Misreading faces: dyssemia

I have a new favorite vocabulary word: dyssemia.

Misreading facial expression: Misreading faces tied to child social anxiety

Imagine trying to have a normal conversation, and develop social skills, if you are misreading how the people around you are feeling, and how they are responding to you. If you respond AS IF they are displaying emotions that they are not feeling, they begin treating you strangely, and the disconnect deepens.

What if people seem sad when they're really annoyed. People seem annoyed when they're sad. People seem to be getting angrier and more annoyed with you NO matter WHAT you do. That's a hostile world, a chaotic world where you can't learn from experience but you don't know why. You withdraw. I observe this happening sometimes to people, and then wonder how much *I'm* really getting right in my relations with others. Am I seeing warmth in people who aren't feeling it? Getting hurt by situations that aren't meant to? Assuming the worst when there are opportunities for better?

The funny thing is I know people who are poor at reading social cues but instead of withdrawing and feeling bad they do the opposite: they walk around in the belief that all is right with the world and that they are rubbing everyone the right way. These people can be great: bulletproof self-esteem.

Most people seem to get it right most of the time, but then under stress misread everyone. And how does this relate, or not, to the issue of prosopagnosia?

I see this dyssemia more in people I know who are quite anxious - and stress ramps it up. As the linked article mentions, it isn't clear whether anxiety is driving the deficit or living with this deficit raises anxiety but both make sense and would naturally feed one another.

Or, am I reading it wrong?


  1. What I think is interesting is that this usually relates to negative feelings, not positive ones. One thing I've noticed is that it is not uncommon for people to suppress negative feelings to get through a moment or a day, like if you're worried about your mother who is in the hospital or if you have fight with your husband and you go to work and interact with you colleagues. You may have suppressed your feeling but they can be read on your face without you realizing it. The problems comes when someone inter pets your expressions as personal when they have nothing to do with them. I think this happens more than we recognize. I also think some people are more sensitive to reading duress on someones face and in their voices and interactions.

  2. I find this whole area of non-verbal communication (interpreting and using body language, which includes facial expressions) really interesting.

    Whether anxiety leads to mis-interpretation of facial expressions, or vice versa (or both) is unclear. Some research suggests that people with autism find facial expressions difficult to read - because as young children, looking at faces, and eye contact in particular, provoked unbearable anxiety - and a 'fight or flight' response. If the child continually looks away from eyes and faces, to avoid anxiety, their brains don't develop typically in the area of reading faces.

    There is also research which suggests that people with BPD mis-read facial expressions as being negatively critical, angry or rejecting - which is why they may think that someone is criticising or rejecting them when they are not. But people with BPD are so hyper-vigilant to rejection and criticism that it's more likely that anxiety in this area precedes the mis-reading of facial expressions.

    Personally, I do have some difficulties in the area of non-verbal communication, and this arises from me having found eye contact very frightening as a child. Nobody did anything terrible to me as a baby; my parents are awesome people. I just felt that eye contact was violating my soul. So I think it's an inherent brain thing. It's obvious to me if someone is happy, sad, in pain etc., but I find more subtle facial expressions more difficult to read. I have also been told by some people that my body language is difficult to read. A number of people have asked me if they are boring me in conversation because apparently I look disinterested. Yet, I am usually very interested in what they have to say! Knowing that this is the case, I try to compensate verbally, because I don't want to give the wrong impression, annoy, or upset people.

  3. How do you deal with people who have this when you really don't want to interact with them (but they can't read the non-verbal cues that should alert them to this fact)?

    I have a co-worker who attempts to interact, without noticing or correctly assigning meaning to others' non-verbal cues (eyes and body turned away from him; facial expressions of disinterest or distaste, tone of voice, etc.) As long as they respond to him verbally, no matter how briefly, he appears happy and goes on his merry way.
    His verbal intonations can be overly emotive, florid, formal, as if he thinks he's being suave and charming. Add a low-pitched "heh heh heh" chuckle and it comes off as classic "creep" when talking to women.

    I haven't seen any coworker initiate a purely social interaction, it's always him going to others. He can notice very overt avoidance behavior, but, instead of getting his clue and leaving that person alone, he redoubles his efforts the next time. It appears to be all about him, never caring how he is affecting anyone else.

    He's harmless really, but the oddness, desperation, and general cluelessness are unappealing.

    1. Moesmom, I sense both your discomfort and your caring. It sounds as if your co-worker might struggle with autism. Or another brain-based problem with picking up on these signals. Having someone like you, who does not blame or condescend, is a good thing. If someone in your office had visual blindness it would be the same issue. Or deafness. The person's need for connection and respect is the same. It is impossible to know if your colleague is living with autism -- which can come with as many assets as deficits -- but the fact that you are searching out that information may be really helpful. If this fellow has dyssemia or autism then how marvelous to have people around him who recognize and respect his differences. Humans come in a range of flavors and there's a place and dignity for all.

    2. Thanks for the reply! Laura, you're much more generous than I deserve. :) I actually started out feeling like this guy was coming on to me and refusing to pick up on my cues of non-interest. I haven't lost that feeling entirely; his attempts to be "warm and friendly" are a bit overdone and my responses should dissuade it. So I started watching him with others and then, researching difficulties with social cues, landed on dyssemia. My understanding of autism is that people who have it avoid interacting at all, and have a flat "affect," toneless speaking voices or appear emotionless when that may not be the case at all. Those didn't fit this guy, in fact they're just about opposite of what I see, so I discounted autism.

      In any case, the research has been interesting and I've learned some new things. I can now step back emotionally and see more clearly what might be going on with this!

    3. If you've met one person with autism you've met.... one person with autism! (I didn't make that up, btw) Your description just now sounds like a movie version, like Rainman (I met the mom of the person who the movie was modelled on, by the way, a great activist)

      There is a rich diversity of folks on the autism spectrum and although I know people with autism none of them are like what you described just there, and some are more are like you described of your co-worker. I love that you are digging deeper both to understand him, and to think about your own impressions. A wise therapist once told me that people don't usually treat some people one way and other people another way: if they have a particular pattern of relating to people it's usually similar with everyone.

      If everyone was like you -- thinking deeply and observing -- it would be a better world.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts