Why is the face so important? Of course we communicate from the neck down, but the majority of meaning and the richest source of nonverbal data come from the face. Our visage provides the most information about how we feel, and our body movements indicate the intensity of the emotion. According to anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, human beings are capable of making 250,000 facial expressions without uttering a word.
Several years ago, I was teaching one of the more difficult communication courses at the University of Colorado in Boulder. For the entire semester, a young man sat in the back row of the classroom with a knitted brow and scowl. His expression conveyed a combination of perplexity, anger, and confusion. In trying to determine what made Mike so unhappy in my course, I went through a host of questions in my head: Does he hate 8 AM classes? Does he understand what I’m saying? Is the material too tough? Could I explain it better? Does he disagree with the course content? Maybe he doesn’t like me. . . . I was starting to take his negative expression personally.
The other students were receptive and animated—they leaned forward in their seats, their eyebrows were lifted showing interest, they nodded their heads as I made my points, and they smiled or laughed when I cracked a joke. But this fellow never seemed to move off his bad mood, and I didn’t know what to do about it. As a good communicator I usually make adjustments, so I tried this with Mike—I framed my message in a different way, I made eye contact, I smiled at him. However, during the course of the semester, nothing that I did made a difference with Mike. I began withdrawing from this young man. In fact, I did adjust by minimizing my eye contact with him, because his off-putting expression started having a profoundly negative influence on my classroom presentation. Eventually, I chose to ignore him because his expression was just too distracting.
At long last, the day of the final exam arrived. When the exam period ended, Mike walked up to the front of the room, handed me his blue book, and proceeded to shake my hand. “Dr. Nelson,” he said with surprising enthusiasm, “I just wanted to thank you. I’m a business major, and this is one of the best—if not the best—communication course I’ve ever taken.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather! “You’re kidding,” I couldn’t help blurting. I quickly regained my composure and said, “Mike, I need to share with you how you come off nonverbally.”
“Oh no, I know what you’re going to say,” he interrupted. “Friends tell me they see me walking across campus, and they don’t want to say hello because I look like I’m mad and grumpy.” Then he apologized.