About Face: Unleashing Your Inner Basset Hound

Understand introverts’ facial expressions.

Posted Sep 22, 2016

Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., used with permission
Source: Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., used with permission

Picture this: You’re sitting at a meeting at work, talking about something pleasant, and most of your colleagues are smiling and laughing, except one, who rarely shows much emotion on her face. The boss asks her, “Are you okay?” and the colleague shrugs and mutters, “Yes.”

When you debrief with your colleague later, you learn that she was fine with the meeting, but lost in thought about something that came up. She also shared that people often ask her if something is wrong. She said that she was busy processing things internally, rather than sharing much in the way of thoughts and emotions at the meeting. It’s often been said that introverts can be like icebergs, showing only a part of what they’ve got to the outside world.

Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength, is a long-time champion of promoting a greater understanding of the inner world of introverts. She brings a combination of practical and academic experience from her work as a clinical psychologist and educator; she’s also a blogger for Psychology Today. Together we’ll take a look at the facial expressions of introverts.

NA: In the scenario that I mentioned above, if you’re the boss, what, if anything, do you say to the team member whose face is expressionless at meetings? And do you say something in front of others or take your team member aside privately?

LH: No to calling that person out in front of the team, but also no to a serious “we need to talk” private meeting. The best approach is a friendly inquiry on the way out of the meeting or at a stop-in to the employee’s office. Something like, “I didn’t get a read on your reaction to ___________. I’m interested in your thoughts.” Notice the “I” in that statement. Much different from “YOU seemed quiet,” or worse, some interpretation of the quiet like, “you seemed bored/annoyed/disapproving.” If I want input from the employee more regularly, I can simply say so. Again, I am expressing something I would like rather than implying that a more reserved presence is inappropriate.

vladimirfloyd/Adobe Stock
Source: vladimirfloyd/Adobe Stock

NA: What is the difference between the facial expressions of introverts and extroverts*? Does the term poker face— or game face in the sports arena—apply more often to introverts?

LH: Yes, especially when the introvert is listening or reflecting on something. That’s because introverts process information internally, and we don’t like to express our thoughts until they are fully formed. An extrovert is more likely to share immediate reactions and process information through conversation. Extroverts are also more attuned to social rewards, so they are more likely to flash a smile for effect. A notable exception are introverts—like me—whom I call “socially accessible” introverts. We have been trained well to smile and nod, which can place a burden on our processing efforts.

NA: I’m a fan of getting videotaped by a trusted colleague or coach in a mock interview or other meeting setting to get a glimpse into what really goes on with your face. Yet, I realize that many an introvert doesn’t want to see himself on video. What other tools or techniques have you found useful in raising self-awareness about one’s facial expressions—possibly from your background as an actor?

LH: Feedback, whether it’s through observation of a video or practice in front of a mirror, can be extremely helpful. I recall a rehearsal for a play when I was delivering an angry monologue. Well, I thought I was delivering anger. My director kept yelling, “More!” and I learned that I was holding in much of the emotion. Ask a close friend or family member for feedback, and they will likely be able to provide you a good impersonation. Asking others for input puts you in the driver’s seat, and may feel less awkward than having to watch yourself on video.

NA: Are introverts more adept than extroverts at reading others’ facial expressions— and other nonverbal cues?

LH: The literature is mixed on this. Some findings reveal extroverts as more adept at reading nonverbal cues, and attribute this to the extrovert’s greater interest and experience with social interactions. Another line of research using subliminal images of facial emotion found introverts to be more sensitive to the differences, and hypothesized that this may be why introverts regulate the amount of incoming social information. A couple of themes seem to be consistent: introverts are generally more sensitive to low-intensity stimuli – they are mentally alerted to inputs that extroverts may miss. On the other hand, extroverts are more responsive to high-intensity and “happy” stimuli, which may be why an extrovert gets frustrated at the less “readable” face of the introvert.

NA: I often advise my coaching clients who aren’t comfortable making direct eye contact to look at their conversation partners’ eyebrows or foreheads, which look about the same to the other party. What advice do you give to introverts who tend to look away or upward when they think—rather than making eye contact?

LH: Good advice! I think there’s also a way—and this comes from years of making eye contact with therapy clients—of looking at someone that shows you are both listening and thinking. My head is usually tilted, brows a bit furrowed, and I may look up a little periodically. A great skill to practice!

dmussman/Adobe Stock
Source: dmussman/Adobe Stock

NA: When I think of introverts, I think of Basset Hounds. Not that all introverts are dog lovers. More that a Basset Hound wears an expression that often looks sad even when the dog isn’t sad. Any advice to extroverts to see beyond introverts’ “sad” expression?

LH: Yes—think of Basset Hounds! I love the metaphor and that might be enough to help an extrovert look beyond the face. It also helps if extroverts practice depersonalizing the introvert’s expression. If the extrovert is trying to “cheer up” the introvert—extroverts are programmed to seek social rewards!— he or she may feel like a failure if the introvert remains unmoved. If the extrovert, instead, watches and listens a bit more, the introvert’s true mood will become more evident. If not, use those “I” statements we discussed earlier and ask!

NA: My public speaking coaching clients, particularly those who are introverts, often grapple with how to convey emotion while they’re speaking. For those who think deeply about what others say, a look of deep concentration can come across as disapproving or super-serious. As much as I dislike being told to “smile” myself, there is something important about remembering to soften your face and express warmth, when appropriate. Distinguish between a Duchenne, or genuine, smile in which the corners of your eyes crinkle, versus a frozen, Botox-gone-bad looking smile. What else do you recommend to introverts when they’re speaking publicly – whether at a meeting or in front of a large audience?

Halfpoint/Adobe Stock
Source: Halfpoint/Adobe Stock

LH: Yes, I’m very familiar with the deep concentration expression! With public speaking, practicing congruence is very helpful—allowing the words to be expressed with the face and body. It helps to think of simply “turning up the nonverbal volume.” As with me in my acting example, introverts often assume what’s inside is visible on the outside. We don’t have to invent or fake the emotion; we just need to allow it to be seen!

NA: All great points. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

LH: Let’s not forget the many advantages of a poker face. There’s a reason for the term. Holding onto our cards is appropriate and advantageous in many circumstances. We can create a sense of mystery, and there can be great power in silence. I always think of the old commercial “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” When a quiet introvert talks, heads turn, and that’s power.

NA: Thanks so much for sharing your insights. I appreciate how your wisdom is grounded in science as well as lived experience. Here’s to celebrating our inner Basset Hounds!

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*Also spelled "extravert" by Carl Jung and the communities of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and other personality assessments such as the Five Factor Model.

Copyright 2016 © Nancy Ancowitz