Talking about social media today tends to focus on strategies for how we use tools like Twitter and Facebook to engage with audiences we may never otherwise meet in real life. These virtual communities and the devices we use to access them create a seemingly endless variety of options for how we can share ideas with thousands of people at once.
But social engagement has existed long before there was Twitter or Facebook, before iPhones and the Internet, long before there were computers or even books. One could even argue that we’ve been sharing social messages before there was even language, and that each of us still does it today using the one app we’re all born with: our face.
Non-verbal communication has been part of our evolution as a species for the past 12,000 years and is a vital part of what makes us human.
Just think about how much we can express to each other with out using a single word, merely the right expression:
Just looking at someone’s face, or catching a tone in their voice, we’re receiving a whole lot of information we’re not even conscious of but our brains are actually relying on for a more complete understanding of what someone else is communicating.
Or to look at it another way, think about how frustrating it feels when we can’t read an emotion or expression from someone’s face:
We can keep looking at it, trying to interpret it, waiting for clues that we can’t even put into words, but they remain mysterious and alluring:
It’s only recently that researchers have shown we are sharing a lot more with our expressions than just if we’re feeling happy or sad. In many ways, our faces are expressing a continual stream of social media posts all day long, including non-verbal equivalents of “likes” and hashtags and trending topics. Perhaps most powerfully, there are even non-verbal equivalents of a “retweet” that can spread virally among a group, all without us even being aware it’s happening.
The fantastic podcast Invisibilia explored this recently, investigating how our expressions, moods, and even our breathing can be shared and mirrored subconsciously with those around us in a continuous, synchronized dance. They talked with researchers about just how far this is wired into our brains and found some obvious examples, such has how we subconciously imitate the postures and speaking patterns of those we’re with. But it goes deeper than that.
For example, says the show’s host, Lulu Miller, “if you’re talking to a friend, over time you will begin to blink as one. Or if you watch someone stutter, the tiny muscles on your mouth will start to twitch. It’s so fast that you couldn’t possibly do it consciously… It’s got to be going through the brainstem.” Put people in the same conference room, for example, and their breathing will start to mimic one another. It’s so wired into the primitive parts of our brain that even animals do it.
And it gets even more powerful when you throw emotions into the mix.
I recommend listening to the entire episode, but here is a portion from the transcript in which Lulu Miller is speaking with psychologists Elaine Hatfield and Dick Rapson about the phenomenon they uncovered:
MILLER: …they looked into it and found out that, indeed, emotions leak out a person’s face in these very measurable, consistent ways called micro-expressions.
HATFIELD: Split-second expressions of fear…
MILLER: What Dick and Elaine then added to the equation after years of research is that one way we might contract these emotions is through that same old dance. Because our faces, unbeknownst to us, actually imitate the tiny micro-expressions we see on other people — our eyebrows bound in synchrony with someone else’s surprise or droop with someone else’s sadness — the strange result is that the corresponding emotion is produced inside us.
HATFIELD: That’s right.
MILLER: Because, as has now been well documented — one of the ways that emotions are produced is from the outside, in.
HATFIELD: We get real pale, little reflections of what others are thinking and feeling.
These micro-expressions aren’t something most of us have any awareness of or control over, and we aren’t even conscious of when we see them in other people unless we train ourselves to look for them.
And yet there is part of our brain that is aware of the micro-expressions we see from others, and we are reacting to these on an automatic level. These cues are the glue that bonds whatever else we’re communicating through speech and gesture into a complete expression of thought and emotion that, on a very basic level, allows us to be fully human.
In fact, I think our built-in need for these unwritten visual cues may even explain why we invented a way of expressing them when we aren’t communicating in person:
: – )
Emoticons were the first tools we had that allowed us share quick approximations of our facial expressions and their emotional cues through text. And now with the modern explosion of emoji we can express complete thoughts in text messages and social media posts without typing out a single word.
Because in the end, if we really want to be understood, there are some things that just can’t be put into words. Our faces already say it best.
No matter where social media technology takes us next, the original social communities we live in every day—our offices, dining halls, bookstores, bedrooms, buses and subways—will still be the places we are able to express ourselves most completely and be understood most completely by other people. They are just subdomains of the vast social network that is humanity, and everyone has something to share.