Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Body Language of the Head and Face

Charlotte Firbank-King

Last week, we discussed the body language of deception. This week, we will discuss the body language of the face and head, and next week, we will discuss the body language of hands, arms, feet, and posture. As we mentioned last week, the use of body language will greatly strengthen your reader’s understanding of your characters.

Body Language of the Face

The Mouth—Oh, Those Smiles

Smiling is one of the most complex of all movements. Over eighty facial muscles are involved in smiling, and there are many different types of smiles. Let’s take a look . . . .

A lopsided smile can mean a person is teasing or mocking. If  the skin at the middle, outside corner of the eyes have no crinkles, the smile is probably fake. Authentic smiles peak or change rapidly from a small facial movement to a broad open expression.

A slow smile can be flirtatious, indicating an attempt to seduce, especially if combined with sultry eyes.

If the corners of the mouth go up ever so slightly, it could mean the person is mocking or even challenging.

A tentative half-smile usually means nervousness, uncertainty or insecurity.

Other Emotions Shown with the Mouth:

Sometimes pursed lips—which usually signify disapproval—can twist to the side when people are thinking. However, this can be an intentional movement to hide an emotion or to deceive. Pursed lips that twist and pull to one side can show self-depreciation.

Of course, if the corners of the mouth go down, forming a frown, the mouth's owner is likely unhappy, especially if her lips are full and plump, forming a pout. However, if the lips are taut, the owner is more likely angry.

If lips are pressed tightly together, the person is likely defiant, angry or disapproving.

Biting the lip or sucking the bottom lip between one’s teeth usually shows uncertainty or embarrassment, but if the lips quirk up slightly at the corners, it could show suppressed humor.

If one side of the mouth goes up and the other side down, the person is probably scowling, although, if the eyes look happy, it could mean they are teasing.

If a person presses his tongue against his mouth, he probably is not interested.

Body Language of the Eyes:

Looking sideways often means the person is distrustful or unconvinced.

When a person closes his eyes longer than the time it takes to blink, it usually indicates that he is reining in his temper, is stressed, is alarmed, or feels despair. Simply closing the eyes can also be a way to “close” someone or something out, such as bad news.

If someone looks down at the floor a lot, he is probably shy or timid. If he keeps his eyes down, he could be showing submission. People also tend to look down when upset or when trying to hide something that affects them emotionally. When they are thinking and feeling unpleasant emotions (including guilt), they will often stare at the ground.

In Western culture, looking someone in the eyes usually means trustworthiness and openness. However, in some cultures, this same action is a sign of disrespect or is done only with family and close friends.

Eyes that are focused in the distance can mean the person is in deep thought—or that he’s just not listening.

Other Emotions Displayed with the Face:

If the jaw is jutted forward, the person is showing defiance, belligerence, or anger.

If a muscle twitches in the cheek or jaw, the teeth are probably clenched, which, of course, means suppressed anger.

Body Language of the Head

A dropped head can mean many things, depending upon other signs available. For example, if the eyes are narrowed, it could mean suspicion or suppressed anger. But if the eyes skitter around or if the lashes slowly lower, it could mean submission, coyness, or dishonesty.

Likewise, having a raised head can mean many things. If the head is raised and the eyes are angry and the mouth set, it could mean the person is defiant or offended. If the mouth also twitches, it could be an indication of inner distress. If the eyes are hooded and the mouth pressed firm, it could mean fearless anger. If they eyes flash, it could show defiance. If the eyes are normally rounded, the person could be amused or simply not feeling any strong emotion.

If the head is tilted to one side, it could mean the person is listening attentively, is curious, or is interested in the conversation or whatever is happening.

If the head is pulled back while tilted, it can show disbelief or suspicion.

Nodding, of course, means “yes,” and shaking the head means “no.” When these actions contradict the words being spoken, others should notice, as this signifies something isn’t right. The person is either lying or trying to deceive on some level, or is uncertain or uncomfortable.


I hope you learned something from this article. Next week we will discuss the body language of the hands and feet.

Here’s a challenge: go through your manuscript and replace every dialogue tag with an action or body language. Doing just this one thing will make your writing much more engaging. Try it.


  1. I went through my MG manuscripts a while back and got rid of all the dialogue tags that I could. (There were quite a few). I read where that is just one of the ways you can get into Deep Point of View with your writing.

  2. Charl, This is a handy list to keep in my file. Thanks.