Expressing Emotion

Many people believe that nonverbal signals are more likely to be genuine than your words, because they are less consciously controlled. So if you’re giving off signs that others “read” as angry or uninterested, they will be leery of interacting with you. Most people will also show nonverbal signs of annoyance, impatience, frustration, or discomfort rather than put them into words, so if you can spot these “early warning signals,” you can deal with small problems before they turn into big problems. (By the time someone is upset enough to tell you that they’re upset, they’re very upset!)

If someone is overwhelmed by extreme emotion, they tend to rely much less on their words (and may in fact find themselves unable to formulate a coherent sentence); rather, they may sob, make nonlinguistic vocalizations, sigh. They communicate through actions and gestures (kinesics), through their posture and involuntary facial expressions, through their use of physical space (proxemics) (moving away from you when grieving, towards you when expressing love, etc.) Since they may be unable to communicate verbally during these moments, it is all the more important to be able to recognize the other signs.

If you have trouble regulating your emotions, this website will not be of much assistance – there’s enough to deal with just detailing the communication of emotions. If you’d like to test your “emotional intelligence,” you can try the quiz at The E.Q. Institute’s website (

Talking About Emotions vs. Showing Them

People often find it embarrassing to discuss negative emotions, especially if they think you are responsible for causing these. Furthermore, we have societal stereotypes and pressures that make it even more threatening for particular people to reveal their emotions in particular situations. In general, we expect adults to be able to control (and thus not display) their emotions (as opposed to young children, who get away with public crying, stamping of feet, and shouting for joy). We expect women to be more emotional than men: to talk about their emotions more, and have more frequent and larger nonverbal displays of emotion. The counterexample to this, however, is when it comes to anger, which men are more likely to express publicly, but which is (supposedly) “unladylike.” Thus, if you are a woman who does not express “enough” emotion, or who openly expresses anger, you may be criticized for being “too masculine,” and if you are a man who expresses “too much” of any emotion other than anger, you may be criticized for being “not masculine enough.”  Not entirely coincidentally, there are also power issues: people in positions of power are permitted to express more negative emotions (anger, frustration, annoyance) than their subordinates. So if you are in a subordinate position and you express negative emotions, you may be seen as challenging the power of your superior(s).

So there’s a Catch-22 at work: people would rather show their emotions than talk about them, but they’d rather not show their emotions than show them, so they typically minimize their emotional displays – and yet, they still expect you to figure out how they’re feeling! For most “neurotypical” individuals, this is not a problem, because they can unconsciously recognize and respond to subtle emotional displays such as passing facial expressions, without even being consciously aware of what they’ve seen.

When people do tell you how they’re feeling, they often dissemble (“no, no, I’m fine!” when they’re really not, e.g.), or they’re so vague that you don’t really know what they mean. “I feel bad” could indicate hurt feelings, sadness, depression, shame, or just sympathy for someone else’s problems. Remember that people don’t want to admit negative emotions, so don’t just accept someone’s assertion that they’re “fine” or “feel good/great,” especially if such a statement is made in response to a query rather than just volunteered. Look for nonverbal signals that they in fact have a negative emotion. If their nonverbals agree with their verbals, and they really are happy, joyful, proud (any positive emotion), smile back and celebrate with them! Even if you currently have problems that are distressing you, be happy for your friend or loved one; this solidifies and reinforces the relationship, and makes it more likely that they will be willing to hear about and sympathize with your problem.

If someone tells you that they have a negative emotion, the first thing you need to do is figure out whether you are in some way responsible. If they are frustrated or angry, did you do something you need to apologize for? Are you currently doing something you should stop doing, or not doing something you should be doing? If you can’t figure it out on your own, ask! Note that a verbal apology won’t do much good if you continue the behavior that triggered the frustration or anger. Actions speak louder than words! If you can’t control the behavior, you can at least explain this to the other person, and make it clear that it is not your intention to upset them, that you value the relationship, etc.

If they are simply sharing their emotional state with you (as a sign of the closeness of your relationship), make sure you are supportive by expressing sympathy. Don’t make the mistake of immediately offering suggestions or advice, which focuses on the problem instead of the person. They have opened themselves up to you, making themselves vulnerable, and you have to show them that you appreciate that and care about them. (Helping to solve their problem can also be a sign that you care, but first things first!)

  1. Acknowledge and sympathize with the feelings. Note that “(Oh), I’m (so) sorry!” is an appropriate thing to start with any time someone expresses a negative emotion: it functions as an apology if you are somehow to blame, and as an expression of sympathy if you are not.
  2. Then you can ask a follow-up question or make a follow-up comment about the feelings: “Have you been feeling this way for long?” or “I had no idea you were feeling this way,” e.g.. (Once people have opened up, they often welcome a chance to “get it all out.”)
  3. If you like, you can offer to help. “Is there anything I can do?” or “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.” If you know that there’s nothing you can do, you can say “I wish there was something I could do.” All of these expressions show caring and concern, and thus solidarity with the other person.
  4. Then and only then, if you have a good idea about how to resolve the person’s problem, you can offer tentative, hedged advice, preferably in indirect question form, not assuming that you understand the situation better than the person who is actually experiencing it, not assuming that you are smarter or more capable than your loved one: e.g. “have you thought about maybe…?” or “could you maybe…?”

Real Vs. Mirrored Vs. Faked Displays

People will often mirror someone else’s expression of emotion, to show understanding and sympathy, but perhaps also succeeding in actually triggering those emotions in themselves, to actually share them (experiencing empathy)! Psychological studies have shown that deliberately putting on a facial expression makes people more likely to feel the associated emotion. A mirroring display may be technically “fake” for a while (until the psychological effect kicks in), but is well-intentioned and not intended to deceive. In fact, mirroring (not just facial expressions, but posture, gestures, even repeating words and ideas) is the key to sending friendly, approachable vibes. Unconsciously, it creates a feeling of solidarity, creating common ground. Be careful, though not to mirror identity features that you do not share (as this may appear to mock the other) or, if you are in a subordinate position to the other, to mirror their use of politeness strategies, as this may seem to challenge their power. Check out this great example of mirroring during an ongoing conversation.

But people do sometimes attempt to mislead us about their emotional state, not wanting to admit that they feel what they feel. Experts can usually tell the difference, thanks to involuntary micro-expressions that precede or periodically interrupt the more deliberate display. Micro-expressions are so fast that we can’t consciously process them; if you are socially challenged, this will not be a useful source of information for you, and we will not discuss them further here. So you (like the rest of us) may be led astray by deliberate attempts to mislead. But you can learn to make reasonable inferences about the more enduring (deliberate) facial expressions, about the messages people intend for us to receive.

There are “fake” smiles and “fake” laughs, however, that are not intended to deceive. If you tell a story or make a joke, and someone gives you a “fake” laugh or smile, you are intended to notice the lack of genuineness, to understand that they were not actually interested or amused. As discussed in showing interest, these signals are designed to reassure you that they are paying attention, that they appreciate the attempt to interest or amuse, that they still want to be friends. If you don’t occasionally give your friends “fake” smiles and laughs, you will come across as cold and unfriendly. Instead of thinking about these as “real” vs. “fake” – since all of them are “real” in their own way, they are simply intended to convey different information – it might be useful to consider them as “genuinely interested or amused” vs. “social” smiles and laughs. That’s a bit of a mouthful, though.

Eye Contact vs. Gaze: Reading the Mind in the Eyes

Although all the experts on nonverbal communication agree that the eyes carry the most information about emotions, people who are visually impaired learn to decode signs of emotion using only linguistic and paralinguistic cues, and most of us do just fine on the telephone, even if we normally rely heavily on visual cues in face-to-face communication. Remember, though, that there’s a difference between gaze (looking at someone) and eye contact (mutual gaze, catching and holding each other’s eyes). While eye contact may feel threatening, you could still get a lot of information from reading someone’s face when they’re not looking directly at you.

If making eye contact triggers mild feelings of discomfort in you, you may learn to override this to use gaze as a source of social information – but make sure you don’t overdo it, or your gaze will be felt as challenging and you will trigger the fear reflex in the people you talk to. (You’ll know you’re overdoing it when others begin to avoid making eye contact with you!) If making eye contact triggers more extreme discomfort, you might be able to focus your gaze on their mouth and nose region, which will still allow you to read a lot of emotional cues and may appear to others to be “close enough” to “normal” patterns of gaze, even if you’re not making actual eye contact. If you can’t learn to look at faces at all, you could still supplement the auditory (linguistic and paralinguistic) cues with other visual information such as posture and gesture. If you are having a face-to-face conversation and you can’t make eye contact, you want to be sure to send appropriate signals to your conversational partners (using alternative channels), so that they will correctly interpret your averted gaze and not assume disinterest.

British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has developed a test for “reading the mind in the eyes.” (An online implementation of this can be found at .) He shows only the eye area, and provides four choices of emotions for each photo, using a wide range of emotional vocabulary. If you have trouble with his quiz, it is likely that you are not currently getting useful social information from people’s eyes, but it does not follow that you aren’t able to read people’s emotions at all (remember that there are other sources of information available), nor that you couldn’t learn to use this source of information. Check out our exercises!

The Need for Multiple Sources of Information

Every generation seems to have a new best seller on “how to read body language” that promises to make you an expert in reading people’s emotions in no time, but be warned that these tend to exaggerate their usefulness. Body language, on its own, tends to be ambiguous, and often requires information from other sources to be correctly decoded. (And again, remember that people are generally quite good at “reading” emotions over the phone, showing that the visual information is unnecessary if you have good paralinguistic and linguistic sources of information.)

Although we typically send redundant social signals via multiple channels, focusing on a single type of signal can lead to misunderstanding, especially when it comes to the expression of emotions. Someone may speak more slowly because they’re feeling sad, bored, or affectionate. A stranger’s attempt to make eye contact (“catch your eye”) may be a friendly social overture, indicating that the person wants to be friendly and begin a conversation with you, or it may be flirty, or it may be challenging and aggressive. You have to look for other clues in order to disambiguate. (Someone making a friendly overture will have a genuine smile, as described for happiness. Someone challenging you may smile coldly, but their eyes will be wide open, with no smile lines around them, creating a “hard gaze,” and their posture will signal dominance.)

Our descriptions of emotional displays, therefore, include linguistic and paralinguistic information (actual pronunciation of sounds, intonational contours, tone of voice, loudness, pitch, rate of speech), patterns of gaze, facial expressions, posture and other body language, proxemics (how close or far someone stands), etc. This may seem overwhelming, but you don’t have to use all these sources of information to correctly identify an emotion. Different types of cues will work for different people, but you do want to find two or three sources of information that could work for you, practice them separately, then use them in conjunction with each other.

Labeling Emotions

What’s the difference between annoyed, irritated, aggravated, and peeved? Who cares? We’re not interested in splitting hairs here. There are tons of different terms we use for closely related emotions, or even multiple synonyms for a single feeling. (The existence of this rich vocabulary just shows you how important emotions are to us, how often we talk about them.) What’s important is that these are all negative but not extreme emotions, which could potentially escalate into anger (fury, rage,…).

So the important thing is to recognize the general neighborhood of the emotion, and to be able to spot different degrees of it. (There is, of course, a whole sliding scale for each emotion, but it’s enough for now to distinguish between milder vs. more intense manifestations). There may certainly be times when emotions overlap and blur into one another: one may be simultaneously bored and annoyed, or simultaneously afraid and disgusted, e.g., and we will not attempt to describe all the possible combinations.

Recognizing and Interpreting Emotional Displays

More on Nonverbal Social Signals Used in Emotional Displays


We’ve already discussed the difference between genuinely amused laughter and “fake” (social) laughter (to show solidarity) (and there was an exercise in showing interest to help you learn to distinguish these and produce them appropriately yourself), but actually, the truth is more complicated.  There’s also cynical laughter and giggling.

  • Genuine, amused laughter is open-mouthed, it features multiple pulses at the speaker’s normal pitch (neither noticeably raised or lowered), accompanied by a genuine smile and other signs of happiness. If this is the result of a sudden amusement, it may appear to “burst out” involuntarily, perhaps accompanied by a snorting sound, and it may go on for quite some time. Genuine laughter is happy.

  • Giggling features rapid pulses in a high-pitched falsetto. For this reason, it is seen as “girly,” “feminine,” and (probably not so coincidentally) “silly.”  A women who giggles when talking to a man will be thought to be flirting, deliberately accentuating her feminine characteristics to get sexual attention. People (of both sexes) will giggle more often when nervous.

  • Polite (“fake,” social) laughter is often just a single pulse and certainly no more than a few pulses; the pitch is low and the mouth is usually closed (with or without a “fake” (social) smile). While not necessarily expressing happiness, this is a friendly gesture, associated with generally positive feelings.

  • Cynical (mocking, sarcastic) laughter is similar to polite laughter, but is usually quieter and accompanied by a frown, grimace or sneer (and/or rolled eyes or raised eyebrows – there are no smile lines around the eyes).  The single pulse may sound more like a snort.  In extreme cases, the person may utter a lexical “ha ha.” This is generally associated with negative feelings.

Audible Breathing

A sigh is a heavy, audible breath in and out, with mouth open or closed. These are very difficult to interpret as they may occur with a variety of emotional states and/or social messages, although these are generally not good signs, indicating some sort of problem or concern.  The best we can say is that you are probably intended to notice them, intended to understand that the speaker may be trying to convey a message nonverbally, and you might as well ask about it. “I’m sorry (to interrupt the conversation), but I noticed you sighing just then. Is there something wrong?” e.g.


Some yawns are beyond our conscious control (we yawn when we see others do so, without intending to send any particular message, or when we’re trying to stay awake, e.g.) – but we can, of course, deliberately yawn to signal to others that we’re tired and/or bored. This is a much more polite way of indicating that you would like to end a conversation than simply saying so. If you notice that the person you’re talking to is yawning, you might pro-actively offer them an easy way out of the conversation. (E.g., “It’s getting late, isn’t it? I’d better get going.”) If you yawn while talking to someone, you might want to proactively assure them that you are still interested in the conversation.

Coughing, Throat-Clearing, etc.

Like yawning, coughing and throat-clearing are sometimes just physical reactions, but they can also be deployed strategically to achieve various goals, such as:

  • to announce your presence (if someone has not yet acknowledged you)
  • to get attention
  • to signal that you want a turn at talk
  • to signal disagreement or discomfort with what someone else is saying.

If you notice these “symptoms,” and you think they might be intended to communicate, you can ask, “Did you want to add something?” or the like. If you have a physical need to cough or clear your throat, you might wish to clarify that it does not communicate anything in particular with a quick “Sorry, my throat was bothering me.”

How can you tell if you’ve offended someone?

How do you respond when someone has offended you?


Scholarly Sources

  • Baron-Cohen, Simon, Wheelwright S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & I. Plumb. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42(2): 241-51.
  • Calder, Andy, Rhodes, Gillian, Johnson, Mark & Jim Haxby.(2011). Oxford Handbook of Face Perception. Oxford University Press.
  • Dimberg, Ulf, Thunberg, M., and K. Elmehed. (2000). Unconscious Facial Reactions to Emotional Facial Expressions. Psychological Science, Vol. 11, pp. 86-89.
  • Ekman, Paul.(1982). Emotion in the Human Face. 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press.
  • Guerrero, Laura K. & Kory Floyd. (2006). Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Manusov, Valerie & Miles L. Patterson. (2006). The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Sage Publications.
  • Neidenthal, Paula; Krauth-Gruber, Silvia & Francois Ric. (2006). Psychology of Emotion: Interpersonal, Experiential, and Cognitive Approaches. Psychology Press.
  • Miller, Patrick W. (1988) Nonverbal Communication, 3rd Ed. National Education Association.
  • Poyatos, Fernando. (2002) Nonverbal Communication across Disciplines. Volumes 1, 2, & 3. John Benjamins.
  • Reeve, Johnmarshall. (2008) Understanding Motivation and Emotion, 5th Ed. Wiley.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

  • Archer, Dane. (1996). The Human Face: Emotions, Identities and Masks [videorecording]. University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning.
  • BBC Video (2001). The Human Face [DVD].
  • “Nonverbal Communication” (n.d.) University of California Santa Cruz.
  • Silver, Jon. (1993). The Human Voice: Exploring Vocal Paralanguage [videorecording]. University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning.
  • The University of Washington’s Center for Nonverbal Studies.

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