Recently, sitting across from a student who’d received bad news in the form of a lower-than-expected essay grade, I said, “Are you angry with me?”
At the bottom of the last page I’d written some variety of the “See me” message.
“No,” she said, “That’s just my regular face.”
“Really? Because, if you’re upset, that’s okay. I know I’ve been mad at teachers who didn’t value my work the way I did. I’ve been right where you are, and it was frustrating. Sometimes I wanted to scream… but I want a chance to explain my reaction, if you can listen.”
“No,” she said, “I understand what you said.” She paused, “people tell me I look angry all the time.”
I described my criticisms anyway. She nodded as I pointed out each misstep. She gave every appearance of attention, attention I never quite trusted.
I ran into an online quiz recently that tested my ability to read expressions. Two Asians, one very white blond guy, and one African-American contorted faces in various exaggerated ways—a tilted head, corners of the mouth pulled up or down, forehead rippled or pinched, eyes sliding left, cast down, or opened wide—and I guessed among the four emotions offered for each.
But I missed a few, and my results were disappointing. The website said:
Your score means you’re slightly better than the average at reading expressions. And research suggests that people can improve their emotion recognition skills with practice. So keep an eye out for our forthcoming empathy-training tool, designed to boost your emotional intelligence. Sign up for our e-newsletter for updates on it.
Growing up in a fairly silent household, I believed I could read faces. Someone was miffed, disappointed, hurt, triumphant, blissful, full of themselves, or disgusted, and I thought I knew it.
Your semi-smile, semi-frown tells me you’re unhappy with what I just said. I can tell you’re sure it’s wrong. You’re just not saying. You’ll put up with me because I’m a decent person… sometimes… but—right now, in regards to what I just said—I’m full of shit.
Scientists say certain looks are universal. Every culture averts it eyes when another person approaches from a distance, and every culture raises its eyes as that person comes close. At the last moment, all of us look away.
We want to look. We yearn to communicate, yearn to believe in contact without words.
I believe in currents beneath surfaces—the dimple of motion in an otherwise calm patch is the least sign of deep upheaval. That gentle whorl is a tidal cataclysm brewing. The moon and sun make war in an achingly slow withdrawal. Lapping waves are really seething, restraining themselves but ready to amass, to pounce.
Like anyone who’s seen the Mona Lisa, I’ve stared at her, trying to answer if she’s smiling or not. I know all the art history stuff, how the perspectives of the landscapes on either side of her head don’t quite match and pull us out of kilter, how even the symmetry of her face is somehow—purposely, perhaps—off.
I try to forget what I’ve heard and look, really look, into her eyes. What’s in there, I want to know, what thought of hers might I match to my own, what sympathy will fuse us finally in absolute sympathy, perhaps love?
She always becomes a portrait again.
Some years ago now, a colleague pulled me aside to ask what was wrong. “You look at me with such disgust,” she said, “I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Are you mad at me?” I wanted to answer “No” and “nothing is wrong” but sensed it was too late.
Can others see something in your expression you don’t? Maybe I felt resentment more visible to her than to me. Or maybe, as I wanted to believe, my face settled on an uneven spot, a fault at odds with circumstance, something that felt put out not by her but by everything.
I didn’t know what to do but to assure her she was wrong.
She didn’t say so, but I’m certain she didn’t believe me. She trusted my face and not words.
In her place, would I have agreed?
“You can’t really know,” a friend said, “exactly what people are thinking.”
“That,” I thought, “is precisely what I’d expect you to say.”
Maybe there’s no alternative to belief.
If I think something I don’t feel, the tail whips around to lash the head. Foolishness is denial and denial foolishness—do I dare distrust what seems, in the moment, so momentous? Do I dare, with the weight of conviction falling on me, say I’m above hunches, brains knowing more than hearts or hands can?
The creeping dawn starts in fog and ends in sunlight, morning more confused than the balance of the day, which settles on a hard stare of blue sky and heat.
If you’d asked me earlier, I might have said something different than now.
When I met my wife, her eyes hit me first—so blue, but also so transparent, as if her blue were the color of truth.
I took a second test, on the NY Times site , and discovered my score of 30/36 meant:
The average score for this test is in the range of 22 to 30 correct responses. If you scored above 30, you may be quite good at understanding someone’s mental state based on facial cues.
Telepathy is a favorite superpower, and my students also often choose it over invisibility, super speed, flight, and telekinesis. Someone, however, always mentions the potential noise of reading minds, the many voices you’d hear all the time, every day.
“Wouldn’t you learn to block it out,” someone asks, “the way you listen to just the person you’re talking to in a crowded place?”
“Yuck,” someone else will say, “I don’t want to know what people are thinking. Too much information.”
Most of the time, I’m not really looking at people. Though we’ve locked eyes, I’m not aware of it, and, should I become conscious, I’m quickly self-conscious, outside whatever we’re discussing.
A strange intimacy arises when I recognize how engaged I am by someone’s eyes. I’m suddenly looking at my desperation full on. Something stirs.
“Here,” I could say to myself, “is lust, the purest sort, the kind that doesn’t want touch so much as tenderness and fixed understanding.”
“So,” I said to the student at last, “do you get it?”
“Sure,” she said, “I can fix it… I guess I just wasn’t sure what you were looking for. I had the wrong idea of what you wanted.”
I tried, with my eyes, to tell her I wasn’t disappointed, that what I wanted was the best she might manage. I meant to say I believed her best was exceptional, that I had faith in her.