Sometimes reading faces is easy – sometimes, not so. Photos: Shutterstock

Wednesday 16th March 2016

P-P-P-Poker Face

What do ‘microexpressions’ reveal about interviewees?

Ever sat through an interview with a candidate wondering what the heck they’re really thinking of you, of your company, of your office decor?

Some people are impossible to read. And that leaves us in a quandary. No one likes rejection, and it can be a real pain to offer a person a job, only to be rejected.

Studying an interviewee’s face is a lot easier when the interview is recorded on video. Then, you’re free to press pause and rewind on a pair of sullen eyebrows to your heart’s content.

Anyway, face-to-face on or video, there are certain indicators to look for when attempting to decipher an expression. They are known as microexpressions. (That’s a brief facial expression that accords with the emotions being experienced.) Unless a person has MI5 training, they’ll find it difficult to fake a microexpression.

There are seven emotions with universal signals: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness, as well as signs for nervousness and stress.

For the purposes of an interview, sadness, fear and disgust aren’t really going to be a concern. (We hope.) That leaves six signs that you should learn to spot.


As a result of what you’ve just said, surprise can be a good or a bad reaction – though if they’re trying to hide it we can assume it’s for a negative reason.

Surprise presents with the raising of the eyebrows. The movement may be subtle, but in a normal person (one not treated with Botox) this will result in a slight wrinkling of the forehead. That’s your key giveaway here.

Being surprised tends to cause heightened alertness, so watch for a widening of the eyes too – clear if you can see the white of the eye all around the iris.


Did the candidate just do an Elvis on you? (Did one side of their lips raise in a sneer)? Sounds like you’ve spotted some contempt.


In some roles, it might be important to test the speed and ease at which the candidate angers. Can they stay calm and collected under pressure – or not?

The ‘not’ will reveal itself through the tightening of an eyelid or mouth, the jutting of a jaw or the flaring of a nostril.

Anger is one of the hardest expressions to read. No one signal can be taken as a sign of a person’s anger, but true anger will present itself in a combination of all three movements occurring simultaneously.


Depending on your leaning, nerves can a good or a bad thing during an interview. Sometimes being too calm might be an indicator of an overly confident character.

As with anger, nerves cause a tightening of the lips and a narrowing of the eyes – but the key here is twitching.

A wobbly lip, quivering chin or mouth corner that pulls towards the ear at odd intervals all distinguish nerves from annoyance.


Stress, like nerves, will reveal itself through odd tick-like movements in the face. The person might be trying so hard to maintain control that they inadvertently set their face off on a jerking rollercoaster.

Watch out for blinking and eye fluttering along with eye twitching and tongue chewing. Once the person starts feeling their face you know they are really feeling the heat.

Hair tugging and poking or stroking the nose and eyes are also clear signs of tension.


But enough of the negative faces. Sometimes we want to see the positive in a candidate’s features and happiness, like stress, is difficult for a person to hide. (Then again, you might want to question why a person would pretend not to be happy.)

If you don’t already know what a natural smile looks like: watch for teeth, crow’s feet, and wrinkles/furrows. In fact, this might be one of the few times wrinkles are seen as a good thing. A fake smiler will usually fail to engage their cheekbones and eyes.


And that’s your first lesson in facial psychology. Enjoy what you’ve learned – being able to accurately read a prospect’s feelings, beyond those that they vocalise to you, is a wonderful skill to own.

The above is all rather simplified, of course. We haven’t even begun to delve into the difference between a macro and micro expression (the first lasts longer) and the disparity between a false and masked face (masked faces are false faces made in order to hide a macro expression).

But a word of caution before you press the pause button on a video interview, or ask to take photo-portraits throughout a face-to-face interview. Facial movements shouldn’t always be taken as gospel.

Some people have naturally happy or concerned faces – so do remember to listen to the words used by candidates as well as the faces they pull. Put together, in context, they are your best indicator of a candidate’s innermost thoughts and feelings.

About the author

Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes, is a founder of Jobatar. He also founded the recruitment agency, FHC Recruitment, in 2004. Over the next nine years he pondered the difficulties recruiters and employers face during first round interviews. Despite great innovation in the recruitment sector, the interview process had barely changed. It continued to be a long and inefficient process, impinging the productivity of the business. Simon was struck by the question, “Surely there is an easier, more efficient way of doing this?” It was this that led Simon and his co-founders to create Jobatar.