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