Writing facial expressions – three different reasons to smile

Body language, and in particular facial expressions, are a vital part of getting across characters and emotions in a story. Lists of their common meanings such as this cheat sheet or the database compiled by the Center for Nonverbal Studies, can be invaluable for writers in getting this right. But as a teacher I saw first hand that there are exceptions to even the most obvious of rules.

To most of us, a smile is a smile. It’s a way of expressing our happiness. Sometimes we fake it, but people can often tell the difference. One small high school class I taught, consisting of only half a dozen kids considered ‘challenging’ in their ability to learn or behave, showed me how many other things it could mean.

Aiming to misbehave

O was your classic troubled pupil. I never found out what was going on at home, but he had the attention span of a fruit fly and the gleefully malevolent humour normally seen in cartoon devils. O could have been a capable student if he could just sit still for three minutes at a time. But O didn’t want to learn. There was only one thing O craved, and that was attention.

When O smiled it was because he knew that attention was coming, and he didn’t care why. As the quickest route to attention was normally to misbehave, 90% of O’s grins meant that he was acting up, or plotting to act up. In a sense, O’s smile was still a happy smile, but it was a dark sort of happiness.

This isn't how O smiled, but it's how most teachers saw his grin.
This isn’t how O smiled, but it’s how most teachers saw his grin.

These things that I have learned

M was an adorable, politely spoken lad with a smile like an angel. You could have sat him and O on someone’s shoulders and thought you were in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. M was also autistic, so far along the spectrum that he could only function in a mainstream school with full time support.

If you’ve watched Scandinavian police drama The Bridge you’ll have seen a detective who is apparently autistic. She doesn’t understand social rules and conventions. She doesn’t smile because she isn’t having the same emotional experience as everyone else. Her face is set to a default.

M was similar, except that his default was a smile. I think he was genuinely happy most of the time, but that smile only showed a surface learning of the emotion. He didn’t understand how it worked in others, or how to expand upon it for himself. He just knew that nice people smiled, and so he smiled.

Smile like you mean it

Q was the most heartbreaking person I have ever met. He and his family had fled Afghanistan at a time when that country was in horrifying turmoil.

Q smiled a lot. It was a huge, nervous grin that split his face in half. He smiled when he was happy. He smiled when he was nervous. He smiled when he didn’t understand what people were saying, which happened a lot because his English wasn’t great. He smiled when he was being told off, which led many teachers to conclude that he was a troublemaker who they needed to deal with strictly. But punishing Q led to more inappropriate grinning, led to more frustration from teachers who thought their message wasn’t getting through, led to more trouble, led to more grinning, led to… You get the idea.

A couple of months after I first met him we found out what had happened to Q and his family in Afghanistan. He had seen horrifying things that had traumatised him for life, brutal crimes committed against people he loved. Somewhere in all of that physical and emotional violence he had learned to suppress his feelings beneath an uneasy smile. For all I know that smile kept people off his back for a while, maybe saved his life. But it made it almost impossible for him to function in the ways we’re used to. Our universal signifier of happiness had become, for Q, a signifier of fear. If he smiled on happy occasions it was just because he feared that the happiness would be snatched away. Most of the time, he was smiling because he was confused and afraid and had no idea what else to do.

Whatever makes you smile

Years later, thinking of those kids brings a tear to my eye, but it also makes me smile. I miss them more than anyone else I ever taught. I miss that whole class – O, M and Q, the sweetly gormless smile of P, the ever-changing expressions of the wannabe-rebel G. They were amazing kids, and ones our education system has almost certainly failed by now.

As a writer it’s incredibly useful to be able to use a single expression as a signifier of a standard emotion – smile means happy. It cuts through the clutter to convey emotion to the audience. But reality isn’t that simple, and if you can find ways to use other forms of smiling, other reasons to smile, then you can show your readers unexpected depth of characters, like I found with the real life characters in that class.

One day I’ll write a story about those smiles.

 

Picture by Randy Robertson via Flickr creative commons

Disagreeing with both sides – Mockingbird, Gove and the literary cannon

I have to make a confession, and I fear that my British readers are going to judge me harshly for it. It’s a stance that makes me wretchedly uncomfortable, but that I feel I must make. So here goes.

I don’t agree with a criticism of Michael Gove.

I'm as surprised as you are Michael.
I’m as surprised as you are Michael.

 

There. I’ve said it. Happy now? People are throwing stones at our much-maligned education secretary and I don’t agree with them.

But why?

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend

Lets be clear, I’m not saying that I agree with Gove. If we were to meet face to face we might just about agree on the benefits of breathing oxygen and not getting caught in bear traps. Except that we’d each wish that the other one was silenced by the trapper’s steel jaws.

When Gove says that the English curriculum should be about Shakespeare and Dickens I don’t agree, for the same reason that I don’t agree with his emphasis on dates and facts and British events in the history curriculum. I think it’s an old-fashioned, small-minded approach that limits pupils’ perspective, causes problems for teachers and misses many of the benefits of education.

But.

The wrong fuss

Many people I respect, including the Interesting Literature blog, have leapt up to defend the books being abandoned under Gove’s reforms. They point out the merits of books like To Kill A Mockingbird, which are being lost to the generation of pupils about to be taught under the Gove curriculum. They want them to stay on the curriculum.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the books they’re defending are greats, and that many pupils would benefit from reading them, but I think that misses the point.

Like Gove, these critics are defending a literary cannon. They are implicitly saying ‘these books mattered to me, so everybody should read them’.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, I think that’s crap. That’s the same thinking that got Gove to where he is, and that got their beloved books taken off the curriculum.

Skills and emotions

Education isn’t about cramming kids’ heads full of facts. They don’t need that. They have the internet.

Nor is it any longer about access to the classics. You can get them from a library, a charity shop, an online e-book store. In the UK, even those without my privileged access to technology can get hold of these books cheaply and easily.

Education is about teaching skills and building passions. Lessons in literature should teach pupils how to engage with books in an excited, critical way. They should build their passion for reading. And both of those things will be better achieved by letting the teachers pick the books. That way they can find books that they and their pupils will get excited about.

A pupil who is given a story they like, who develops a passion for literature, may discover countless excellent books in life. One who has books that mean nothing to them crammed down their throat will be put off.

Everybody’s tastes are different. Not everyone is going to love Macbeth or Grapes Of Wrath. Yes, some pupils will be surprised to find they enjoy them. But many will be unsurprised to find that they don’t. The person who can best make that call, who understands the pupils in each class, is the trained expert in literature and education who’s in there with them. Not a politician, not a literary critic, not a blogger or an outraged reader signing a petition, but an individual teacher living at the chalkface.

By all means criticise Gove’s narrow curriculum, but don’t try to replace it with one of your own. Instead give teachers the freedom to do their jobs.

‘There aren’t any shes’ – reading old books with a new generation

We are quite rightly cautious about how we expose young people to the literature of previous generations. There may be values and ideas in there that are no longer acceptable, like the infamous Tintin in the Congo or Enid Blyton’s golliwogs. But there are different approaches to this, as a four year old recently taught me.

The problem

I love Asterix the Gaul. The illustrations are fabulous, the adventures are exciting, the jokes are perfect for a kid or for an adult who grew up with them. All those silly names and enormous noses. Just brilliant.

But the Asterix books are, at their heart, very problematic. There’s the casual racial stereotypes on which they are built, which never quite reach Tintin in the Congo territory but can come damn close. There’s the fact that women are in short supply and when they do appear usually do so for the sake of comedy. Just occasionally they also get to be upset, rescued or the objects of lust – you can tell which women those are because they’re drawn differently. And underneath all this is an insidious racial and national essentialism – one nation, the Gauls, is made up of good and heroic people; another, the Romans, is made up of villains and incompetents. Looking at the broad strokes, as readers we’re cheering on a morally, physically and intellectually superior master race, who just happen to be largely conquered at the moment. When I put it in those terms I feel kind of creeped out.

So should we stop reading Asterix with children? Surely we don’t want them taking in these values? Lets stick with equally awesome but more enlightened texts shall we?

But then they won’t get Asterix, and that’s kind of sad.

From the mouths of babes

Despite all these qualms, a couple of weeks ago I found myself reading Asterix with my young nieces. Because, as I mentioned, Asterix is awesome, and they love the pictures. As we were reading, the Princess came out with a phrase that made me feel better:

‘There aren’t any shes’.

I was so proud. My niece, who is only five this week, was smart enough to recognise the gender inequality in that story and to want to challenge it.

Because a few stories like this, in isolation, won’t warp children’s views. I grew up reading Asterix and Tintin and I’m about as socially liberal as you can get. As long as the kids read other, more balanced stories, and get to discuss what they mean, then they’ll work this stuff out for themselves.

In fact, being exposed to old-fashioned stories, being given the chance to challenge them, may be an important part of developing those skills. It gives them a chance to work things out for themselves, to challenge the words they are presented with, to become independent thinkers. It also gives us, as adults, a chance to help them express what they’ve noticed and to think about it more deeply, which can only be a good thing.

It’s easy to underestimate the intelligence and agency of children. And it’s a sad thing, because treating them as smart and independent helps them learn to be smart and independent. So next time I’ll get the Asterix out again. And maybe I’ll ask if she thinks that all Spaniards look like the ones in the story. Lets challenge some racial stereotypes too Princess.

Some of my other writing – sf+f in education

I have to confess, this is not the only place where I blog. It’s the place where I blog about my favourite things – books, writing, science fiction and fantasy. But in my attempts to get paid for words, I also post elsewhere.

One of those places is Enroll.com, where I contribute to a blog about education. And being the nerd that I am, I let my sf+f interests enter into that from time to time. So, here are a few of the other nerdly things that I’ve written, in an attempt to indoctrinate young minds and their teachers into all things sf+f: