Masked and mixed facial expressions (explained)


A mixed facial expression is the one that someone makes when they’re experiencing two or more emotions at the same time. It is not true that we only feel one emotion at a time.

We’ve all had those experiences where we are confused to the point of not knowing how we’re feeling. “I don’t know if I should be feeling happy or sad”, we wonder.

What actually happens during such moments is that our mind gets caught in a web of two or more interpretations of the same situation, hence the mixed emotions. Had there been only one, clear interpretation we would’ve felt only one, clear emotion.

When the mind interprets a situation in many ways at the same time, it often results in a mixed facial expression- a blend of two or more facial expressions.

On the other hand, a masked facial expression is a result of suppression, conscious or unconscious, of an emotion. It usually manifests as a weak expression of the emotion but sometimes we also use opposite facial expressions for masking.

For example, if our face shows sadness and happiness at the same time, we might’ve used sadness to mask happiness or happiness to mask sadness.

Masked vs mixed facial expression

It is not always easy to distinguish between a mixed and a masked facial expression, the reason being that they often look very much alike and can happen way too quickly for us to notice. However, if you develop a keen eye and keep a few rules in mind, you can make the process of identifying mixed and masked expressions a tad easier.

Rule #1: ‘A weak expression is not a mixed expression’

A weak or a slight expression of any emotion is either a masked expression or it is simply the representation of the emotion in its earlier, weaker stage. It can never represent a mixture of two or more emotions, no matter how subtle it appears.

To know if it is a masked expression, you’ll have to wait a while. If the expression turns stronger then it wasn’t a masked expression but if the expression fades away, then it surely was a masked expression.

Rule #2: ‘Upper part of the face is more reliable’

This means that while analyzing facial expressions, you should rely more on the eyebrows than on the mouth. Even if some of us are unaware of how our eyebrows convey our emotional state, all of us know the difference between a smile and a frown.

Therefore, if a person has to manipulate his facial expression, he’s more likely to send the wrong signal with his mouth than with the eyebrows.

If you see anger in the eyebrows and a smile on the lips, then, most probably, the smile is not genuine and has been used to mask the anger

Rule #3: ‘When confused, look at gestures of the body’

Many people are well-aware that facial expressions can convey a myriad of emotions. But most people are not so sure about the body gestures.

They know that when they communicate, others look at their face and are keeping an eye on the expressions that they make. They don’t assume that people are also sizing up their body language.

Hence, they’re more likely to manipulate their facial expressions than body gestures. It is for this reason that if you observe anything confusing on the face, you should compare it with the non-verbals of the rest of the body.

Rule #4: ‘When confused, look at the context’

I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again, “If your conclusion doesn’t fit the context, then it is probably wrong.” Sometimes, when you’re confused between the masked and mixed facial expressions, the context might prove to be a saviour and deliver you from your predicament.

Putting it all together

You need to keep all the above rules into consideration if you want accurate results. The more rules you consider the higher will be the accuracy of your conclusion.

I’ll again give an example of a mix of the sadness and happiness expressions because it is more likely than any other blend of emotions to cause confusion. 

You see the sadness in a person’s eyebrows and a smile on their lips. You think, “Okay, the upper part of the face is more reliable so sadness is being masked by happiness.”  

But wait… it is risky to make a conclusion based on only one rule.

Look at the non-verbals of the body. Look at the context. Do they justify your conclusion?

Some examples

mixed expression

The above facial expression is a mix of surprise (raised brows, popped out eyes, open mouth), fear (stretched lips) and sadness (lip corners turned down). This is the kind of expression that someone would make when they hear or see something shocking and terrifying and sad at the same time.

mixed sad expression

This expression is a mix of surprise (popped out eyes, open mouth) and sadness (inverted ‘V’ brows, horseshoe wrinkle on the forehead). The person is sad and surprised at what he hears or sees, but there’s no fear.

mixed contempt expression

This guy is feeling slightly surprised (one popped out eye, one raised brow), disgust (nostrils pulled back, wrinkled nose) and contempt (one lip corner turned up).

He’s seeing or hearing something mildly surprising (since surprise registers only on one side of his face) that is disgusting at the same time. Since contempt is also shown here, it means the expression is directed toward another human being. 

masked facial expression

This one’s a good example of a masked facial expression. The upper part of the man’s face is showing sadness (horseshoe wrinkle on the forehead) but at the same time, he is smiling. The smile has been used here to mask the sadness.

This is also confirmed by the fact the smile is clearly a fake one. When we’re masking our true emotions, we often use a fake smile to convince the other person that we’re ‘fine’ or ‘okay’ with whatever’s happening. 

To give you an example as to the kinds of situations in which such masked facial expressions may be used, think of this scenario: His long-time crush tells him that she’s getting engaged to someone else and he replies, “I’m happy for you” and then makes this facial expression.