The Songs of Our Faces

By Jimmy Warden

Body language

There is a saying out there that states: “Body language doesn’t talk, body language screams“. This is an idea that I’ve written about before. Essentially, this statement implies that the loudest and clearest communicator for humans is not our spoken language, it is our body language, and the clearest messages we send come from our facial expressions.

The songs of our faces

There was a psychologist named Silvan Tomkins who believed that facial expressions were a universal language, but he was the only person who believed that at the time. He was known to be able to walk into a post office, look at the mugshots, and determine the crimes the people in the photos committed. Tomkins also had a mentee, Paul Ekman, who was equally curious about whether or not facial expressions were a universal language.

Ekman was so curious that it inspired him to travel to Japan, Brazil, Argentina, and even to remote tribes in the Far East Jungles. With him, Ekman carried photos of people showing different facial expressions, and he found that no matter where he went, the people gave spot-on descriptions of the facial expressions.

There was a later study done by Ekman that measured changes in the autonomic nervous system (the nervous system that governs our levels of calmness or alertness) when our faces made expressions (Gladwell, pg. 206). Ekman was shocked by these results and got to work with colleague Wallace Friesen to replicate the study. Sure enough, when he had people make certain faces, their nervous systems had specific responses depending on which muscles in their face were activated. For example, when they looked angry, their heart rate and body temperature increased (Gladwell, p.207). These responses are thanks to the way that action units fire together.

Action units

There are hundreds of muscles in our face, and the various combinations of these muscles working together are called action units. Action units is a term coined by Ekman and Friesen because they had developed an entire dictionary of facial expressions that are created by specific muscle combination activations, so they are combinations of facial muscles that fire together to create a specific facial expression. For example, action unit one shows anguish or distress when the inner parts of our eyebrows shoot up (Gladwell, p. 203). So this means that specific emotions we show in our face are from action units.

What this means for us

This means that there is a lot more information for us to process in a conversation with someone than just their words. Have you ever noticed when someone says something in one tone of voice, but their facial expression doesn’t match the tone of what they said? This is because their words aren’t aligning with how they’re feeling. This means that we need to understand the language of words and people’s faces.

If we can understand the songs of our faces, we’ll put ourselves in a better position to be better communicators. We’ll also be able to detect honesty from deceit. We’ll be able to understand people on a whole different level. Imagine the possibilities.


Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Little, Brown and Company.

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