7 Universal Facial Expressions. What Do They Mean?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Ann-Marie Duncan

There are an estimated 7.8 billion people in the world as of the year 2020. Within the 7.8 billion, there is a multitude of different cultures, languages, and customs. Add to that the different cultural business traditions and standards, not to mention each individual person’s personal upbringing, experiences, and personality, and it’s awe-inspiring how wonderfully unique and different we all are. Furthermore, with all the different emotions each of us feels, the resulting differences in facial expressions of emotion are almost endless.

But there is one thing that connects us all as human beings – 7 universal facial expressions of emotion.

Source: pexels.com

What are Facial Expressions?

That question may appear fairly obvious. Facial expressions of emotion are expressions on one’s face, right? Well, yes. But there’s more to it than that. Facial expressions of emotion are the mirror of our emotions. They are emotional expressions. We express ourselves not only in words but, among other things, facial expressions. In fact, facial expressions are one of the more important aspects of human communication and are usually the first thing a person sees when meeting someone, even before a word is spoken. Our face is responsible for communicating not only thoughts and ideas, but also emotional expressions as well. What makes the communication of emotions interesting is that it appears as if some of these facial expressions of emotion may be biologically hardwired, and are expressed the same way by all peoples of all cultures.

With 43 different muscles, our faces can make more than 10,000 facial expressions of emotion, which are called micro-expressions, which we’ll discuss later. First, let’s look at the 7 universal expressions.

7 Universal Facial Expressions. What Do They Mean?

  1. Surprise–The universal facial expression of surprise is symbolized by eyebrows arching, eyes opening wide, exposing more white than usual, along with the jaw slightly dropping and the pupils dilated. While the surprise expression might only last a second or two, the facial movements — particularly the raised eyebrows — allow us to clearly take in our surroundings and the events around us, and instantly shift our attention to other events, some possibly threatening, to be able to react quicker. Whether it’s a good or bad surprise, the facial reaction is the same. Surprise happens to be the briefest of all of the emotional expressions, lasting a few seconds at most. Other facial expressions of emotion can be very brief, but they can also endure much longer, whereas surprise has a fixed, limited duration.
Source: pexels.com

After the initial onset of surprise, that expression may merge into fear, anger, disgust, etc., depending upon what it was that surprised us. On the other hand, it may also be followed by no emotion at all if the event was of no consequence to us.

  1. Sadness– The universal facial expression of sadness is symbolized by lowering of the corners of the mouth, the eyebrows descending to the inner corners, and the eyelids drooping. The universal facial expression of sadness is hard to fake. Why? Well, one of the revealing signs of sadness is the inner brow raised, which in fact very few people can do on-demand.

What causes us sadness varies greatly based on personal and cultural notions of loss. While sadness is often considered a “negative” emotion, it serves an important role in signaling a need to receive help or comfort. Sadness can also be experienced along with other facial expressions of emotion, such as:

  • Anger (e.g., having a loved one abandon you)
  • Fear (e.g., that you will not be able to cope or move on with life)
  • Happiness (e.g., reminiscing about time spent with the person or thing you lost, or pleasure from the comfort provided by others as a result of your loss)
  1. Anger– The universal facial expression of anger is symbolized by lowered eyebrows, lips firmly pressed, and bulging eyes. The expression of anger is effective because each movement of the face makes someone seem physically stronger. The expression conveys to the receiving person, or to the possible threat, that you are serious, and that you mean business. It’s among our strongest facial expressions of emotion; it also proves just how demonstrative a person’s features are. This face can function as a signal of caution, whether it’s just to evoke fear or to indicate the beginning of a conflict. When we’re angry, it’s possible to experience other feelings such as fear (of inflicting harm to ourselves or others) or disgust (for the person or thing blocking you from your goal). If you were taught that feeling anger is “bad”, you might even feel embarrassed or shameful for having felt the emotion at all. Furthermore, if you were angry and it led you to do something you considered to be inappropriate, you may also feel regret.
  2. Disgust– The universal facial expression of the emotion of anger and disgust are very similar and often leads to confusion for the person witnessing the expression. The facial expression of disgust is symbolized by the raising of the upper lip, the wrinkling of the nose bridge, and the raising of the cheeks.
Source: rawpixel.com

The facial expression of disgust does not just show our distaste, but it also works to protect us. For example, the wrinkling of the nose closes the nasal passage, thereby protecting it from unwelcome or offensive external elements, while the squinting of the eyes shields your eyes from harm. It’s one of the facial expressions of emotion that not only conveys our feelings, but it also protects us.

  1. Fear– The universal facial expression of fear is symbolized by the raising of the upper eyelids and pulling together of the eyelids, exaggerated opening of the eyes, and the lips stretching horizontally.
    Each fear-based facial movement prepares us for a fight-or-flight response, and this facial expression capitalizes on the way our bodies work. For example, the heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. The pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wider than usual, thereby allowing the lungs to take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness, while sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar and fats, flooding nutrients into the bloodstream, and supplying energy to all parts of the body. Like disgust, fear is one of the facial expressions of emotion that serves to protect us.
  2. Contempt– The universal facial expression of contempt is symbolized by half of the upper lip tightening up. Sometimes, the head is slightly tilted back as well.

Although the emotion of contempt can overlap with anger and disgust, the facial expression is unique because it is the only universal facial expression that occurs on only one side of the face and can also vary in intensity. In other words, the facial expression of contempt is the only facial expression of emotion with a unilateral facial expression, meaning that the expression is not symmetrical. The other facial expressions of emotion do not have this unique characteristic.

  1. Happiness – The universal facial expression of happiness is symbolized by the raising of the mouth corners and the tightening of the eyelids, sometimes resulting in “crow’s feet” wrinkles around the eyes.
Source: rawpixel.com

Despite the obvious friendly connection with the facial expression of happiness, researchers believe our smiles might have a darker origin. Many primates show their teeth to assert their dominance and lock down their status in their social structure, and some believe it is that non-verbal sign that eventually evolved into a smile.

Experts have discovered that the human face is capable of transforming into more subtle, unique, and different happy faces than any of the other facial expressions of emotion. For example, disgust needs just one facial expression to get its point across; Happiness, on the other hand, has 17 various forms of pleasure, joy, and elation.

Micro-Expressions

As a Chinese saying goes, “Look at the weather when you step out; look at people’s faces when you step in.” However, not everyone shows their feelings on their faces. Some individuals may suppress true emotion and express a false facial expression. Macro-expressions, like the 7 universal facial expressions of emotion, last between a half a second and 4 seconds, and the expression matches the content and tone of what is said. On the other hand, microexpressions are a brief and subtle facial movement which usually lasts from 1/25th to 1/5th of a second, and reveals an emotion a person is trying to conceal as a result of suppression or repression.

This involuntary emotional leakage can expose people’s true facial expressions of emotion. For example, people often get emotional when they lie, especially when the stakes are high. These micro facial expressions of emotion can occur because of the fear of getting caught, guilt, or shame about the event lied about, or even because one likes the thought of successfully lying to others, especially those in positions of authority. Facial expressions of emotion, especially micro-expressions, can reveal the truth of these facial expressions of emotion, and so the ability to detect them may be important for individuals working in law enforcement, national security, intelligence, or the legal system. It can also be useful for determining the truth about the media, political officials, and even friends, family, and partners.

If you want more information on the universal facial expressions, the licensed professionals at BetterHelp can assist you. They have a knowledgeable and caring staff who are standing by to help out. You can access BetterHelp from the comfort and convenience of your own home.


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