Recently, together with my online student, a seventeen year old boy from Guiyang, I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Talking to Strangers. While generally audiobooks are not my thing, Gladwell’s book is a different sort of audiobook altogether. More like a podcast, Talking With Strangers explores all of the ways we perceive and misperceive people we don’t know, using interviews, stories, and research. While most of the chapters are fascinating, for this writer, chapter 3 in particular, entitled “Transparency,” was particularly enlightening.
Transparency in psychological terms, refers to how well a person’s personal mental or emotional state understood by others. The illusion of transparency is the idea that most of us tend to overestimate how well others can perceive our emotional or mental state — that is, we believe that others can tell when we are happy, sad, angry, confused, etc. We believe that our facial expressions, actions, and body language are expressive enough that our mood should be “transparent” even without us saying anything.
Talking to Strangers refers to a study done by Carlos Crivelli in which he showed pictures of various facial expressions to Spanish schoolchildren. When the schoolchildren saw a face with a downturned mouth, they were easily able to identify the face as sad. Wide open eyes and an open mouth indicated fear, knit brows indicated anger, etc. This is unsurprising, of course. These are the same expressions that writers routinely use to express emotions in our own stories. “He knit his brows in confusion.” “Her eyes widened” “Her mouth dropped open.” They’re also the expressions we see actors use when they are portraying an emotional moment.
Crivelli then showed the same photographs to Trobriand islanders, whom he’d been living with and studying for some time. Crivelli had learned their language and had been accepted in Trobriander society — the people trusted him, and what’s more, Crivelli spoke their language and was able to understand their responses without complicated secondhand interactions. However, the islanders response to the pictures was The Trobriand islanders did not identify the same emotions as the Spanish schoolchildren at all. Where the Spanish schoolchildren saw fear, the Trobriand Islanders saw aggression. The only emotion that showed any sort of consistency was happiness — it seems the Spanish schoolchildren and the Trobriand islanders both recognized a smile as a sign of happiness. In order to confirm his suspicions, Crivelli and his team traveled to Mozambique and did the same experiment with a group of fishermen known as the Mwani. The results were similar — while the Mwani recognized a smile as a sign of happiness, frowns, scowls, raised eyebrows, and open mouths were all interpreted in a variety of ways, none of which corresponded with the responses of the Spanish schoolchildren.
The obvious conclusion seems to be that facial expressions are culturally bound, but as it turns out, the obvious conclusion in this case is not necessarily the correct conclusion. While it is true that different cultures seem to have different perceptions of what a surprised face or a sad face should look like, the reality is that even within the same culture, we have trouble identify emotions through facial expressions. Talking to Strangers discusses the experiment done by two German psychologists, who put participants into a shocking situation and had them rate how surprised they were at the exact moment the shocking image appeared, and then compared the self-rating to a still photograph taken at the same moment. Very few of the participants faces showed the classic “surprised” face with an dropped jaw, wide eyes, and raised eyebrows. Instead, their faces showed a variety of different expressions. And this is where the illusion of transparency comes in. All of these people believed that their shock and surprise would be written all over their faces for everyone to see — but it wasn’t. An observer looking at the still photos of the participants, devoid of context, would not have recognized the emotion on their faces as surprise.
According to Gladwell, our facial expressions are a kind of folk psychology. Drama and fiction have reinforced the association of certain facial expressions with certain emotions and so we believe these are the actual expressions. It turns out, however, that our expressions are, if not arbitrary, than at least somewhat distinct and unpredictable. For the writer, the implications of this are clear — the facial expressions and gestures that we’ve painstakingly studied (how many of us have a copy of the Emotion Thesaurus? I know I do) in order to add realism to our characters may have nothing at all to do with actual emotions our characters are meant to be feeling.
Does this mean that we should discard these typical emotional signifiers as writers? Not necessarily. After all, regardless of whether they’re folk psychology or not, readers understand these facial expressions as universal. However, I can’t help but think of all of the possibilities this knowledge opens up. Instead of my character widening their eyes in surprise, I might give them idiosyncratic mannerisms. Although I would have to establish context, why couldn’t I write something like, “A always furrowed her brows when she was surprised, B had noticed”? And of course writers do like this, but what these studies show us is that these sentences would actually be more accurate than one depicting the typical expression of surprise. Listening to this chapter, I felt a sense of possibilities unfolding.
Like most of us, I’d accepted the idea that emotions are universal and that facial expressions naturally reflected certain emotions. To learn that, if I was writing an ancient Roman historical fiction I would technically be inaccurate if I wrote, for instance, a Roman centurion frowning in consternation, was a bit of a surprise. However, the power of the written word is such that fictional depictions of emotional reactions have created a sort of template for an expected emotional reaction that have nothing to do with what the subject is actually feeling.
This template is what causes the “illusion of transparency” and makes us think we are so much better at discerning another person’s emotional state than we actually are. In fact, according to Gladwell, we are terrifically bad at reading each other’s faces. Many of history’s great misunderstandings have come from this sort of confidence in our own ability to read others (Gladwell gives the example of Chamberlain famously declaring that Hitler seemed like a trustworthy and honest person, and Hitler then proceeding to make a complete fool of Chamberlain). Thinking about each time that I may have written something along the lines of “I could tell by the way her face did X that she felt Y,” I couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, the idea of transparency has unlocked for me all sorts of opportunities for glorious misunderstandings and conflict. What more could a writer want?