#215: 14 Ways to Describe Facial Expressions in English
Although you may understand some universal signs of happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, how exactly would you describe those facial expressions in English?
It’s complicated, right?
For example, when someone smiles is it always a happy smile? Or is it simply a polite smile? How would you describe that?
Similarly, how do you know someone feels disappointed? How does someone’s facial expression tell you?
In today’s Confident English lesson we’re going to dive deep into this world with 14 Ways to Describe Facial Expressions and microexpressions in English.
By the end of this lesson, you will be able to accurately describe those nonverbal signs of communication and the emotions behind them to create a visual image.
14 Ways to Describe Facial Expressions in English
Theme 1: Describing Eyebrows
Have you ever noticed the way a person’s eyebrows are drawn together when they’re frustrated, angry, or worried?
English speakers like to describe this as knitted or furrowed eyebrows. Writers and speakers use the expression to imply frustration, anger, or worry.
- Ex. Jackie furrowed her brows as she worried about her son’s health.
On the other hand, when someone’s surprised or amused, we see their eyebrows go up.
English speakers raise their eyebrows to indicate emotions such as, surprise, amusement, and bewilderment.
- Ex. Ken looked at his sister with raised brows as she told him that she’ll be moving to Australia.
Similarly, speakers show skepticism, disbelief, or anger when they arch one eyebrow.
English speakers describe this expression as an arched eyebrow.
- Ex. Cynthia arched her brow as she wondered whether her brother was telling the truth.
Theme 2: Describing Eyes
In many ways, our eyes are the windows to our soul. We use our eyes to communicate many emotions.
Do you remember how you felt when someone started talking about an unfamiliar topic? What expression did you have on your face?
It was probably an expression of confusion and cluelessness.
English speakers call this a blank stare.
- Ex. My question only drew a blank stare from my coworkers.
On the contrary, our eyes can also communicate feelings of mischief or joy.
Have you ever noticed the way someone’s eyes catch the light – their eyes seem to sparkle.
English speakers refer to the mischief or joy in a person’s eyes as a sparkle/twinkle in one’s eyes.
- Ex. I noticed the sparkle in my dad’s eyes as he waited behind the door to prank my mom.
Whenever someone experiences a sudden pang of jealousy, suspicion, or anger, we often notice a change in the eyes — they close partly.
English speakers describe this expression as narrowed eyes.
But be careful, it isn’t always negative. Narrowed eyes can also be a sign of determination.
- Ex. Everyone could tell from Jason’s narrowed eyes and frown, that he was jealous of his friend’s promotion.
However, when someone is feeling emotional or sad, we often see the tears well up in their eyes.
In this case, we describe the expression as teary-eyed.
- Ex. My mother was teary-eyed as she said her goodbyes and boarded the plane.
Theme 3: Describing Lips/Mouth
A simple smile can have several different meanings.
Just as we use our lips when speaking, we can communicate just as much when we’re not speaking.
Imagine your friend goes on and on about a political topic that you either aren’t interested in or don’t see eye to eye on. Since it’s your friend, you may not want to be rude and you give them a small smile.
That small smile is described as a tight-lipped smile. We use it when we’re disinterested or when we want to conceal our emotions.
- Ex. Kim gives Simon a tight-lipped smile whenever he talks about conspiracy theories.
Do you remember a time when you strongly disapproved or disagreed with a statement?
When you can’t express that feeling, or try to remain composed, you may notice a change in your lips.
English speakers describe this expression as pursed lips. The more intensely the lips are pursed, the stronger the feelings of disagreement, discomfort, or disapproval.
- Ex. John shook his head with pursed lips as the contractor told him the repair would cost an additional $300.
However, when we choose to express our anger and frustration, pursed lips tend to turn into a severe expression.
Naturally, we associate a frown with a feeling of negativity. When the negativity is felt deeply in the form of anger, our frown deepens.
This severe frown is described as a scowl.
- Ex. Mila clearly felt annoyed and had a scowl on her face for the rest of the night.
When the corners of our mouth are drawn down they express sadness or disappointment.
This can be described as a downturned mouth.
- Ex. Her disappointment upon hearing the news was evident from her downturned mouth.
Theme 4: Describing the Chin
In addition to scowling, a person is likely to express their anger or frustration by using their chin as well.
Imagine the expression a child has when you take their favorite toy away. Often, a frown is accompanied by a pushed-out chin.
We usually refer to this part of an expression as a jutted chin.
- Ex. Lily stared with a frustrated expression and a jutted chin when her father refused to give her chocolate.
Have you ever noticed the way a person’s body language changes when they feel superior, in an arrogant or snooty way?
In fact, the way they hold their chin is a telltale sign of how they feel.
English speakers often describe the intentionally higher chin as a raised or lifted chin.
- Ex. With a lifted chin and an arrogant expression, the department manager informed the staff that any changes would require his approval.
On the flip side, a raised or lifted chin is used to show defiance and determination.
When something takes us by surprise or causes disbelief, we usually have widened eyes and raised eyebrows.
But, what happens to the lower half of our face?
If we’re really surprised, our jaw tends to drop.
English speakers call this a dropped jaw. We even use it as an adjective by switching the order: jaw-dropping.
- Ex. The groom looked happily at his bride with a dropped jaw. Everyone thought she looked jaw-dropping.
Time to practice!
Based on what you learned in the Confident English lessons, practice with the activities below:
- Practice 1: Review the video lesson and describe the look on the woman’s face in the photo shared at the beginning. How would you describe it?
- Practice 2: Select 2-3 expressions from today’s lesson and try to describe how your face looked when you felt particularly surprised, happy, frustrated, or shocked.
The best place to practice and share is in the comment section below.
Have a fantastic Confident English Wednesday!
P.S. Are you looking for a community to provide support, help you stay motivated, and guarantee that you grow? Check out our Confident Women Community.
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