During the last week or so, I was fascinated with the mainstream media reporting and social media hubbub over a young man’s facial expression at the Lincoln Memorial. Not because I want to get involved in the national debate over who’s right and who’s wrong or when a smile is a smirk (BTW, I refuse to get involved in divisive political debate in this blog or elsewhere in social media).
I followed the reporting because, as a police officer and detective, I have studied body language and facial expressions for decades to figure out what was going on inside people’s heads, and today I try to use it in my fiction writing.
Although high-level detectives (such as homicide detectives who spend thousands of hours interviewing people) are better than the average person at “reading” people based on their expressions, most of us would admit, it’s often guesswork. Even when we feel someone is lying, it’s nearly impossible to identify specific eye, face, or body language as proof.
Many of us young cops in Oakland had been accused of committing “face crimes,” as one of my early sergeants termed them, based on George Orwell’s novel, 1984:
A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: FACECRIME, it was called.
Citizens complained if we smiled and wished a motorist a nice day after issuing them a traffic citation. Although we were trying to be polite and friendly, a smile was sometimes viewed as us taking smug pleasure in the motorists’ misfortune. Other motorists complained if we remained stone-faced during the encounter because it conveyed a “storm trooper” and robot-like mentality that lacked humanity.
I remember being counseled for allowing the expression of the rage I was feeling to show on my face when I once arrested a man who had pressed his son’s hands on an electric stove’s burners. Control my emotions, I was told. Another time I had to respond to a complaint for appearing dispassionate toward a sexual assault victim, whom I spent hours interviewing while holding in my emotions to avoid crying along with her.
I also saw a “face crime” turn deadly when investigating a murder where a young man was shot and killed by a street-corner drug dealer. With overwhelming evidence showing he did it, we arrested and interviewed the suspect. Our main question was why. The shooter explained that the victim never said a word to him, but walked by his corner and “mean-mugged” him.
Statisticians at the city and state level mandated we classify every homicide by motive. Some were clear-cut, such as murders committed during a robbery or when a husband killed his wife (domestic), yet my fellow homicide detectives knew many of the senseless murders we investigated defied classification. Still, there was no category for “mean-mugging.”
There was no indication the victim intentionally meant to disrespect the drug dealer (and even if he did, it certainly didn’t justify the killing), and friends and family believed the victim was attempting to appear confident so the local dealers didn’t mess with him. A look of confidence to one person can appear to be arrogance to another.
Detectives have been trying to discover methods to ascertain deception in people for years, hoping for insight into a subject’s mind and true thoughts. I attended training about eye movement, where the instructors said a subject’s eyes move up and right when they lie. Another training course described micro-expressions that supposedly indicated deception. However, recent studies indicate none of these methods is much more accurate than a flip of a coin.
Despite its inherit unreliability, it’s human nature to try to read people’s thoughts based on their body language, so in my novels, I try to incorporate characters’ facial expression with their actions and dialogue to better bring them to life. In my next book, I know I’ll have to make a character smirk to see how the characters around him react.