Monday, October 14, 2013

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

This is another installment in the series about Body Language.  This week, the focus is the mouth.  The mouth is an expressive indicator of mood and thoughts.  It is fundamental to reading body language.  Many know chewing the lip can be an indication that the individual is experiencing uncertainty, anxiety, or worry.  I find that chewing your lip is an action I see a lot in books since it is an obvious sign of distress. 

Placing your hand over your mouth can be polite if yawning or coughing.   But it can also be a “cover” to hide your emotional reaction.  The hand might hide a smile, smirk, or disapproval—an expression that the person might otherwise be unable to stop but still not want anyone to see.            

Smiling is one of the most complex issues to read.  There are fake smiles and genuine ones.  But how do you tell the difference? 

The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease describes the first recorded scientific studies into smiling performed by nineteenth century French scientist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne.  He used electrodiagnostics and electrical stimulation to differentiate a real smile from one that is not.  He discovered that the smile is controlled by two sets of muscles—the zygomatic major muscles and the orbicularis oculi.  The zygomatic major pull the mouth back to show the teeth and enlarge the cheeks.  The orbicularis oculi narrow the eyes and cause what’s commonly referred to as “crow’s feet.”

Zygomatic major muscles, which run down the side of the face and are attached at the corners of the mouth, are consciously controlled.  Therefore, they are the muscles used to produce false smiles that attempt to create the appearance of being friendly or subordinate.  Conversely, the orbicularis oculi, next to the eyes, are independent and reveal a real smile.   One sign of a sincere smile are wrinkle lines beside the eyes.   This is the reason that a smile might be described in a book as “not reaching the eyes” since an insincere smile doesn’t engage the orbicularis oculi muscles. 

The next time someone smiles at you, look at what part of the face is engaged to discover true intent.   And if they cover their mouth while doing it, beware.  It may not be the friendly conversation it appears to be on the surface.   



  1. Nice post, Lisa. Interesting about the different face muscles that are used to create a real vs. false smile. I will watch smiles more closely now, looking for the tell-tale effects. ;0)

    And I've also heard that covering your mouth--or partially covering--while you're talking (or when someone else does) is a subconscious signal that you don't want to be saying what you're saying. Almost like the body trying to actually close off the mouth. Interesting stuff to think about. It's fascinating the things we say with our bodies without even realizing it.

    Thanks for sharing more on body language. We can all used the pointers to deepen our fictional emotion.

  2. Hi, Lisa. You got me thinking! (And that's always a good thing.)

    A couple of years ago, I read a mystery by J.F. Englert called _A Dog About Town_. The dog was the protagonist and the story was in his POV as he set about solving the mystery of his owner's disappearance. One of the many cool things about it was the dog tried to communicate, but knew people would misunderstand his doggie ways. One of the issues was smiling. We think dog's smile because we read their faces that way, but really they don't have the musculature. Still the doggie hero did the thing that looks like a smile to make the person he loved feel better. Sweet!

    But it just goes to show how invested we are in the body language of the mouth--and how a writer can use it to tell a great story.

  3. Who knew so much lurked in the smile?

    I find your series of body language tips so fascinating. Since reading your last installment, I've paid more attention to how authors use the body to paint a broader picture. Like chewing the edge of a thumbnail (akin to nibbling on your lip).

    Keep it coming !

  4. Thank you, Mackenzie. I thought the fact that different smiles use different muscles was interesting as well.

    That's an interesting point about covering the mouth. I think that was mentioned in the book. I'll have to go back and look. There's so much to learn about body language. It's a fascinating subject.

  5. Nichole - Thinking IS always a good thing. LOL

    I like your point about the dog. There were some pictures of primates in the book. One showed a smile used to appease and appear friendly and one was a genuine smile. It was interesting that the dog character learned that skill.

    Speaking of dogs, a trainer once told me that over-exaggerated yawning is a sign that the dog is stressed. I've noticed mine do that yawn at the vet.

  6. Thank you, Shellie. I've always found body language fascinating. Any time I see an article about it, I try to read it. The first time I studied it, I was in a graduate business class on negotiation. I've been hooked on the subject ever since.

  7. For some reason, Lisa, your post sent chills down my spine! I'm all of a sudden thinking about serial killers and how to game the system to make it look like your smiling "for reelz." Eek!

    But also, what fun! I love reading things that prompt story ideas to swirl in my head.

    I recently hid my OMG reaction behind my hand when some office furniture was delivered. It is ugly as sin. I'm afraid the hand over mouth thing didn't work all that well as NOBODY misunderstood the horrified look in my eyes and the retching sound coming from my throat. Guess I'm going to have to work on that whole cover it up thing!

  8. Keely, thank you for your comment. I guess if serial killers can master disguising their reactions, the results could be devastating.

    Maybe if they deliver more office furniture, you should excuse yourself to keep from reacting. We received some of that hideous office furniture a couple of years ago. I understand the horror at thinking this is what you have to live with.