How to Misread Facial Expressions

I like to think that watching so many TV dramas makes me some sort of a detective. CSI taught me how to think like a criminal. Lie to Me taught me how to catch someone in a fib. Bones taught me how to identify the age, weight, gender and cause of death of a person just by looking at their corpse (or occasionally, a quarter of an inch of their hair follicle). Most importantly, House MD taught me how to read people. For example, someone’s wearing a brightly-colored, plush scarf even though it’s 60 degrees outside? They’re planning on meeting their OKCupid crush later today and they need a recognizable article of clothing so they don’t end up going home with GetInTheVan69 instead of CarsAndTrucksDude47. See? I nailed it.

Unfortunately, human interaction in real life doesn’t always work out the way it does in television. (If it did, I’d be a world renowned journalist leading a double life as a country singer and my husband from marriage number one would turn out to be my brother from my long lost birth mom and I’d probably have some sort of terminal illness so, really, real life might not be that bad.) What TV doesn’t tell you is how easy it is to be totally and utterly wrong about a person’s actions or emotions. Like anything else in life, I learned this lesson the hard way.

It was a bright and sunny day on my college campus. Students were sprawled out on a hill, pretending like the impending tuition hikes didn’t even bother them, and workers, under the impression that the college’s grass had been sprayed with some mutant growth hormone, were mowing the lawn for the 8th time that day. In other words, any person with an emotion other than happiness was mentally filed under “suspicious” in my mind.

I was walking into my building when I spotted a friend of a friend shuffling around the corner with two grocery bags, so I held the door. This is where I made the first mistake because everyone over the age of 18 (which is when adulthood cynicism starts kicking in) knows that doing nice things never ends well.

It was around this time that I noticed the miserable expression on the guy’s face and began to set my embarrassing plan in motion. Instead of connecting his expression to the fact that he had just hauled two grocery bags across campus, I assumed his depressed look stemmed from something more serious, like a death in the family or an unlikely squirrel attack. So, like the detective I am, I had to investigate.

“What’s wrong?”

He paused and, with a confused look that signaled my mistake, responded with:


It was at the moment that I suddenly remembered how serious his face always looked, that he was just one of those people whose eyebrows were angled in just the right way to make him look angsty all the time. By asking what was wrong, I had just insulted his existence, his genetic facial construction, his entire family line.

In that split second, I had the choice between acting like nothing had happened or explaining my situation and because I like to dig my own awkward grave, I went with the latter.

“Oh, no, I just thought you looked sad or something…I mean, you kind of look sad right now…Or I thought you did…But I guess you’re not…”

The key to misreading facial expression lies not in the misunderstanding itself but the length of the pause after the event occurs. The longer you wait, the more time the awkwardness has to brew. With a nod and look of shame, I entered the doorway after him, continuing to walk in the same direction (because why not extend this miserable experience for 3 flights of stairs) until I was able to safely escape into my dorm room, into my bed, and under the covers for eternity.

I’ve always been one of those annoying children who insist that 5 hours of television in the middle of the day isn’t entirely detrimental to your brain. (“But mom, I learned how many tentacles jellyfish have. That is essential information. What if I become a marine biologist? I’m getting ahead of the game.”) So, naturally, I concluded that the investigative skills that I had gained from my mental database of TV shows would make me the campus psychologist, but it didn’t exactly turn out that way. So now I’ll turn the question over to you. Have you ever jumped to conclusions about the way a person was feeling? How did you get out of it? You can send your answers to 151 Tyler’s Awkward Grave, where I will be until I dig my way to China.

Featured image via Shutterstock

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