. Bad friends, bad habits and bad situations are some of those things that, if we let go of it, can make room for the right kind of friends, the right habits and the right situations.
Not being able to read facial expressions isn’t really all that important. I can’t hear tonal differences and sometimes, when people talk normally, it sounds to me like they are shouting. Those nuances in how we speak are often as obscure to me as facial expressions, but it doesn’t really matter.
When I was little and I felt someone was shouting at me, and I couldn’t judge by their facial expressions or body language if the person was happy, angry or afraid, I would feel like I had done something wrong and accept whatever punishment I was given. Do you know what my friend, Mr. Owl, told me he had done in those situations when he felt someone was shouting at him?
He would ask: “Why are you shouting?”
Then people can explain why, or they can explain that they are not shouting. What a wonderful solution that is! So, take my friends advice – when in doubt, ask! I know I will take his advice to heart and ask someone if they behave in a way I don’t understand. Of course, we have to be respectful when we do, because it feels good to be kind to others. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask how someone is feeling or why they are shouting if we feel that they are, in fact, I think sometimes it might help us understand the situations we are in better so that we can react to them in different ways.