Facial Expressions and Intent

I seemed to have stumbled upon an article recently I was rather interested in that seemed to resonate with some people on twitter, and wanted to write down some thoughts here.

This article is specifically about how facial expressions are not simple expressions of emotions, but are potential indicators of how someone wants to steer the social interaction.  I find this important, because as someone who doesn’t often make facial expressions (unless it’s genuine laughter, or, masking laughter), people seem to think I am cold/aloof/”off”/uptight/defensive, and even hostile. It may be that they are confused by my lack of emoting. They may simply not know what to do because I am not steering any of the social interaction. I’ve never thought about facial expressions in this way, and I think this explains why non-autistic people so readily misinterpret me.

This can make me come off as uninterested, uncaring, unenthusiastic, or sometimes even very calm and level-headed (if everyone else is in a panic). Essentially, by not providing that social response, people can read whatever they want into my still/unsmiling face. This explains to me why I often become the backboard of people’s emotions and assumptions. My face can stay the same, but context changes, people around me change, and suddenly (to other people) I am angry, or bored, or sad. I’m mostly referring to people who are acquaintances or strangers, people who don’t know me well or only met me once or twice. People who do know me understand that my face simply does not represent my emotions or intentions often, and understand not to “read into it” as some sort of social communication. 

If things like facial expression and possibly tone of voice are about social intention, rather than representing emotion, then I’ve not faired well at most of my social interactions. This also explains why I felt like (and saw how) I was being manipulated when I was very young, as people never meant what they said. However, this is simply how most non-autistic people talk to each other and make their intentions in a conversation known (“I’d really like X right now”), and so rarely recognized their words as potentially manipulative, even if I pointed it out (child me: “You are just saying Y because you want me to do X, but you’re not telling me you want me to do X! Why don’t you just tell me you need help with X?”). Most adults seemed taken aback when I told them to say what they meant, and they simply went on talking around the subject. It was so frustrating when I could clearly see what was going on, yet no one seemed to be telling me the truth. I know now that the lack of directness by adults was due to trying to not seem “rude” to a child by being direct to them.

I find the best way for neurotypical people to understand us is to learn about their own subconscious social processing. If someone doesn’t know that they are performing tasks subconsciously, then they can’t understand how much work it takes us to do the same task manually. 

Hopefully, more awareness of the intricacies of the neurotypical brain and of neurotypical subconscious social processing will allow for better communication between neurotypical and autistic people.

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5 thoughts on “Facial Expressions and Intent”

  1. This was a great read as I connected so much with it. I tend to be perceived as being either very intense or emotionally unavailable. It’s interesting whwat you said about expressions staying the same but the context changing. I hadn’t thought of that before but it has highlighted for me the impressions that people have had of me in various contexts, mostly when out clubbing or socialising; I always look like I am in despair when I’m actually quite content.

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  2. Yes, absolutely. Expressions, body language, and tone of voice represent social intent and only represent emotion within the cultural context of that intent. That’s why there are so many cultural variations in different societies in what emotions and intentions are being represented by different expressions and use of body language. The social processing part of the human brain is pretty amazing, especially now that I realize and understand that most people don’t even realize it’s happening. They believe they are just “reacting naturally” and, in a sense, I guess they are. But those natural reactions are almost entirely socially conditioned.

    I don’t know why or how it “clicked” for me, though not in those words or using those sorts of concepts, when I was 9 years old, but it did. I did have so much chaos around me, so little support, and so much universally negative feedback in every context and setting that the pressure was incredibly intense. That was probably a factor. But I was able to take that understanding and train my expressions, my prosody, and my body language using various tools and things I both observed and read into a reasonable facsimile of the things people around me were doing. It took a lot of effort.

    Prosody was the easiest. I kept working on it forever after, but several intense months with speech and later interpretive reading tapes and a tape recorder to hear myself, practicing every day mostly ingrained it. I proved those results with a public reading at a community talent show of a scene from King Lear (all parts) in the small town in WV near which we lived during those months.

    Expressions I practiced with a mirror and those began to improve over time. I still check myself in every mirror I pass to see if my face looks like what I believe it does. Body language was the hardest and the formal acting classes I took from 6th-8th grade at what was then one of the top children’s acting programs (at the Alley Theater in Houston) were really what helped me cross that hurdle. Even in still class pictures from each of those years, you can see the dramatic changes.

    It made life bearable for me, but the downside is that not even those who know me understand my “natural” expressions and responses. So every time those efforts slip or fail, which they inevitably do on a daily basis, they ascribe the wrong social intent and often the wrong emotions to me just like everyone else does. It’s one of the clues I’ve always used as a red flag indicator that I’m doing something “wrong” and I go into recovery mode where I try to “fix” the damage.

    It’s been a very difficult way to live at times. And I always, always, always blame myself when things go wrong, even when I can’t figure out why or what I did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. I can really relate to a lot of what you said in terms of learning to mimic other people (though I don’t think I did as much so explicitly). For me, I modeled prosody on my family and that was similarly the easiest thing to learn, though it takes effort to use prosody like an NT (the pitch changes honestly almost sound comical and so exaggerated to me). All I knew by junior high was that if I acted like myself, I was less likely to be listened to. I didn’t know whether it was based on intent or what. But junior high was when I started at least intentionally and consciously changing the way I interacted with my family so that I’d be listened to more. I also talked less as a way to reduce miscommunication or “arguments.”

      And I can really relate as well to what you said about facial expressions matching the inside. Honestly I kind of gave up on that because most people expected me to constantly smile all the time. I tried the whole constantly smiling thing for a few weeks and practiced in the mirror and everything but my face was so tired of using those muscles lol. I figured it wasn’t worth it anymore to keep that up, and it didn’t seem to make anything much better anyway (likely due to my tone of voice, and not knowing tone of voice was an actual thing until high school). Basically I’ve always known there was a social “game” so-to-speak, but I didn’t know it was literally based on intent, like everyone is consciously aware of what they are doing.

      This also explains to me why people think autistic people are “selfish.” We’re not selfish. What happens is that non-autistic people are expecting these very particular signals in social conversations, and when they don’t get them, they think we’re intending to do that – that we’re being “selfish” by not thinking they are worth the effort of giving them a social signal. Ironically, to me, expecting someone to give you a signal seems much more selfish! Lol. I surely don’t expect someone to give me a smile or a “how are you?” or a handshake, yet those are very common everyday assumptions by non-autistic people. The whole idea that we are “self-centered” is so twisted to me. It’s simply that we don’t have this automatic response to reciprocate socially in an NT way (however we may reciprocate socially in other ways, like giving out information, or having a discussion, or asking clarification questions, or helping in a task). But the way we socially reciprocate isn’t considered social or reciprocal at all to non-autistic people. Many non-autistic people see intent where there is none – that lack of a “how are you?” simply was because I have a hard time saying words today, or because I don’t usually say that to people, or because I’m thinking about other things – it’s not because I don’t like that non-autistic person or something! And yet somehow that is “rude” and “self-centered” and “aloof”..

      It’s simply because non-autistic people did not think those are reasons someone wouldn’t say the words “how are you?”

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  3. Oh wow! I never realized that expressions convey intent. I just always thought they indicated emotion and even then I don’t often guess the right one if I do happen to actually really look at someone, which I often forget to do. (I usually will quickly glance at someone because that’s what your supposed to do, but I don’t actually register any information.)

    I’m not very expressive, myself, but then again my intentions are usually limited to either intending to say something or intending to listen to something. I’m not sure how such would be expressed.

    Lately, I’ve (probably naively) been wondering if there is an universal autistic non-verbal language because I often think of my actions (not emotions or tone) as being expressive and also because I’ve noticed that I have certain movements that seem to correspond to certain things (though no one understands them). But I’ve not been around other autistic people to know if there is any commonality there.

    I can see how people might perceive me as selfish, or more likely, self-centered as I’ve a tendency to not be externally focused. Though I’m not internally focused on myself either… just on thoughts exploring concepts really. But even when I attempt to authentically engage with others and I try to connect by sharing a bit of my “inner” existence which is really my Actual existence, it never goes over well.

    Liked by 1 person

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