Do I have a body language speech impediment?
November 5, 2009 2:35 PM   Subscribe

I've been watching a lot of Lie to Me, and it's making me think that I've got an answer to why I get misinterpreted a lot; is it possible that my microexpressions are "wrong"?

So there's this US TV show called Lie to Me, which is based on the study of microexpressions and the work of Paul Ekman and others.

The premise is a lot like reading "tells" when playing poker, and goes like this, simplified:
1) when you smell something bad, you make a "stink-face"
2) pretty much everyone everywhere makes the same "stink-face"
3) even if you're trying to be polite or conceal your reaction, the mind-body(face) connection is so strong that unless you're very highly skilled, the "stink-face" is going to flash across your face as a microexpression
4) some people can consciously and clearly read these microexpressions in the faces of others, making them natural lie detectors; but most people only register them subconsciously. Even the subconscious registering of them is how we get clues to the emotional or mental states of others, to the point that people who can't read faces at all usually get diagnosed with a disorder like autism or Asperger's.

Now I've always had a problem going in the other direction; people seem to take subconscious cues from me that aren't accurate. They'll think I'm lying when I'm telling the truth, or that I'm upset about something when I have no feelings either way about it.

Could it be possible that my microexpressions are somehow off-kilter? Do I have a body language speech impediment?
posted by bartleby to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm pretty sure most are considered to be universal, so I doubt you're "broken" in any way. That said, there are some things we do without realizing that can give off impressions we don't mean. Crossing your arms (angry, upset), avoiding eye contact (upset, embarrased) or even standing too close to people (angry, confrontive) could get misinterpreted if you're not aware of what image you're projecting. Body language does "speak" volumes, and perhaps you're a bit different in the way you present yourself, and so people pick up different cues?

I've been told that I seem angry or irritated when I'm focusing hard, and found it was because I was furrowing my brow and squinting a bit to read. So maybe you could ask people what it is that makes them think you feel that way. It could give you some cues into minor changes you could make. At the same time, you could just be surrounded by people who don't know you very well or are just plain lousy at reading emotions.
posted by gilsonal at 2:41 PM on November 5, 2009

Echoing gilsonal, I find myself strongly put off by people who do not meet my eyes when they talk to me. Maybe this is one of the things you do?
posted by meadowlark lime at 2:47 PM on November 5, 2009

People who first meet me often seem to think I'm lying or insincere when I'm not. It's annoying at Customs sometimes, and it was a major pain when dealing with new/recent employees when I had those, but in longer-term interactions folks seem to adjust and learn to 'read' me more accurately after a couple of days or weeks. It's not eye contact, since I'm not shy about that and I'm pretty conscious of it, it's something less effable. A friend calls it "surface shifty but deeply honest."

I don't know about you, but in my own case I think the cause is some low-level ADD/multitasking thing happening. I'm answering your question with all the attention I can muster, yes, but there's still one corner of my mind that's going "Wow, look at the font on that exit sign over there, that's so wrong. And who makes an exit sign blue, anyway?"

I have a lot of these conversations with girlfriends who are trying to be nice:

"I saw your squished up face after I asked about the new sofa. You hate it, right?"
"Ha. No, I like it fine. I was thinking about what a weird word 'sofa' is. Sofa. Sofa. What is that, Turkish?"

I say all this so you feel less alone in your plight, but also so you can expand your theory to include this 'learning curve' option, where people can probably adjust their readings of you over time, too. Encourage your friends to ask what you're thinking when they see a 'face', and explain honestly, and maybe they'll pick up your own personal cues.
posted by rokusan at 2:50 PM on November 5, 2009 [6 favorites]

Took a seminar on microexpressions while working in state government. The judges (and we clerks) were being trained to recognize them, and find appropriate reactions to them. And here's what I learned which is relevant here:

Microexpressions are pretty damn subtle. We sat all day trying to decipher them, and got nowhere. And there's no indication that there is a very subconscious response that we have to them either. We're seriously talking a LOT of training needed to detect these facial expressions. This isn't just something that Aunt Sally is going to pick up on subconsciously in a conversation with you about her new Precious Moments figurines.

If you have a body language problem, it is more likely OVERT rather than subtle. You cross your arms across your chest. You roll your eyes absentmindedly. You have an inscrutable face. Those are NOT microexpressions. Those are just regular old body language - which we DO have a much better chance of reading and misreading than microexpressions.

I fall into your category. I'd have retired at the ripe old age of 27 if I had a dollar for every time someone said, "I thought you hated me when we met." (My ex used to call me "his robot.") I don't smile - not genuinely, at least. It is kind of sad, but smiling feels REALLY unnatural for me. Every once in a while, I smile and then turn to face a mirror just to check to see if I have a smile on my face - and invariably, a blank neutral face stares back at me. I have actually practiced what a smile feels like in order to better "learn" how to smile.

I also have terrible body language. I have struggled with my weight forever, and although I am a pretty skinny guy, I have bad body image issues: I cross my arms across my chest instinctively in almost every situation. It is a well known defensive stance. And I suppose in some way, I'm being defensive. I don't want people to look at me from the neck down. But it has NOTHING to do with what other people are saying to me.

I'm also a terribly anxious person. I blush in a light breeze. And growing up, my adrenaline would start pumping and I'd have the physical "fight or flight" reaction in even the most benign situations. Everyone always thought I must have been lying to react in such a guilty manner. Nope. But there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

I'm not a microexpression professional. I'm not a body language interpreter. But I'm someone who has this experience, and my vote is for "overt" rather than "microexpression" reaction.
posted by greekphilosophy at 3:14 PM on November 5, 2009 [9 favorites]

Ignoring "Lie to Me", as I've only seen ads for it, I've been reading Dr. Paul Ekman's, who is the person who codified microexpressions, stuff for years. I've got his training CDs and just about everything he has produced that doesn't cost a huge amount of money. I can tell you that there is a whole other level of a conversation that I began to understand once I started applying his stuff to my real life.

From my own observations, I can tell you that there are people who have the "wrong" microexpressions, and people who have overactive microexpressions. People who have the "wrong" microexpressions don't seem to have them continuously. Generally they occur when the person isn't saying what they are thinking, but this means nothing other than that they are feeling something other than what they are expressing verbally. Like when someone comes up with a really good idea and expresses it with verbal confidence, except that the corners of their lips are pulled back and down, which is a subtle expression of fear. It may be that they are afraid that their idea is lame, or that they think their idea is great but they are concerned about what someone else might think about it, or that they just remembered they left their stove on.

People who have overactive microexpressions have them pretty much continuously and display them before they say anything, just after they see something for the first time, when they hear new information, whenever something in the environment changes...etc. They just have incredibly noisy expressions and it is hard to separate out relevant from irrelevant expression information.

On preview, greekphilosophy is right, they are pretty damn subtle. In fact Ekman breaks them down into mirco-expressions and subtle-expression. A lot of the 7 subtle expression look identical at the lower levels, except for contempt. And please ignore the halfassed nature of this comment. I am eating and don't have much time tonight.
posted by 517 at 3:28 PM on November 5, 2009

The whole point of "micro-expressions" is that people don't notice them or pick up on them without looking for them specifically. Frankly I think the whole thing is B.S anyway.
posted by delmoi at 4:21 AM on November 6, 2009

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