I’ve grown accustomed to your apes.

Someday, I’ll write a post for which that would be an appropriate title.  In the meantime, here’s a moderately interesting question:  how much can you tell about a person by studying his face?  Can you tell if he’s basically decent or not?  Does it make a difference if it’s a photo or in person?  Have you ever been terribly wrong?

I saw this picture of the Pope

"Mmmm, orphans are so CRUNCHY!"

and thought to myself, “That there is the main reason people don’t like him.”  That’s completely unjust, of course.  Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that this is a kind, humble, and holy man, apparently devoid of selfishness and malice.  But if you were already anti-Catholic, I can see how — well, like everyone says, he just looks like Emperor Palpatine.

People who assume that he stays up late at night, figuring out how to boost  the annual number of African AIDS orphans, might say that they can see his evil on his face.  It’s not hard to find apparent evidence of what they expect to see.  But of course, they’re wrong.

So obviously you can’t assume that someone’s evil just because they look mean and wrinkly.  But there are other things you can see, I think: self-absorbtion or nacissism, for one thing.  Serial killers and movie stars often have that same look.

Of course we can’t know someone’s soul.  Of course there are very few people who are all good, or all bad — maybe there are none at all.  But what do you think?  Who can you think of who, as far as you can see, shows exactly who they are on their face?  Have you ever been taken in — either fooled by a baby-faced villain, or surprised to discover that someone whose face you feared or despised turned out to be a friend or a hero?  Do you have a misunderstood face?

Maybe this isn’t the best post for Advent, when we’re supposed to be searching our own souls and then turning to God, instead of staring at each other, searching out signs of hypocrisy.  Well, what do you want for your money?  You can always cut out more snowflakes.


  1. I didn’t even know that was the Papa at first glance, but rather a stingy investment banker, kind of like the Grinch wearing a Santa hat. So it isn’t only an unfair likeness but not a very true one either. But look at all those crows feet! The man has smile lines up to his ears and I wish that said something to the masses of haters.

    People tell me I look like a snob, not because of my expression but because of my actual face. I think it is because my nose is turned up at the end. How can I help that? Sometimes I correct them by saying, “Yes, I do look like a slob” which is much, much closer to the truth then their initial assumption.

  2. There are two kinds of faces that I find easily identifiable. One is the face of a former junkie which, even after recovery, still often has the haunted look of someone who has been there and back. The other is that salesman face of over-bright eyes and fake smile. I’m pretty good at spotting those.

    I think there are people whose histories show on there faces after awhile but it’s not a reliable rule. Some people have been sad or angry for so long, that their muscles and wrinkles just settle that way. And there are people who have been faking it for a long time too, so who knows.

  3. When my first three children were little (two toddlers and an infant) I used to go to daily mass. There was a lady who always seemed to be scowling at me, and I assumed it was because the babies sometimes made little sounds (they were extremely calm and quiet babies, but they weren’t absolutely silent). One day she approached me, scowling, and I braced myself for a big reprimand. What she said was, “Oh, I have been saving diapers coupons for you for months!” She wasn’t scowling at all. It was just some quirk of her facial structure. I try to remember that.

    On the other hand, I think I do recognize that haunted look Sara describes. In the movie Forrest Gump, the female character (Ginnie? Jenny?) is unbelievable because, when she comes back before she dies, she _doesn’t_ have that look.

  4. There is a set to the jaw that runs in my family line. It’s an odd, mostly unlovely thing, that makes us look like we’re clenching our teeth, gearing up for a fight. Which we’re not, because having descended from Swedish peasant stock, we’re lovers (and farmers), not fighters. But still, it’s there, and rears its ugly head in pictures.

    I try to keep this in mind when I run across someone who has what I call the “soulless” look. There is something across the eyes that is so hard, so flinty and flat that it reminds me of looking into a snake’s eyes.


    (ok, those were easy targets, but you can see what I mean.)

    I don’t know. I think I should stick to cutting out snowflakes. Heaven knows I’ve wasted enough time doing that over the past 24 hours.

  5. This makes me think of the line in Juno – about how a girl constantly gives Juno the “stink eye” but that’s just how she looks. HA. stink eye. I think some people are born with unfortunate facial expressions and others settle in that way. It’s an important lesson for us in “not judging a book by its cover” (oh cliche!), and I think over time we learn that lesson. But it takes a lot of practice.

  6. I have a tendency to furrow my brow when I’m thinking – I had a client who kept insisting that I was doing it on purpose to make her feel bad. Huh? You just told me I had an ugly look on my face and YOU feel bad? Anyway, she’s one of those clients who would not be fired no matter how hard I tried, so I just tried not to think very hard when I was around her ;p and just enjoy the business (interior design, dirtybirds).

    I have a pet peeve that’s not exactly what your addressing, but is increasingly common, frequently utilized by the slick type sara described (though I don’t think all salespeople are like that) – the smiling insult, in order to be nice yet mean all in one context. I’m firing everyone who behaves that way. It’s the hallmark of an unrequited bully and it’s creepy.

    This has been very uplifting, thank you. I’m going to make more snowflakes now.

  7. Oh yeah, photo vs. in person definitely makes a difference. It’s *so* easy to take a bunch of photos of someone talking and find the shots where his mouth was half open and he looks like an idiot.

    On a completely different note, here is a photo of Simone Weil…. smiling! (I nearly fainted: I am seeing Simone Weil’s teeth?!)

  8. I heard this once:

    “Every man, by the time he’s forty, has the face he deserves.”

    I don’t know if it’s true — apparently not, in B16’s case — but kind of a good quote.

  9. Actually- I don’t think he looks like he would be crunching orphans in that picture- the eyes are positive (“Lie to me” will give you pointers)

    Now- it is true that John Paul had a much softer face- the difference between Poles and Germans! 🙂

  10. Hollywood stars have the best poker faces ever. They are publicly sinning left and right – and they’re gorgeous. The cutest kids generally get away with a lot more, too. Who can stay mad at a Shirley Temple?

  11. Apparently I have a problem with my eyebrow. I have two, of course, but one is a lot more mobile than the other. It tends to rise when I’m surprised, or thoughtful, as well as when I am passing judgement. Not that I ever do. I’m much too nice. As a result, I do get misunderstood from time to time. The other thing I have is the Irish zero-affect suspension of judgement look. I’m very good at spotting criminals/dishonest people. It’s something in the eyes, but I don’t think it’s the face so much as discernment.

  12. I love the snowflake site. Can’t wait to get my daughter onto it so she can stop killing the forests!

    As for faces, there are a few that I know who are what they seem. Or rather, can’t seem to have a good enough poker face to cover up what they are really thinking. I’m apparently one of them, according to my husband.

  13. I am alright at identifying awful people in pictures. I don’t see fiery tempers and other symptoms of great passion or sorrow as huge problems. It is the dead eyed sullen types and the thinly veiled contempt smiling types that skeeve me out in pictures. They are usually the ones who have rotten hearts and are methodically and willfully evil.

    I can usually do more with a voice and a face (like videos).

    In real life facial and body language reading are perceived in conjunction with the person’s spiritual presence and for me that is the real test. The spiritual auras of folks who are really bad make me feel like I am in the room with a black hole sucking the life out of me. Just sitting there, not even talking they ooze intent towards a combination of malice, sexual predatorship, self-importance, contempt, manipulation and conniving.

    More commonly evil folks seem to be identified more readily by watching them interact with others in a social setting. It is easy to observe the little sighs, sneers, gestures of impatience, fake smiles, mocking smiles at the humiliation of inconvenience of others, eye flashes, empathetic gestures, expressions of consideration, etc.

    After living with an abusive parent and knowing many people in several different countries who are both good and bad I think reading people has become very instinctual. It’s not like I think about it. I would be much more frightened if someone with dead eyes and a set mouth started walking towards my children than someone who looks like Pope Benedict in Palpatine guise.

    • Whoa. Did you study behavior science? You sound like you know a great deal about ‘physical language’. Can you cold read? I’ve always been so interested in people who can do that – and interested to know what they look for.

  14. If you are a Democrat, cover your ears now:

    My dad pointed out that the corners of the lips on all women Democrats (politicians/activists/policy makers) turn down…in sort of a perpetual scowl or frown. I’ve done an 8 year study and decided that, indeed, he is correct.

  15. My kids used to ask me why I was mad. I realized that my “thinking” face was an angry one to my children. Having tried to explain this to them, I now notice that they ask me IF I’m mad before they draw conclusions.

    However my thinking face sometimes makes a guilty kid jump to whatever they were supposed to be doing. I may need to cultivate more thoughtful activity.

  16. my thinking face looks like I’m high. I’m a deep thinker. I think the Pope has a wonderful face, but it takes a bit of getting used to. H’es probably much different in person, and also you must consider that so many of his pictures are circulated by his detractors, and they must love that he takes a weird picture at times.

  17. I do feel bad that the Pope looks the way he does. I think Simcha got that ‘crunchy orphan’ caption right… to people who don’t know or care about Il Papa, he really does come across on the frightening side. He honestly looks like a vampire sometimes, I think.
    That said, I totally agree w everyone who has affirmed that you can’t ever really judge a book by its cover…but you can read mannerisms to see if they are lying, hiding something, or feel a particular hidden emotion (like nervousness, discomfort, etc). But even that is not a science: I’ve read that sociopaths actually can mask even those physical tells that would give an ordinary guy away.
    Fascinating stuff.

  18. My “thinking face” definitely looks angry. I mean, even to me when my friends take pictures to show me, lol! And with that in mind, I think I’m really bad at judging faces. Oh, I do it all the time… but I’m often wrong. I agree with those who say that watching people interact is often the best way to get a sense of them. But even then (esp. with introverted people who often come off as “haughty” or “cold” when they’re the opposite) I think it’s easy to be wrong.

  19. I was constantly told, by my mother, when I was growing up, “Stop sulking! Stop frowning!” but my mouth, when my face is neutral, just naturally goes down a bit at the corners. Not a damn thing I can do about it. In pictures, unless I’m smiling ear to ear, I look smug as all get out, or depressed. And I got told by several people, when I was in the dating scene, that I looked “intimidating” or like an ice queen or something. Huh.

  20. My face tends to reflect my inner thoughts.

    When I used to lead the choir, I would occasionally have someone come up to me after Mass and ask me if they’d hit a bad note because I’d ‘made a face’.

    It was usually because my mind had taken a little trip elsewhere and I was not thinking about choir at all!

    Is it just me, or does the Pope actually seem to be looking younger than he did when elected?

  21. Simcha and “a girl”,

    I could easily show you 100 beautiful photos of Benedict 16 for each of the cranky looking ones! The author Peter Seewald (who created the interview books, including “Light of the World”) said that when he worked for a German magazine, the editors used to always look for the most unflattering photos to help support their negative image of him.

    I have met him in person, and I think that the pope is lovely!

    See for yourselves in this book recently put out by the USCCB:

  22. I think I have a misunderstood face.

    And this sounds like I’m tootin’ my own horn, but I think it’s because I’m pretty.

    See, waaay back when I was a youngin’, 10 years ago, I was fat and that made me shy, but very friendly.

    Then, I [not so] suddenly lost tons of weight and grew out of my awkward phase. I got pretty and people actually wanted to talk to me.

    But the problem is, I’m still shy. So instead of a shy, fat girl, I’m a shy, pretty girl. Do you know the difference?

    The difference is: to outsiders, fat girls have a reason to be shy. It’s almost universally acceptable to be timid and fat, and people still think you’re nice. It’s the “poor dear” treatment. But when you’re pretty and shy, you’re a *itch. You’re too good for others. You look down on the world from your high horse. I can’t tell you hurt I am when a friend informs me that she was intimidated by me before she got to know me.

    On the bright side, I have learned to be more open with others, and I’m working on that whole “I want everyone to like me!” problem.

  23. There is a reason why the saying goes “A person’s eyes is a window to their soul.” He looks evil not BECAUSE of his nose, or teeth, or mouth, our ears, or hair, or wrinkles, or skin, BLA BLA BLA but because of the look in his eyes. The end.

  24. There is a reason why the saying goes “A person’s eyes is a window to their soul.” He looks evil not BECAUSE of his nose, or teeth, or mouth, or ears, or hair, or wrinkles, or skin, BLA BLA BLA but because of the look in his eyes. The end.

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