III 2018 – VIDEO 5 – If you see us not smiling
The ability to be able to ‘read’ facial expressions is a contested art. There are so many facial expressions and nuances of emotion that interlink and layer on top of one another, that the ability to truly ‘see’ what a person may be feeling from their facial expression, is a minefield of uncertainty. Facial expressions can be vastly difficult to read. A smile can have many different meanings and be displayed for many different reasons, including…
- Genuine happiness
- Friendliness and encouraging of positive social interactions
- It’s the ‘polite’ thing to do
- They do it all the time and it “means nothing”
- It’s a mask covering the real turmoil underneath
- Wanting or needing something
What we can do is to use all our senses to help understand facial expressions. To take into account all the social cues of the individual in question. This includes: their facial expressions; their body language (are they engaged and open to the interaction, or hunched over and turned away slightly); their voice pitch and tone; the way they are using their voice to communicate (the speed at which they talk or vocalise); and the proximity at which someone is comfortable with our interactions taking place.
Even when we take into account all these factors, especially when spending time with people with profound and multiple learning difficulties and complex needs, it can be tricky to interpret the emotions that are attempting to be communicated. The emotions we display on our faces can also be hugely confusing for people to interpret back. Are they aware that we are mirroring our interpretation of their facial expression back to them? A vocalisation, word, or movement may be more easily recognisable, or may build a recognised response, especially if offered routinely in a communicative exchange to develop the sense of intentionality, but an expression is something which may not be seen by someone on their own face very often.
Sometimes when we are spending time with people, you may notice us with a very ‘neutral’ expression on our faces. Essentially we are attempting to remove all confusion associated with trying to ‘read’ someone’s facial expressions. We are trying to reduce the social confusion and possible sense of expectation that we may be inadvertently seeking by smiling. We do this with the intention of creating an open, communicative exchange, completely focused on the person we are interacting with and completely led by them. As the interaction progresses you may notice us increasing the excitement on our faces, or introducing a smile as our communication develops, and this is to celebrate the person we are with and express our joy and excitement at the interaction and communicative pathways that are being forged.
Facial expressions, and especially smiles, are sometimes very difficult to read. They are wonderful tools to have in our communicative repertoire, but it sometimes best suits the people we see to start our time together by not smiling, and seeming very minimal in our responses. This allows for true engagement and conversations to ensue, ensuring the societal pressure to ‘read’ other people, react ‘appropriately’ and perhaps ‘cheer people up’, does not become predominant in our interactions. This is not the purpose of our time with people, although the creation of trust and deeper connection may result in happiness on both parts.
So, if you see us not smiling, ask us what’s going on (preferably at the end of the session). We’ll be happy to chat to you about the purpose for our interaction and why joviality, at this moment is not part of it.