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Communicating Emotion

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

In addition to experiencing emotions internally, we a lso express our emotions to others, and we learn about the emotions of others by observing them. This communication process has evolved over time, and is highly adaptive. One way that we perceive the emotions of others is through theirnonverbal communication, that is, communication that does not involvewords (Ambady & Weisbuch, 2010; Anderson, 2007). 1 Nonverbal communication includes our tone of voice, gait, posture, touch, and facial expressions, and we can often accurately detect the emotions that other people are experiencing through these channels. Table 10.1 shows some of the important nonverbal behaviors that we use to express emotion and some other information (particularly liking or disliking, and dominance or submission).

Table 10.1 Some Common Nonverbal Communicators





Rules about the appropriate use of personal space

Standing nearer to someone can expressing liking or dominance.

Body appearance

Expressions based on alterations to our body

Body building, breast augmentation, weight loss, piercings, and tattoos are often used to appear more attractive to others.

Body positioning and movement

Expressions based on how our body appears

A more “open” body position can denote liking; a faster walking speed can communicate dominance.


Behaviors and signs made with our hands or faces

The peace sign communicates liking; the “finger”

communicates disrespect.

Facial expressions

The variety of emotions that we express, or attempt to hide, through our face

Smiling or frowning and staring or avoiding looking at the other can express liking or disliking, as well as dominance or submission.


Clues to identity or emotions

Pronunciation, accents, and dialect can be used to


contained in our voices

communicate identity and liking.


Just as there is no “universal” spoken language, there is no universal nonverbal language. For instance, in the United States and many Western cultures we express disrespect by showing the middle finger (the “finger” or the “bird”). But in Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, the “V” sign (made with back of the hand facing the recipient) serves a similar purpose. In countries where Spanish, Portuguese, or French are spoken, a gesture in which a fist is raised and the arm is slapped on the bicep is equivalent to the finger, and in Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, and China a sign in which the hand and fingers are curled and the thumb is thrust between the middle and index fingers is used for the same purpose.

The most important communicator of emotion is the face. The face contains 43 different muscles that allow it to make more than 10,000 unique configurations and to express a wide variety of emotions. For example, happiness is expressed by smiles, which are created by two of the major muscles surrounding the mouth and the eyes, and anger is created by lowered brows and firmly pressed lips.

In addition to helping us express our emotions, the face also helps us feel emotion. The facial feedback hypothesis proposes that themovement of our facial muscles can trigger corresponding emotions. Fritz Strack and his colleagues (1988) 2 asked their research participants to hold a pen in their teeth (mimicking the facial action of a smile) or between their lips (similar to a frown), and then had them rate the funniness of a cartoon. They found that the cartoons were rated as more amusing when the pen was held in the “smiling” position—the subjective experience of emotion was intensified by the action of the facial muscles.

These re sults, and others like them, show that our behaviors, including our facial expressions, are influenced by, but also influence our affect. We may smile because we are happy, but we are also happy because we are smiling. And we may stand up straight because we are proud, but we are proud because we are standing up straight (Stepper & Strack, 1993). 3


  • Emotions are the normally adaptive mental and physiological feeling states that direct our attention and guide our behavior.
  • Emotional states are accompanied by arousal, our experiences of the bodily responses created by the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system.
  • Motivations are forces that guide behavior. They can be biological, such as hunger and thirst; personal, such as the motivation for achievement; or social, such as the motivation for acceptance and belonging.
  • The most fundamental emotions, known as the basic emotions, are those of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.
  • Cognitive appraisal allows us to also experience a variety of secondary emotions
  • According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, the experience of an emotion is accompanied by physiological arousal.
  • According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, our experience of an emotion is the result of the arousal that we experience.
  • According to the two-factor theory of emotion, the experience of emotion is determined by the intensity of the arousal we are experiencing, and the cognitive appraisal of the situation determines what the emotion will be.
  • When people incorrectly label the source of the arousal that they are experiencing, we say that they have misattributed their arousal.
  • We express our emotions to others through nonverbal behaviors, and we learn about the emotions of others by observing them.


  1. Consider the three theories of emotion that we have discussed and provide an example of a situation in which a person might experience each of the three proposed patterns of arousal and emotion.
  2. Describe a time when you used nonverbal behaviors to express your emotions or to detect the emotions of others. What specific nonverbal techniques did you use to communicate?