“We might be the masters of our thought; still, we are the slaves to our emotions.” – Elizabeth Gilbert.
While many individuals like to think of the human race as a single unit that should strive towards humankind’s betterment, it would be incredibly erroneous not to acknowledge differences within this single unit of seven billion people. Human emotion and its expression are unique in the sense it is universal. Everyone from the CEO of a telemarketing company in Georgia to a child playing ball on Accra’s streets, thousands of miles away, express their emotions using the same facial muscles. As a bystander, you could quickly identify happiness or anger on either of their faces because you certainly express your feelings the same way too. Think about how often you’ve exchanged sideways glances with a coworker when something funny happened at the office or sat on the edge of your seat, eager for the next scene when a character shows fear or surprise. Even without words, we can identify and react according to the facial patterns we read in other people, even when we don’t speak their language or understand their hand expressions.
This non-verbal form of communication is a fantastic feat to cut across so many different people. There are about 195 countries in the world that speak around 6500 languages between them. Hand signs and actions are just as diverse. A handshake might be an appropriate greeting in some cultures, and cultures that prefer to bow or kneel might find a handshake strange or even insulting. If you somehow built a time machine and decided to travel back to 15th century England, you would be in for a shock. Over the years, languages change, and you would barely fair better than a non-English speaker. To get by, you would have to rely heavily on your ability to read emotions, especially the core ones like joy, anger, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and contempt.
Science believes that the ability to read emotions is in the best interest of our species. Reading our young ones’ expressions helps us care for them better and remove threats that might harm them. I think it also has a secondary benefit, which is letting us communicate better as a group.
Parents need to read their children’s faces to determine if they’re happy, sad, or even disgusted until they can speak. You’ve probably taken note of a person’s facial expression to determine their mood and figure out if it’s a good time to ask for favors. Similarly, friends and even strangers read our emotions to figure out if we’re approachable or if we should be left alone.
Social communication is an essential part of our daily lives and relationships, and being able to interpret and react to others’ emotions is vital.