Facial expressions are an important channel of nonverbal communication. canstockphoto10444117

I study faces. Expressions, reactions, emotions – I love to see if I can read the face and if it matches or betrays the situation. My wife is constantly nudging me, “You’re staring. Why are you always staring at people?” I can’t help it, I find it fascinating.

When celebrities or people of public interest show up on television shows and they have been embarrassed or otherwise impacted by something recently I can’t take my eyes off their faces. General Petraeus, Monica Lewinski, Woody Allen, Olympic athletes that lost, Superbowl losers, clutch hitters that strike out at the big moment; all of these people have a face that tells the whole story and I can tell you about 99% of the time it appears that these people know that others are looking for the expression that betrays their faked emotions.

Jay Leno looked really sad when he completed his final “Tonight Show” earlier this year. He said all the right things, forgave any bitterness to his employer but he could not betray the look on his face. Leaving was hard and it hurt. Johnny Carson was no different when he retired in 1992; downright solemn.

Some of the tell-all faces over the years that I really recall include:

Justice Clarence Thomas when he was being drilled about his candidacy for the Supreme Court. He was so disgusted and angry his eyes looked like they were on fire.

Dan Quail after he was corrected by a group of elementary students when he misspelled “potato.” He struck another infamous facial snapshot when he was debating Senator Lloyd Benston and was told he was “no Jack Kennedy.”

Sammy Davis Junior at his “60 th Anniversary Show” had the most solemn and sad face hidden under his smile. He knew he was dying of an incurable illness and could do nothing about it. He broke my heart.

The other nominees when the winner for the “best actor/actress” name is read at the Academy Awards. They all look so happy the other guy won yet you know they are really so disappointed inside.

Bronze medalists.

High ranking officials that come before a judge on offenses they have formerly spoken out against.

Anyone that faces Judge Judy. She of course is a mere subset of the famous Judge Wapner who used to always get the story wrong and no one would tell him because he would get so mad. “Are you telling me I don’t know what you just said?” “Uh no Judge it’s just that….” “Just that what? Are you calling me stupid?” “NO!  No I didn’t say tha….” “Judgment for the Plaintiff. Get out of my court!”  A conversation with Judge Wapner was like telling your hard-of-hearing grandfather you dented his car.

Now – conversely, I hate when I am the one whose face is being read. Like if my wife doesn’t like what the chef prepared and we have to send it back – then I hate the waiter’s face when he’s trying to read my face. That’s because I know he hates me. I was a waiter for many years – I know how I used to feel when things were returned and ... he hates me. I remember having to walk back in to the kitchen and tell the cook who would get SO offended. That’s why I say it’s my wife’s dinner we’re sending back because if it was mine it wouldn’t be going back. I’d eat a piece of charcoal that was supposed to be a steak before I’d send anything back. She’s not that way. She employs that “girl” saying, “I just want what I want and I have a right to get what I ordered.” Hey look I know she’s right but I hate all that posturing.  It starts with “’Scuse me – I have a little problem….” And then there’s all this polite laughter and they go so overboard the other way. “Oh sir it is no problem let me get that right for you,” as they smile bitterly. Ugh – I hate that.  I hide my face like the Phantom of the Opera.

Then there are other faces I wish I could forget like widows and widowers at funerals. That look of being so lost and unable to even know what they are going to do next. Maximum grief and inconsolable sadness cannot be hidden on people’s faces. It is so overwhelming to take in the look of so much pain. But it is that same face you see somewhere down the road that eventually looks brighter and smiling again and by studying that face we remark, “You look like you’re doing much better now.” I remember a couple that my parents knew from their college years who had lost their son to cancer at a very young age. For years after that I remember them being so solemn and of course now as a parent I can certainly understand the depth of that grief. But I swear I recall their faces change like someone had flipped a switch when many years later when their older daughter finally gave them a grandchild and they found motivation to heal and move forward.

Leaders seem to study their facial looks; grief, anger, suppressed anger, grateful, determined. They wear a certain face depending on the situation. Politicians are especially astute at this. But these faces are “put on” and the public seems to know this.

Just a year ago, March 13, 2013 in fact, newly ordained Pope Francis walked to the balcony of the Vatican with a humble smile and easy gentleness about him. He began his first comments as Pope by simply saying, “Good evening.” It was an utterance so innocent and so “everyman” that the crowd broke out in applause and laughter as if they had been waiting for some incredible piece of wisdom and were almost relieved to see this humble smiling face sound just like them. Instead of telling them what to do, he asked for them to pray for him. As the camera panned the audience all you could see was ear to ear grins on the faces of the welcoming crowd. A year later this Pope with this peaceful smile on his face is one of the most popular Pontiffs I ever recall.

The face of wisdom can deliver a mixed response. I recall looking at older professors and work cohorts that had a calm understanding on their face and they seemed so peaceful and content when they answered questions or even asked them. The face of confidence carries a sense of awareness it seems. I recall visiting my wife’s 92-year-old grandmother in the nursing home one weekend and she seemed particularly resolved when we left. I said, “We’ll see you next week, Gram.” She smiled tightly and held my face in her hands.  She didn’t shake her head or nod it either but her face haunted me that night as I seemed to read that she was pretty sure I wouldn’t see her alive again. I didn’t – she passed quietly in her sleep two days later.  Though that face she made that afternoon was drilled into my brain, it is her smiling, laughing face that I remember most. And that’s a blessing to me; ‘cause I never forget a face.

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com .