Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Communicating Emotions

Emotions are personal and they are social. They are a communication tool.

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said. —Peter Drucker

Emotion links our physiological states to our conscious experience: it tells us how we fell in response to a given situation. Emotional states also trigger action readiness, preparing us to act if need be. But they also have an external function, informing others about our internal states and feelings: emotional states have a communicative function.

Source: Pixabay

Communication is the cornerstone of successful relationships, either professional or private, as the way to share information and agree on future actions. More than just communicating on facts, it is important to indicate emotional states to our relatives to ensure long-lasting connections, using verbal and non-verbal cues and signals. This is achieved primarily by the exchange of a set of social signals, such as facial expressions and body postures. Indeed, if some physiological functions have been retained throughout evolution, the main purpose of emotional expressions in contemporary human life may have more to do with the rapid nonverbal transmission of socially relevant information. As such, facial displays can be used to convey messages regarding internal states, emphasising or contradicting the verbal speech, or even occurring in its absence. Facial expressions, more than any other nonverbal signals, are ought to be the physical representations of our emotions.

But are we always intentionally broadcasting our emotions to the entire world? The notions of signal and cue take here all their importance.

Source: Pixabay

A signal is a gesture, an expression, or even an intonation of the voice that has evolved with the specific purpose of being communicative (i.e. pointing gesture to direct attention to a specific object/location).

A cue, on the other hand, gives information accidentally, as a repercussion or by-product of something serving another adaptive purpose (i.e. chewing indicates someone is eating but it is not its primary function).

It has been hypothesised that facial expressions of emotion started as cues, by-product of the physiological changes happening internally, and evolved in both form and function into signals. Even though the function of facial expressions has evolved into signals, we still have the possibility to try and hide our emotions by learning to control our facial muscles and increasing the conscious control we have over them. It is however not the easiest thing to do as the face holds around fifty muscles, consciously regulating the activation of all of them requires an incredible level of self-awareness and a lot of practice. Leakages are the physical representation of such an attempt; a leakage can be associated with a signal one is trying to hide and conceal but the genuine feelings experienced still show through and that a naïve observer can interpret. A leakage is thus still a genuine communicative information, sent to the receiver against the sender’s will.

The function of emotion appeared to have evolved from a physiological to a communicative one, allowing others to understand one’s emotional state. From there, one of the main questions is probably why would we want others to know how we genuinely feel, especially if we feel bad about ourselves? Would it not be better to send false signals?

Source: Pixabay

Both animals and humans base a lot of their decisions on cues and signals, such as the choice of their sexual partner; engaging in cooperative or altruistic behaviours, or the appropriate social response based on the context. Most, if not all, fitness-related matters are intrinsically linked to signals, and thus the fitness of an individual (regardless of its species) is based on the ability to read and interpret correctly signals and cues.

The survival of a being depends on the honesty of their relatives and the reliability of the signals sent. From this results a need for morality (prompting the display of honest signals) and the ability to efficiently read signals...

... Survival is a question of understanding each other. From this results the need to 1) produce reliable signals for others to use; 2) being able to read and interpret those signals. A universality of a sort in facial displays would be much helpful in the interpretation of expressions as people around the globe would have the same codes and would thus understand facial cues in similar ways, regardless of the culture or origin of the sender.