Monday, August 04, 2003

Facial Expressions

I was driving down the road with my wife yesterday. She remarked on how sore her muscles were from lifting weights the day before. Usually I respond to such complaints with the hearty and rousing exhortation, "No pain, no gain!" This time, however, I decided to show a little empathy by employing a facial expression that I think of as a sympathetic wince.

To my surprise, my wife responded by saying, "Why are you smiling? You think it's funny?" Horrified, I explained that I had not intended to smile at all; to the contrary, I was attempting a sympathetic wince, etc.

Puzzled at the discrepancy, I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and attempted to make the same facial expression again. Sure enough, it was a smile -- a smirk, even. I immediately understood why my wife would have taken offense at seeing that expression in that context.

Then it occurred to me: We almost never see how our own faces appear in our daily interactions with other people. The disappointed face with which you expect to elicit a vale of tears might appear as a scowl. The friendly smile with which you greet a new acquaintance might seem leering. The raised eyebrow with which you convey your sophistication might seem smart-alecky or condescending.

How often it must be that people create misunderstandings or needless offense, all because they do not realize how their faces look to other people. Think how much happier we might be if only we could all walk around with a head-mounted mirror for a couple of weeks.


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