The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down--from high flat temples--in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan. --Dashiel Hammett's description of private detective Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon, 1929:3)

Body part. 1. At the front of the head, our face includes 23 surface landmarks: a. skin, b. ears, c. earlobes, d. forehead, e. eyebrowsf. eyesg. eyelids, h. eyelashes, i. nose, j.nostrils, k. nostril bulbs, l. cheekbones, m. cheeks, n. philtrum, o. lipsp. jowls, q. hairr. wrinkles, s. moles, t. eccrine glands, u. sebacious glands, v. apocrine glands, and w.jaws. 2. Nonverbally, the most emotionally expressive (i.e., the moodiest) part of the body (see FACIAL EXPRESSION).
Usage: Our face a. defines our identity (see FACIAL I.D.); b. expresses our attitudes, opinions, and moods; and c. shows how we relate to others. A face is every human's visual trademark, and is, therefore, the most photographed part of the human body.

Anthropology. For 99.99% of our existence as Homo we watched other faces, and rarely saw our own except as glimpsed in ponds or pools. The phantom of facial personality is a dangerous and mystical experience in many cultures. (Capturing a face in pictures or mirrors, e.g., is akin to capturing the soul.) That in so many societies a face reflects the soul bespeaks the nonverbal power of its landmarks. (N.B.: Perhaps this is why the ancient Egyptian word for hand mirror [ankh] bears a resemblance to the word for life ['nh].)

Facial dominance. "What do dominant faces look like? Everyone knows because anyone can sort portraits on this basis, but facial dominance seems to be a gestalt concept, difficult to describe in simple terms. Faces identified as dominant are more likely to be handsome--with striking exceptions, to be muscular, to have prominent as opposed to weak chins, and to have heavy brow ridges with deep set eyes. Submissive faces are often round or narrow, with ears 'sticking out,' while dominant faces are oval or rectangular with close-set ears (Mazur, et al. 1984)" (Mazur and Mueller 1996). (N.B.: The authors found that facial dominance correlated with a higher achieved rank in the U.S. military.)

Media. "My face is my livelihood." --Kramer (Seinfeld, March 26, 1999)
Mobility. Our face is exquisitely expressive. Its features are incredibly mobile, more so than any other primate's. Because our face "speaks for itself" with muscular eloquence and candor, speech has comparatively few words (such as, e.g., "smile," "pout," or "frown") for its diverse gestures (see, e.g., TENSE-MOUTH and TONGUE-SHOW, which lack dictionary entries). Emotionally, the face is mightier than the word.
RESEARCH REPORTS1. Each of the 28 bones of the human face and skull "has been inherited in unbroken succession from the air-breathing fishes of pre-Devonian times" (Gregory 1927:20-21). 2. Facial expressions evolved from movements originally designed a. for protection of vulnerable areas, b. for vigorous breathing, and c. for grooming(Andrew 1963). 3. Facial expressions for primary affects (i.e., happiness, anger, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust/contempt, and interest) may be common to humankind (Ekman and Friesen 1971). 4. "In mammals the primitive neck muscles gave rise to two muscle layers: a superficial longitudinal layer, the platysma, and a deeper transverse layer, the sphincter colli profundis, which have come to extend well into the facial region" (Chevalier-Skolnikoff 1973:59).

E-Commentary: "Thanks for your e-mail with your kind permission, and for your wishes, because we need luck in our work on prosopognosis [prosopognosia: 'face blindness,' a cortical dysfunction making it difficult or impossible to recognize a face]. I will keep you updated on our progress. I am pleased to know that 'prosopognosis' is an area of great concern for you, as well. Kindly note my thesis, that: 'Many people, between us, acting or reacting with violence, are some kind prosopagnostics, they have some degree of face blindness. Therefore they can't receive, they don't have the ability to feel at all, the very emotions, expressed through the face of the victim.'" --Panos Axiomakaros, Olympian University, Athens, Greece (3/27/00 12:36:07 PM Pacific Standard Time)

Neuro-notes. Our perception of faces is likely rooted in the fusiform face area (FFA), located in Brodmann's area 37 of the neocortex's temporal lobe. This proactive brain area is highly sensitive to facial templates. So actively does it seek out facial schema that we often see "faces" in cloud formations, shrouds (e.g., the Shroud of Turin), sandwiches, and screen doors--and in our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon.

Photo of sculpture at Caesars Palace (Las Vegas, Nevada) by Doreen K. Givens (copyright February 2009)