The Seven “Universal” Facial Expressions

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are many cultures, languages, and customs in the world. Additionally, workplaces, schools, and families may have their own cultural or religious practices, and people may experience varying upbringings, experiences, and personalities.

Despite these differences, some researchers, such as Paul Ekman, suggest that there are several universal facial expressions that all humans have in common across the globe. According to Ekman's work in social psychology, there is strong evidence supporting the universality of certain facial expressions, indicating a universal language of emotion. The Nebraska Symposium on motivation, published by the Nebraska Press, highlights this evidence of common emotional experiences by people worldwide.

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What are facial expressions?

Facial expressions are how you move your face to communicate emotions, thoughts, or desires non-verbally. Often, these expressions are involuntary. Other times, they are purposeful. 

Your face may communicate thoughts and ideas alongside emotional reactions to inner feelings. Studies show that many of these expressions of emotion may be biologically hardwired and are expressed similarly across cultural boundaries. Although not accepted by all scientists, this theory could indicate that emotions are biological, not behavioral. 

The seven universal facial expressions

With 43 different muscles, our faces can make more than 10,000 facial expressions of emotion, called micro-expressions. However, several well-known universal facial expressions may be used to express emotion. 

Surprise 

The universal facial expression of surprise is characterized by arched eyebrows, wide exposed eyes, dilated pupils, and a dropped jaw. While the surprise expression might only last a second or two, the facial movements may allow us to take in our surroundings and the events around us, which could be helpful if there’s a threat or situation we need to react to quickly.  

Surprise may be the briefest of all emotional expressions, sometimes lasting only a few seconds. Other facial expressions of emotion can be brief, but the emotions may last longer than the facial expression. Surprise as an emotion often only lasts until the trigger has become familiar or has been assessed and understood.  

After the initial onset of surprise, an expression may merge into fear, anger, disgust, disappointment, or something else, depending upon what triggered the surprise. If the event was not exceptional, we might feel boredom, contentment, or nothing after the surprise has worn off. 

Sadness 

The universal facial expression of sadness is often shown by lowering the corners of the mouth, allowing the eyebrows to descend, and drooping the eyelids. Additionally, someone sad may lower their head or hunch over in defeat. In some cases, an individual might cry when sad. 

What causes sadness may vary based on personal and cultural notions of loss. While sadness is often considered a “negative” emotion, it might be essential in signaling a need to receive help or comfort. Sadness can also be experienced along with other facial expressions, such as anger. 

Anger

The universal facial expression of anger may involve lowered eyebrows, firmly pressed lips, and bulging eyes. The expression of anger can be practical because each movement of the face might make someone appear physically stronger or more intimidating. This expression can serve as a signal of caution, whether to evoke fear or indicate the beginning of a conflict.

When we show an angry expression, we might experience feelings such as fear, embarrassment, or disgust. Studies show that anger is often a secondary emotion to these primary feelings and may be used to cover up a vulnerability in some cases.

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Disgust 

The universal facial expressions for anger and disgust may be similar, which could lead to confusion for a person witnessing the expressions. Disgust is often marked by the raising of the upper lip, the wrinkling of the nose bridge, and the raising of the cheeks.

Fear

The universal facial expression of fear is symbolized by the raising and pulling together of the upper eyelids, the exaggerated opening of the eyes, and the lips stretching horizontally.

Each fear-based facial movement may prepare us for a fight or flight response, and this facial expression can capitalize on how our bodies work. For example, when fearful, the heart may beat faster than average, pushing blood to the muscles, brain, and other vital organs. The pulse may also rise, and the breath may quicken. Small airways in the lungs may open wider than usual, allowing the lungs to take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. 

Contempt 

The universal facial expression of contempt is often symbolized by half of the upper lip tightening up. At times, the head may be tilted back. Although the emotion of contempt can overlap with anger and disgust, the facial expression may be the only one that occurs on only one side of the face and varies in intensity. 

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 wrinkles around the eyes or dimples in the face. 

While many cultures see smiling as friendly, it may not have always been a positive gesture. Monkeys often bare their teeth to indicate aggression or fear. Humans might have once utilized it in this way as well, although it is now an expression of friendliness and enjoyment. 

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Micro-expressions

Not everyone shows their true feelings on their faces. Some individuals may suppress emotion or utilize micro-expressions. Macro-expressions often last up to four seconds, and the expression may match the content and tone of communication. On the other hand, micro–expressions are brief and subtle facial movements that usually last up to one-fifth of a second and can reveal emotions someone is trying to conceal. 

This involuntary emotional leakage may expose a more profound message. For example, if the stakes are high, people may get emotional when they lie. These micro facial expressions of emotion can occur because of the fear of getting caught, guilt, or shame about the lie. Facial expressions that include micro-expressions can reveal what is unsaid verbally. This phenomenon might be why some individuals find it challenging to hold a “poker face” when playing card games or participating in a high-stakes game. 

Counseling for emotional openness

You may benefit from professional support if you struggle to be open about your emotional state. Although difficulty connecting with others might be a barrier during traditional in-person therapy, connecting online with a remote therapist may allow you the distance to feel comfortable divulging vulnerable information. You can also participate in therapy through live chat if you prefer it to phone or video calls. 

Online therapy has been proven as effective as in-person therapy when treating many mental health conditions. Some studies reveal that online therapy can be more affordable than traditional therapy. If you want more information about universal facial expressions or how to be honest about your emotions, licensed professionals through a platform like BetterHelp may assist you. 

Takeaway

Facial expressions can communicate various experiences, emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Researchers often pinpoint seven universal expressions that may be experienced worldwide. Consider looking at photos of these expressions when trying to figure out how someone else feels. 

If you’re struggling to discern the non-verbal communication of others or want to learn more about opening up about your emotions, consider reaching out to a counselor for further guidance. 

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