ALL IN A SMILE?
The Problem of Discerning People
I wonder if you've ever misjudged a person on the basis of their facial expression? Of course you have. We have all, at certain times in our lives, met people who have appeared outwardly nice when in fact they have turned out to be anything but nice.
Being genuine people is one of the great challenges of Christian discipleship. We must avoid the temptation to "put on a face" if such a mask is going to end up deceiving or hurting people. Job was all too aware of this problem and states for us the importance of being real or genuine:
"If I say, 'I will forget my complaint, I will change my expression, and smile,' I still dread all my sufferings, for I know you will not hold me innocent. Since I am already found guilty, why should I struggle in vain?" (Job 9:27-29, NIV).
Like it or not, we do not always discern people by the Spirit as we should. If we stayed close to the Lord all the time, we would enjoy the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit and not be tricked by the numerous false expressions made in order to lure us into a false sense of security.
There is a right way and a wrong way to smile authentically, to give one example. Most of us, because we are so trusting in our social interactions, aren't conscious of the "two smiles". We tend to assume that we are being told the truth when people speak to us and that the expression on a person's face actually reflects the feelings underneath. In Paradise this is certainly true, but on this fallen world it rarely is -- lies and emotional fakery are almost normal in most daily conversation.
So what shall we do about this? To begin with, we need to be conscious that a problem exists and fight hard not to be sucked into the world's spiritual atmosphere with all its confusing outer signals and signs. Once conscious we should start seeking to discern by the Holy Spirit. Easier said than done? Yes, more often than not. But I am today going to give you a back-up method of detecting whether a person is genuine or not which I reckon is about 80% reliable so that even if you don't have the Spirit always you will always have something to fall back on. But be careful. Don't use the keys I am going to give to you today as a substitute for spiritual discernment. They should be used only as a stop-gap.
The 42 Muscles
The human face has 42 different muscles which contract and contort our flesh. They convey a wide spectrum of meanings. The Lord has created us with these to help us communicate better. Let's take the muscles which cause us to smile, the zygomatic major muscles which stretch from each edge of our mouth to our cheekbones. When they're in action we normally assume that the person smiling is expressing an emotion associated with joy or warm feelings. However, as everyone knows, a person may be smiling outwardly while inwardly he is full of hate, envy, and suspicion.
There are two types of facial expression: voluntary (those which we can control) and involuntary (those which we can't). An involuntary facial expression is the kind we make without thinking when we experience something frightening, funny, pleasing or infuriating. These voluntary and involuntary expressions are controlled by two different brain centres.
There are, in all, about 7,000 different facial expressions, including 19 different types of smiles. The French anatomist Duchenne de Boulogne back in 1862 noticed one key difference between the "real" happy smile and the "fake" happy smile. Only when a smile is really felt will a certain muscle that wraps around the eyes contract, raising the cheek and crumpling the skin near the eyes into furrows of crows-feet. If the mouth-tugging zygomatic major muscle "obeys the will", Duchenne wrote, this second muscle, the orbicularis oculi, does not do so.
Amazingly, people rarely notice these things. One recent researcher videotaped 47 female student nurses watching two sets of film clips, one filled with disturbing images of skin burns and amputations, the other with delightful nature scenes. The students were told that this was an important test to see if they could keep calm on the job. When questioned by the interviewer, both during and after the film, they were told to act as if all the film clips were pleasant.
Ten nurses dropped out of the test -- they couldn't keep up the deception. Those who remained, though, were so good at covering their distress that people watching the videotaped interviews with the nurses did hardly better than chance at sorting out lies from truths. These observers included not only the ubiquitous college undergraduate but people drawn from just the professions you'd expect to be good at spotting lies: customs inspectors, psychiatrists, polygraph operators, police and secret service agents.
The research revealed many more Duchenne-type smiles during interviews after the nature film than after the disgusting film. Moreover, the nurses exhibited another kind of fake smile -- a "masking" smile. Just as the orbicularis oculi is hard to control, so are certain other muscles around the face -- ones that reveal disgust, sadness, fear or contempt. And here the problem is not prodding a muscle into action but keeping it still. Watching the dark blood spurt from a freshly amputated limb, the student nurse would instinctively grimace in disgust. She knows she mustn't, and masks it with a smile. But however hard she tries, she can't stop certain "disgust" muscles (such as one that puckers her nose) from contracting.
These may be said to be our "reliable" muscles. They're the ones that will give the well-trained observer a clue to our real feelings. Gladness, disgust, sadness, and anger, they each have their reliable muscles. However, about 10% of the population can control these muscles, so this method is not infallible.
But there are other clues that will betray a fake smile or concealed anger. Forced smiles are less symmetrical that heartfelt smiles. They stay on the face a little too long, and don't fade quite as smoothly. And sometimes our true feelings flash fleetingly onto our face before we can suppress them. These are called "micro-expressions" and are often less than a quarter of a second in length. Thus the micro-expression of despair will be sandwiched between two optimistic smiles.
There are other clues too. People gesticulate less with their hands when they're lying. Their voices rise in pitch with discomfort. Eyes blink more frequently, pupils dilate. People fiddle more with their face, their hair, their clothes. Other things change too (which are not visible to the naked eye but which can be picked up by polygraphs).
It takes time to learn to discern these physical symptoms. More importantly, though, is learning to discern by the Holy Spirit of God. Using a combination of the Spirit and physical signs is certainly desirable, though.
The Better Way
We need not fear to be genuine and truthful because "God is truthful" (Jn.3:33). It is our "natural" (spiritual) condition. Lying, on the other hand, is "unnatural" (carnal).
"The Lord detests lying lips, but He delights in men who are truthful" (Prov.12:22, NIV).
Lying is endemic in the world today. In a recent survey conducted in Norwegian schools, about 75% of teenagers thought lying was acceptable. "This is the nation that has not obeyed the Lord its God or responded to correction. Truth has perished; it has vanished from their lips" (Jer.7:28, NIV). "Therefore love truth and peace" (Zec.8:19, NIV).
"Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbour no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman, who despises a vile man but honours those who fear the Lord, who keeps his covenant when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken" (Ps.15:1-5, NIV).
Rather than contort our faces in unnatural expressions and poison our spirits, let us emulate the great Exemplar, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is "full of grace and truth" (Jn.1:14, NIV).
This page was created on 16 October 1997
Last updated on 15 February 1998
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