By about five weeks of age, babies start to show “social smiles.” These are intentional expressions of love and warmth that start surprisingly early in life. As children grow up, most of them start to intuitively pick up on other, subtler cues of social situations and emotions. A person’s smile and other body language indicators can give insight as to that individual’s personality and feelings.
Smiles are contagious. A warm, genuine smile can instantly make other people feel happier. Food served with a smile even seems to taste better. It can also make someone seem more trustworthy. In one interesting research study, students were instructed to pretend that they were members of a college disciplinary body, and they had to decide whether or not another student was guilty of cheating on a test.
The students were all given the same packet of material that suggested the student was guilty. Some of them saw a photograph of the student, in which she wore a neutral expression. Others saw a picture of her smiling. Almost all of the study participants decided the student was probably guilty, but those who had seen the picture of the student smiling wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Not all body language is universally interpreted. In the U.S., children are taught that making eye contact is a sign of respect, because it indicates that a person is paying attention to the conversation. But in certain Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, eye contact can be socially inappropriate.
Enthusiastic Westerners sometimes make a thumbs-up sign to indicate their excitement or agreement with someone else. It can also be a congratulatory gesture. However, in India, giving the thumbs-up sign is roughly akin to giving someone the middle finger in Western culture.
Micro-expressions are those momentary changes in one’s facial expression that flash only briefly on the face before disappearing. A twitch of a muscle here, a slight narrowing of the eyes there can reveal much more than more obvious facial expressions. This is especially true for adults, since most adults have learned how to camouflage their facial expressions when the situation calls for it.
And because micro-expressions are so fleeting, you’d have to film your encounters and study them frame-by-frame to pick up on them. That’s why some experts say to just trust your instincts when interpreting someone’s body language—your subconscious mind can pick up on these micro-expressions, even if your conscious brain can’t.
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