From the Vault #11 | How to Read People Like Vanessa Van Edwards

From the Vault #11 | How to Read People Like Vanessa Van Edwards

Our From the Vault series examines episodes from The Art of Charm’s past more deeply; we invite you to revisit them — or discover them for the first time — with us. This From the Vault revisits our conversation with Science of People’s microexpressions expert Vanessa Van Edwards and her uncanny ability to read people like a book.

Episode 281: How to Read People Like a Book was recorded in June 2014 and is definitely one of the most interactive episodes we’ve ever had. It features Vanessa Van Edwards, who works at a human behavioral research lab called Science of People. Growing up, she loved observing people. As her education and skills progressed, she was told that if she stayed the course, she would end up interrogating terrorists. This wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life, so now she’s an ambassador for behavioral science — turning raw research data into information that non-scientists can actually use.


A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that humans display in accordance with emotions being expressed. Unlike a prolonged facial expression, it is difficult to fake.

Mind Follows Body, Body Follows Mind

Studies have shown that children blind since birth convey the same basic expressions as sighted children. This means that these expressions are genetically programmed rather than learned. This supports the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, which states that emotions feed facial expressions, and in turn a facial expression can create and reinforce an emotion. We can gain a lot of insight into ourselves just by recording how we interact with others (a technique we use at our residential Bootcamp) and observing what our “resting” facial position is.


Vanessa went on to share some different microexpressions — how to imitate them and what to do when you encounter them. Contempt is fascinating because while it is a simple microexpression, it is the easiest to confuse. It is a slight raising of one side of the mouth. “It may look like a smile, but it’s kind of the opposite of a smile,” added Jordan. “It’s such an indicator of disrespect,” responded Vanessa. “Once we feel contempt for someone, it’s very hard to love and respect them.” She went on to add a story in which a certain researcher was able to predict — with 93.6% accuracy — the likelihood of divorce in a couple just by observing for this microexpression in taped interactions.

As more microexpressions were discussed, Jordan asked the simple question, “But how can we use this knowledge?” Vanessa pointed out that, when faced with a situation in which we don’t know what a facial expression might mean, we can mirror it and replicate the feeling within ourselves, putting us into a better position to interact positively. This can be a real game changer in how we interact with others, be they strangers or close family.


You can mimic the microexpression of disgust by thinking of something that repulses you, then pull up your upper lip so your teeth show, while crinkling your nose. This microexpression is important because it can be a precursor to a possible lie, particularly among women. You’ll see it when people are trying to be polite about something unpleasant.

For example, if a woman says she’s not fine, apart from 95% of the time having it mean the exact opposite, we can find out the truth simply by watching for the microexpression of disgust after she says it.


Vanessa noted that contempt can be mistaken for approval. So too sadness (a frowning mouth accompanied by drooping eyes) can sometimes be mistaken for anger. If men observe this in a friend or a partner, he might engage inappropriately. Instead of defaulting into a male template of problem solving, try this script suggested by Vanessa:

(When observing what looks to be sadness) “Tell me about your day.”

(Response) “It was fine.” (Observe for the disgust microexpression.)

(You see disgust and add) “You look a bit sad; would you like to talk?”

(As the conversation continues, to figure out whether this is an “I need to vent” or “I need help to solve a problem” situation, ask) “Do you want to talk through things you can do?” or “How can I help?”

Can We Have Some Nice Microexpressions, Please?

Fair enough. It’s not all doom and gloom! Let’s start with something easy: happiness. A smile may seem to be the most obvious microexpression, but to be really clear, you want to see the upper cheeks engaged. To simulate this, put a pen or pencil in between your teeth, and then move your teeth so that they are not touching it, and you’ll have that microexpression.

There’s also surprise. Think about a gasp, in which you drop your jaw, raise your eyebrows into an upside down “U,” and widen your eyes. This is quite close to fear, actually, but the eyebrows in that expression are straight across.

From the Vault picks out a few concepts developed in a given episode but there’s lots more to hear, like what mirror neurons are, how you can match someone’s cadence and vocabulary to make them feel comfortable (without mocking them!), and the truth about eyes and lies. Since you took the time to read this From the Vault, you can also enjoy a quick, three-minute course from Vanessa here. Listen to the whole podcast here.

Which microexpression does your “resting face” most closely resemble? Send your answers (and/or photos) to

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