Written in the Face

Kate Chapman

There is an intimate and complex relationship between the internal feelings and the appearance of the face, static or in motion, which can result to some extent in a wordless explanation of the inner and past life of an individual. This piece will explore the semantics of the wordless story that is written in the face.

In consideration are two modes in which the face is a vehicle for wordless communication: the corporeality of the face and the face in motion. The first, the static physicality of the face, opens the floodgates to consideration of the relationship between the social and the biological and the past and present. Facial expressions are sometimes considered to be external reflections of emotions. Features such as sunburn, dark circles under the eyes and paleness can wordlessly communicate the recent history of individuals, such as a holiday, lack of sleep, illness or nervousness. A longer-term history can also be gleaned from the face: repetition of certain expressions, taking the smile as an example, shapes and moulds the aesthetic of the face, causing wrinkles at the edges of the mouth and eyes. The simple physicality of the face, without the animation of its muscles and eyes, reveals information otherwise imperceptible unless communicated by the voice with words. The present physicality of the face is a wordless story of the latent, social history of its wearer.

It is interesting, though, that while in many societies happiness (of which laughter is a likely correlate) is held as at least one of many ideals, the physical effects of the achievement of this ideal necessitates the indication of the passing of time. The evidence of a happy life of laughter collides with human attempts to preserve youth, resulting in the use of makeup and plastic surgery. The face might be considered a historical product, or the product of an inner history, or wordlessly externalised personal history. The covering or modification of the face might be seen as a rejection of history, and an attempt to deceive.

The animation of the face enhances its wordless communication profoundly. Facial expression is the subject of a great deal of literature, within which a central debate surrounds the Universality Hypothesis which has its roots in work by Darwin and which suggests that there are a collection of basic emotions which could be universally recognized by the same facial expressions. This essentially suggests that facial expression its interpretation is universal. Implicitly, one could then say that all humans, regardless of their culture or language or standard of language within their own culture, could wordlessly communicate several basic emotions. Facial expressions, in this case, could be considered far more reliable for the communication of the inner than words with their mutable and malleable meanings. The face, according to this theory, is a ubiquitously understood language of emotion.

However, many have contradicted this, suggesting that the semantics of the face are culturally variable. In 2012 Jack et al. conducted a challenge to the Universality Hypothesis, electronically generating the mental representations of the six basic facial expressions of emotion in 30 Western and Eastern culture individuals. They concluded that universality can be challenged in two ways, namely and fundamentally the actual set of expressions associated with the six basic emotions, as well as specifically Eastern use of eye movement in association with emotional intensity.

If this is taken to be true, then like languages of words, the face is another culturally variable form of communication. One learns to ‘read’ a face to discern the semantics of its movement the way one learns to read words. The lexical muscles of the face coordinate to form expressions analogous to words and phrases.

Having established the complexity of the relationship between the face and its interpretation by a second party, it is worth considering the relationship between the face and its wearer, between the exterior and the interior. The face as the truthful, wordless, voice of the interior, or the externalised interior, would be one whose expressions are involuntary and which is naked. The denial of human agency in the appearance of the face, static or in motion, is essential if it is to be a wordless and truthful reflection of the interior, more reliable than the words spoken from the mouth which are rarely involuntary and whose meanings waver and transform throughout the linguistic map of the world’s communities. Yet it would be false to deny the agency of the human in producing facial expressions, as facial expressions can be generated out of sync with the interior, leading to disjuncture between the inner and the outer.


This facilitates deception, transforming the face into a deep mine of expression. Realising that an expression does not correlate entirely to the interior (essentially bad acting) requires a mental representation of how the expression should be and, in parallel, identification of how the given, deceitful expression falls short of this. If Jack et al.’s study is to be taken as fact, establishing the emotion associated with a facial expression, and whether or not a facial expression is true to the interior feeling of its wearer, requires a highly nuanced and culturally specific mental map of the panoply of facial expressions within a given culture.

This is interesting given the emphasis that is placed on the face in the British justice system. It is illegal for a witness to cover their face while testifying in court, a setting in which the role of truth is paramount. Women are no longer permitted to wear the niqab while testifying; Mary Dejevsky suggests in her article in the Independent about the case of Rebekah Dawson that ‘Judge and jury needed not just to hear her words with their own ears, but to see her demeanour with their own eyes.’ This suggests that in the UK the role of the face is seen as one that can confirm or betray the spoken word through its communion with the interior, or at the very least this argument is used to pass through measures such as this one.

Yet if accurate reading of the face requires highly culturally conditioned learning, can it be assumed that a multi-cultural jury will detect the semantics of the expressions that the wearer does or does not want to convey in order to determine the truth of their words? It is likely that the jury already knows the background of the testifier that can be gleaned from the static physicality of the face. But Jack et al.’s study of the cultural relativity of the production and reading of facial expressions suggests that the animation of the face may not be so communicative of the truth, or if it is then it cannot always be interpreted as such, especially given the ability to deceive, to detach the exterior from the interior. The face is wordlessly and truthfully communicative, but only to those who know how to read the language of the face of its wearer, to recognise the configurations of their lexical muscles and to identify shortfalls in expressions that suggest that they may be being generated out of sync with the interior.

The writing of the wordless story in the face is tangled in cultural nuance. The face best and most widely communicates in its corporeality, which is moulded and shaded by the immediate and far-off past of its wearer. Where the face comes into rapport with the interior, with the emotions and agency of its wearer, the understanding of the semantics of this kind of wordless communication of the face becomes a product of the relationship between the animation of the face and the reader of the face. Facial expression is not simply a universal exhalation of the interior; rather, its production and interpretation is culturally conditioned. While the face always wordlessly communicates something, what it communicates is wound in a labyrinth of intent and interpretation.