It’s Christmas day, and everything should have gone just in its right way, except it doesn’t. Your 3-year nephew starts crying suddenly and your sister has to comfort him. Just at the moment of her standing up, she accidentally knocks over your grandma’s favorite glass and it breaks into pieces.
Your nephew’s crying loudly, so you have to deal with the mess on the floor for your sister. When the noise finally ends, you find everyone smiling, but with a smile that doesn’t really look like a smile. The atmosphere is truly embarrassing, and all you can do is telling a joke which nobody laughs at.
This is really common for festivals like Christmas when all the families come together but things don’t go as you expect. People tend to use fake facial expressions to adapt to the complex social environment.
Faking facial expressions
Your face will mirror what you’re experiencing inside your own head and body. Facial expressions are a reliable way for humans to communicate and understand each other’s feelings, usually cutting through linguistic and cultural differences.
But there are more. They can also indicate behavioral requests and intentions. For example, a sad face tells others you need comfort, and your mum’s angry face tells you the consequence if you don’t behave.
Facial expressions are useful tools for communication, except we often fake them to cover what we are really thinking. When you receive a hideous gift from Aunt Mabel, you may want to rush into the shop to return it immediately, but you still smile to her telling her you like the gift. Your lips pout for one second, and then the corners of your mouth turn up.
You put masks on your face, from smiling to your aunt to laughing at a joke that you secretly don’t get. People keep a “straight face” when they are trying to hide or neutralize their true feelings.
Theories of facial expression tell us that the social environment is important to individuals and that interpersonal signals, intentions and shared social contact dominate how and why people use their expressive faces. To put it in a simpler way, it’s who we are communicating with that decides what facial expressions we use.
In a Christmas context, if you prioritize peace and goodwill in your family gatherings, you may need fake facial expressions to cheer the atmosphere up.