The types of facial expressions that most of us are familiar with are what are known as strong or full facial expressions.
All of us can easily recognize when a person is feeling happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc. just by looking at their facial expression because the expressions for these emotions are full, strong, and conspicuous.
But facial expressions displayed for these emotions aren’t always full or strong and can be slight or partial too. These slight or subtle versions of the different facial expressions are often hard to detect.
Ironically, these subtle type of facial expressions occur more frequently than full or strong expressions during conversations.
These subtle facial expressions are important because they tell us the instantaneous unconscious emotional reactions of people. In other words, they reveal the true feelings of people before they get the chance to hide/manipulate/suppress those feelings.
What is a subtle facial expression?
To understand the subtle type of facial expressions you need to understand what full facial expressions are. A full facial expression is the one in which all or most signs of expression are strongly present on the face.
A partial or subtle facial expression is the one in which all the signs are not present and those that are present are weak or hardly noticeable.
Full facial expressions are easily understood by all while subtle expressions may elude some of us.
Take the smile facial expression for example. Now a full smile expression has several signs in different areas of the face.
When all or most of these signs are strongly present, the smile expression is said to be full and when all the signs are not present and those that are present are weak, it is called a subtle or a partial smile.
Take a look at this image:
The lady is displaying a full-blown smile. Most, if not all, of the signs of the smile facial expression are strongly present
The mouth is open displaying teeth. The corners of the mouth are pulled back and upward, cheeks are raised and swollen forming wrinkles near the corners of the mouth that extend up to the nostrils forming an inverted ‘V’ around the nose. The lower eyelids are slightly raised resulting in a widening of the eyes.
The raising of the cheeks sometimes also results in the ‘crow’s feet’ wrinkles near the outer corners of the eyes which are probably hidden by the girl’s hair in this image.
The presence of all these strong signs indicates, without doubt, that the lady is feeling happy and amused.
Now, look at this one:
It is the facial expression of a subtle or a partial smile. The reason why it is a subtle smile is that all the signs of the smile facial expression are not present and those that are present are weak.
The mouth is unopened without any teeth display. The corners of the lips are slightly raised and pulled backwards. The cheeks are raised but very weakly such that they appear only slightly swollen. The wrinkles do get formed around the nose and the mouth but are very weak.
Lower eyelids are not raised and hence no widening of eyes is noticed. There are no ‘crow’s feet’ wrinkles near the outer corners of the eyes.
The important question that arises is, what emotional state does this subtle smile expression convey? Before I can answer that question I want you to take a look at an even subtler smile, the famous Mona Lisa smile:
The mouth is closed and hence no teeth display. Look carefully at how the corners of the mouth are very, very slightly raised. The left corner of the mouth is also raised. It appears horizontal because she’s looking at us at an angle.
Notice how the raising of the lip corners forms subtle pits near the lip corners on both sides of the face. Cheeks are not raised and swollen at all ergo no wrinkles but notice how the lower eyelids are slightly raised to widen the eyes.
This widening of the eyes and the slightly raised lip corners are the only signs that tell us it is a subtle smile. Had these two weak signs been absent, then it would’ve been a neutral face, not a smile.
The meaning of subtle facial expressions
When a person displays a subtle version of facial expression, it can either convey that the person has just begun to feel the emotion associated with that expression or the person is trying to suppress/conceal his emotion. To know the truth, wait for a while and see what happens.
If the expression becomes stronger, it means the subtle expression was just the initial weak stage of the emotion. If the subtle expression fades away, it means the person was trying to conceal his emotion and now has successfully achieved that end.
This is true not only for the smile facial expression but for all other universal facial expressions of anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise, and fear.