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Last Updated Thursday June 21 2018 09:30 PM IST

Heal Thy Self | Read my lips

Nirmala Ferrao
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Imagine that you’re trying to balance your bank account and you keep coming up short. You have visions of bank errors and identity theft running through your head, and you can’t rest until you’ve reconciled the figures. If anyone happened to see your mouth at this particular moment, he’d instantly know that you’re tense, confused and fed up with the whole business.

Also read: Heal Thy Self | Work smart, not late

The mouth is, of course, the prime instrument in our verbal communication, but it is also the source of many of the non-verbal messages we send out. This makes perfect sense, since the mouth expression often harmonizes with the verbal message — that is, if someone is conveying an uplifting verbal message, his mouth will be happy-looking. If he is expressing sadness, outrage or grief, his mouth once again tells the tale, both verbally and non-verbally.

Smiling children

Of all the parts of the mouth, it is the lips that are perhaps the most emotionally expressive. Soft, protruding and uniquely pliable (because they have no bones) they are multi-functional, providing an opening for food and beverage intake, while also doing duty as a tactile sensory organ and an erogenous zone.

Like our hands, our lips are incredibly gifted communicators and always bear watching. Whether they’re smiling or kissing, pouting or puckering, lips don’t lie, say body language researchers. Pay attention to their subtle moves, and you’ll learn to put your message where your mouth is.


When you’re happy and you know it, you …. well, you smile, don’t you? Quite so. What’s not true is that people smile only when they’re happy. There are many reasons that a smile is switched on, and only one of these is to signal happiness. A smile may be used to fake happiness, to express sarcasm or contempt or even cynicism, to signal appeasement (e.g., the smile that accompanies an apology); there’s even the miserable smile. Researchers have, in fact, identified 19 different versions of the smile.

Also check: Heal Thy Self | Regain the trust of your teenager

But interpreting a smile is important. And one of the most critical readings here is to be able to tell the distinction between a genuine smile and a false smile. Julia Roberts has one of the most coveted smiles – it’s just so real. On the other hand, think of the plastic smiles pasted on their faces by beauty pageant contestants – they are literally ‘staged’ smiles.

Smiling people

In day-to-day life, it’s not difficult to tell a genuine smile from a fake one. Look for these giveaways. When that smile is real:

» The corners of the mouth curve upward.

» The nose may crinkle slightly; nostrils may flare.

» The outer corners of the eyes wrinkle into crow’s feet.

By contrast, the fake smile has these characteristics:

» The lips move laterally.

» The muscles of the rest of the face remain stagnant.

» The eyes remain blank.

Which lip color suits your complexion?

A genuine smile actually involves the simultaneous contraction of two facial muscles: one is the zygomatic muscle which contracts in a genuine smile, causing the lip corners to curl upward. The other is the orbicular muscles surrounding the eye sockets, which subtly lift the lower eyelids, making the eyes narrower and causing wrinkling in their outer corners.

While we can consciously control the zygomatic muscle (for instance, by saying “Cheese”, which pulls back on that muscle), we cannot – generally – control the orbicular muscles that work their effects around the eyes. But it can be done – by the active use of imagination. Method actors, for instance, can produce radiant smiles by force of imagination, just as they produce shrieks of terror and blasts of rage. Recall Meryl Streep laughing in “The Bridges of Madison County”. She later told Oprah Winfrey that she was able to do it so convincingly by thinking about the times that Clint Eastwood forgot his lines.

But in our day-to-day interactions, we don’t make active use of our imaginations when we smile, and those muscles around our eyelids are not so easily under our conscious control. Conclusion: a genuine smile is not so much in the mouth, it’s in the eyes. This is an observation that social scientists today consider to be so fundamental that they refer to the smile of spontaneous joy as the “Duchenne smile” after the neurologist who identified those critical muscles that come into play in a genuine smile.

There are two additional cues to a genuine smile:

» The muscles and nerves involved in producing a real smile can only fire for a maximum of approximately five seconds. Fake smiles can last a whole evening: witness the polite smiles of royalty, for example, as they go down an entire formal line-up of guests, greeting them and smiling, smiling, smiling…

» Real smiles are normally symmetrical on the face. Fake smiles are often non-symmetrical.

But there are two exceptions to this latter rule, too:

One is that some people have naturally asymmetrical smiles: there was Madhubala’s famous lop-sided smile; Elvis Presley’s hysteria-evoking crooked smile; and the apparently natural-born lop-sided smirks of “Game of Thrones” star Natalie Dormer, Bruce Willis and Katie Holmes, among others.

The second exception is that a sincere smile may often begin asymmetrically but will increase in symmetry as the smile grows and crescendoes. Simultaneously, the degree to which the eyelids close also increase, amplifying the smile.

If a “smile” remains asymmetrical, and if it is not a natural-born lop-sided smile, it is either a feigned “social smile” or not a smile at all, but contempt. If you see such a false smile – whether in dating or in a business interaction – watch your back.

To take that a little further, it’s a fact that a smile is used not only to convey joy, warmth, familiarity, approval and appeasement, but also to convey negative emotions – such as communicating a sarcastic insult. A common example is the Tight Smile in which the central parts of the lips are strongly pursed, while the mouth-corners pull back as in an ordinary smile.

There’s also the On-Off smile, another insult. The on-off smile wilts with lightning speed the moment the smiler’s face is no longer a focus of attention. Such smiles often last for less than a second and can easily be converted into deliberate insults by switching off rapidly while still in the other person’s line of vision.

Compressed lips

The classic sign of the angry mouth is lips that appear to be smashed down and glued together into a thin tight line, a gesture that’s technically called compressing the lips. Compressed lips can also be a sign of extreme frustration — an emotion that’s headed toward anger, perhaps, but hasn’t escalated to that point yet.


Lip compression also often appears when someone is in the company of strangers, where it combines with gaze avoidance and distancing.

Why do compressed lips signify dislike or distancing? Universally, compressing the lips accompanies a tensing of the mind: it is as if the subconscious is sending a message to the body to shut down and not to let anything in. Compressing the lips and thus sub-consciously making them seem smaller and less visible is a way of saying you are not being encouraging or inviting.

Pouting and pursing

The pout — extending the lower lip just slightly over the top lip — is also a multi-tasking gesture. It can indicate displeasure, frustration, sadness. It can reveal sexual interest. It can also indicate that someone’s trying to concentrate his or her thinking – or that someone’s uncertain.


Children are masters of the pout. And actresses across the spectrum from Hollywood to Bollywood to Mollywood have perfected it.

Children’s pouts tend to be more obvious than adults’, for the simple reason that kids don’t bother to temper their emotional expressions. So, while an adult pout is usually more subtle, with just a slight protrusion of the lower lip, a child may jut his lower lip way out and over the top lip. When that lower lip pushes out far enough, when his head drops down, his eyes tighten and his forehead crinkles, you may be in for a tantrum. (Crisis management as undertaken by one of my friends when his daughters were little: They were fantastic pouters and could stick their lower lips out half-way down their chins. He would drum his finger-tips over their lower lip, telling them that a little grumpy gnome would start dancing on their lips if they were not careful. That was usually enough to make them laugh and end the pout.).

Interestingly, since the pout is one of those body language traits that instantly reminds you of childhood, it’s also a move that’s used in flirting. Often, it’s combined with pursing – the pursed and pouting lips of a young woman looking at her lover signal sexual invitation.

(Pursed lips that indicate sexual arousal are forward-moving in the same way as pursed lips that signal disapproval. What makes the difference is the context they’re displayed in. When, for example, she purses her lips together like a prune and turns away from him, that’s disapproval all right).

If you choose to employ the pout, do so sparingly. Although it’s coy and cute, it also happens to be a gesture that can go from endearing to annoying in about one minute.


The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the lips are definitely the gateway to sensuality. Kissing is one of the world’s favourite pastimes. Most of us have kissed in some way, whether passionately, affectionately, politely – or reverentially.


We still don’t really know why we started kissing as an act of intimacy (although we show no signs of letting up). But did you ever stop to wonder why people feel so strongly compelled to join themselves together at the oral cavities, an act that is potentially fraught with peril through germs that can transmit diseases, including mononucleosis (also called “kissing disease”), respiratory illnesses and cold sores? The reason is that the area around the nose and mouth is packed with nerve endings. Kissing excites those nerve endings. It’s much like connecting two super-charged electrical devices. The sparks just fly! That makes the lips one of the most erogenous zones of the body. In romance, the kiss is the first seriously arousing intimacy – in fact, it’s virtually a rite of passage. Your first moment of sexual contact is usually a kiss.

Smiling girls

But a kiss is not always a romantic signal. At the other end of the spectrum, with the least display of passion, are ‘social’ kisses, most often associated with the French, who kiss each other on or next to each cheek as a way of greeting; some Europeans kiss once, others twice, and some three times.

In India, social kissing is still not the commonly preferred form of greeting – not even kissing on the cheek, and not even air kissing where two people do not actually kiss each other but instead touch cheeks and kiss into the air. It’s only in certain micro-cultures within the Indian social setting, such as the cocktail circuit, or in certain professions such as the glamour industry or the creative fields, that the air kiss has become popular enough to often replace the kiss on both cheeks. The bottom-line would be not to kiss hello if you are not comfortable with it. There is nothing worse than being smacked in the face by the hard lips of someone who is uncomfortable doing it.

How to show intent with kiss placement

Where you place a kiss signals its meaning and intent. Mouth kisses are usually strictly sexual. Kisses to the head are considered more loving, nurturing and intimate. If it’s your hand that’s being kissed, it could signal respect and courtesy, or else a very romantic come-on.


When a kiss is deposited on other parts of the body (apart from the face), it very often is a status marker. The parental kiss on the top of a child’s head is a dominant kiss, and when it is performed by one adult to another, it usually carries a mock-parental message.

And finally, the status kiss, now slowly but surely on its way out. As one example: until the first half of the 20th century, it was customary for pilgrims having an audience with the Pope to kneel and kiss one of his slippers. Today, those obtaining a private audience with the Pontiff are permitted to kiss the ring on his hand. When doing this, however, it is still customary that they genuflect and kiss – a formal courtesy which today the Pope shares only with God.

It should come as no surprise that the non-verbal messages of the kiss can vary depending on where you happen to find yourself on the globe. If you’re travelling through Italy and you see someone gather his fingertips together and kiss them, don’t mistake this for his way of getting around the whole kissing-is-too-intimate policy that some countries adhere to. No, it’s the Italian way of showing appreciation for beauty or something good. Let’s say you’ve just tasted the best cannoli you’ve ever had. You might turn to the Sicilian pastry chef and kiss your fingertips. You can do this without fretting that he’ll mistake it for some sort of romantic overture. He won’t; he’ll appreciate the compliment.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)

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