Eyes are the window to the soul, as the saying goes. And with face masks now an increasing part of our 'new normal', these words have never rung truer.
Say what you want about the efficacy of face masks, one thing is for certain: they make communication more difficult. With the mouth and cheeks hidden from sight, us Britons – already notorious for missing social cues – have only the upper half of the face to rely on.
It's a recipe for face-to-face confusion. How to politely say no? How to tell someone that they are edging far closer than two-metres? And of course the all important question: how can we tell if somebody is being flirtatious?
Fay Beck is an acting coach and studio director at Actors Door Studio Limited. She says that while facial coverings "do block some of the indices that have been identified as important in recognising emotion," the majority of those "are still visible to the observer as they are found in the eye area."
"While we may not see what the mouth is doing, we can nonetheless understand what it might be doing simply by observing the resulting actions in the upper facial eyes area," Beck says. "For instance, when certain lower facial muscles contract or extend, they ‘pull’ or ‘push’ the upper face in particular, recognisable ways. Complex emotions produce combined facial actions. So for example if one is ‘happily surprised’ we expect a combination of the actions seen ‘happy’ and ‘surprised’ faces."
To explain what she means, Beck enlisted the help of David Mullenger, one of the studio’s recent graduates, to depict some of the most common facial expressions. Here's how to recognise them:
1. Back off
The 'back off' expression is a crucial part of British society. For the bolder ones among us, it's the face you make when someone reaches for the last pot of Waitrose essential guacamole that you'd been eyeing up since the start of the aisle. For others, it's the face we save for when someone outside of our bubble comes a little too close on a socially distanced park walk. Either way, it's a good one to be aware of – particularly if you find yourself regularly on the receiving end of it.
"Good screen actors can reveal subtle changes and combinations of emotions with small changes in eye and eyebrow area," says Beck. "We recognise threatening faces through an opening of the eye, as if to instill fear in the other person."
You've probably spotted a pair of lockdown daters by now: two people clad in masks taking a socially distanced walk around the park, sharing muffled giggles and antibody test results.
But how do we know if somebody is expressing interest in us? It's common knowledge that eye contact is crucial to flirting. In a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers found that participants who gazed into each other's eyes for prolonged periods were more likely to report feelings of affection for the other person. Socially distanced daters, take note.
According to Beck, the path to true love lies not only in the eyes, but the cheeks too. "The raising of the brows here indicates that one is impressed, while the raised cheeks indicate an open smile," she says.
Ah sarcasm. An integral part of the great British humour, we've had plenty of opportunity to practice over the past months. "Oh, I simply LOVE homeschooling. Harry's being the dream," a friend WhatsApps you. "He hasn't touched Fornite ONCE."
For Beck, a sarcastic face is a prime example of a complex emotion, where two different expressions meet.
"The eyes scrunching up, or tightening indicates the smile (the sarcasm). The slight furrowing of the brow indicates light anger/frustration," she says.
Aloof, in denial and unapologetic, a defensive look is the Dominic Cummings of the facial expression world. Now personal space has become even more crucial to we naturally stand-offish Brits, it's paramount that you're aware of this expression. If you find yourself doing it a lot, you could be getting social-distancing cues slightly wrong.
Here, we have the added benefit of a hand gesture, making defensiveness easier to distinguish from other similar expressions, such as anger.
"This is another complex behaviour showing surprise and confusion. The body language indicates one abdicating responsibility," says Beck. "Meanwhile, the open hands indicate submissiveness."
Smile and the world smiles with you, so they say. But that's easier said than done when our faces are concealed beneath a mask. A joyful expression tends to be one of the harder facial expressions to read when our mouth is covered, primarily because we grow up learning that a smile is the main indicator of happiness.
"We recognise this is a happy face because the eyes appear to be ‘scrunched’ up. They are scrunched up because the smile pushes up the cheeks closing the eye," says Beck.
With this expression, it's crucial to remember that not one smile fits all. There's an obvious distance between, say, an ecstatic grin for your son's graduation, or a subtle mouth shrug for when the neighbour asks you to look after their cat for the fourth time that week. Even though your face is covered, it's important to stick to these social guidelines and not overplay your smile. Too much enthusiasm could see you lumbered with the feline friend everyday.
Out of all the facial expressions we've pulled during lockdown, a confused face has to be one of the most common. If living through a global pandemic wasn't enough to incite this expression from you, then the daily press briefing was likely enough to tip you over the edge into pure bewilderment.
The key thing to look out for here is the eyebrows. "Confusion is observed here when we see seemingly contradictory facial actions, surprise on the one hand, characterised through a widening of the eyes and raising of the brows, and anger or frustration on the other," says Beck.