Speaking to teenagers: Express yourself

By Duffy Robbins

Here’s an assignment: go stand in front of a mirror and express the following phrases using only your face:

1. “Are you sure it’s triplets?”

2. “What does it mean when my screen goes blank, and smoke appears from the left rear corner of the computer?”

3. “What do you mean there’s another husband I don’t know about? I don’t care if he’s a great guy.”

4. “Why, yes, I have experienced entire sanctification.”

What did you notice when you looked into that mirror? Did you happen to notice how your facial expressions changed with each new phrase, how they amplify and underline your words?

Facial expressions are typically the most important means of communicating the basic emotions: sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. What is remarkable is that these six facial expressions have the same meaning throughout the world, including even slight gestures like raising the eyebrow to communicate recognition or wriggling one’s nose with a contorted facial expression to communicate repulsion. And it all happens by our manipulation of three basic facial features: (1) the brow and forehead; (2) the eyes, eyelids and root of the nose; and (3) the cheeks, mouth, remainder of the nose and chin.

When I’m speaking to a group of teenagers I want to be “unconsciously aware” of these facial features at all times. That sounds like a contradiction, of course, but it is not. On the one hand, I want this to become an unconscious behavior because if I try too hard to make my face “look” angry, serious, compassionate, or worshipful, I will just usually come off looking phony. On the other hand, I need to be aware of my facial features because I want them to affirm and reflect my words at all times. Research demonstrates that listeners are very good at reading emotions by looking at the face. The wrong expression can dim or deny the power of my words.

Here are three of the most common ways that our face overrules our mouth:

1. Lack of expression. Some people are naturally expressive, and their faces are an open book. But there are others whose range of facial expression is more limited. They are not naturally expressive. Their faces are an open book, but the words only appear about every third page. Both types of people can be effective communicators, but the second type of person will have to be more intentional about communicating. It is like two people playing a guitar: one is able to play six strings and the other is able to play three. They can both play the same song, but the second person has to focus a lot more effort on the melody. So, don’t fret (couldn’t resist the pun), even if you are not a demonstrative person, you can still be an effective communicator. But it will require focused awareness. The best suggestion for improvement here is practice in front of a mirror. Just as an experiment, practice expressing phrases in your talk without using words. Just mime it with your face.

2. Incongruent expression. I remember in seminary that I was assigned to preach a sermon on the Ascension of Jesus. I was nervous and a little under-prepared. I did not know my sermon the way I wanted to, but it was my turn to go. About five minutes into the sermon I spoke the words “Jesus went up….” Unfortunately, simultaneously I was looking down at my notes to see what happened when He got up there. And, of course, that was the precise moment at which the preaching professor froze the tape so he could ask me, “Mr Robbins, did Jesus go up, as your mouth is telling us, or did He go down, as your head is telling us?” It was a valid point. My head and face did not match my words. That is incongruent expression.

3. Painful expression. Speaking is hard work but it should not look like hard work. That means a good communicator is constantly aware of trying to maintain a pleasant facial expression, like the ice skater who, despite the difficulty, does her flips and jumps with a smile on her face. We don’t want to see her bite her tongue, scrunch up her nose, and grunt through the routine. It is supposed to be fluid and smooth. Of course, that does not mean that you will have a perpetual grin on your face—sort of “Bozo does Corinthians.” There are times when a smile would be incongruent and inappropriate. But students already bring with them the idea that we are there to scold them and scare them. Don’t allow your face to confirm that expectation. Let your default facial expression be one of friendliness and warmth, more like, “Hey, friend, can I tell you something?” and less like, “I hope I can skate through this routine without taking a fall.”