The Micro Expression of Sadness

Sympathy for the Sad

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D.

5-Minute Read

In our last blog, we discussed micro expressions of fear. Today we discuss the micro expression of sadness and how to spot its various forms.

I remember one particular interview like it happened yesterday, although it was several years ago. I was conducting ad evaluation interviews in Chicago in August. It was sweltering outside, and each participant arrived cherry-faced, thirsty and perspiring. We had cold refreshments waiting for them. They were more than happy to beat the heat and examine our client’s ads in the air-conditioned moderating room.

That’s when one memorable interviewee (we’ll call him Joe) arrived. He too was melting in a t-shirt and shorts. He looked mighty uncomfortable, like everyone else. But there was something about him that seemed off. I extended my hand and got a limp, wet fish in return. Joe hardly looked me in the eye and his eyebrows were arched together. His lips were turned down slightly. His gaze was unfocused and distant. He slumped back in his seat.

Those who experienced trauma or who have suffered greatly can show a permanent face of sadness. Others can show it while going through an extended period of anxiety or depression. Still others just look this way for no apparent reason.

“Joe,” I said, “can I get you some water?”

“No thanks,” he said, his eyes looking right past me. “Just had some.”

Trying to understand more, I leaned in and asked, “Joe, are you okay?”

“No,” he replied, hesitating, his eyes welling up with water. “We just came back from the hospital and my wife has been diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer.”

“Joe,” I replied, stunned. “I am so sorry to hear that. Why are you here?”

“I just couldn’t go home,” he replied, staring down.

That day I cut the video and the audio, shoved the ads aside and just sat there and talked with Joe. There was no way he could review anything in his shape. Having had first-hand experience with family members battling breast cancer, I changed the subject to one of resources and hope. Soon he began to respond, sit up and look me in the eyes.

He never did evaluate the ads and initially he refused to take our incentive—until we convinced him it that it would be sweet to buy his wife something nice.  Empathy and sympathy can go a long way with those who are sad. Like Joe.

Joe’s story was extreme, but it illustrates how to read if someone is in distress and how to assist them, if that is possible. There are many basic signals of sadness that are quite easy to spot. Sadness can be detected from the eyebrows and lips in most cases.

My colleagues Kasia and Patryk from the Center for Body Language are showing genuine micro expressions of sadness below.


Micro expressions of sadness are not necessarily always related to your words. Any myriad of stimuli (a memory, a smell) could quickly trigger sadness in someone. Also, there is another micro expression of sadness that cannot be captured on photos. This is when someone’s facial muscle tone fades and the energy has seemingly been drained from their face. This usually is a sign that something truly horrible has occurred or that someone is clinically depressed.

What to Do When You Encounter Sadness?

Perhaps they were sad before they met you. Perhaps it was something you said that inadvertently triggered a painful memory. When you encounter expressions of sadness, try the following:

  1. Remember this person is in pain; let the empathy and sympathy flow.
  2. To the extent possible, try to figure out what, if anything, you may have said to cause them pain. Apologize if your words were hurtful.
  3. Change the topic and talk about something that is more pleasant and calming.
  4. Offer to take a break before regrouping, especially if someone is really upset (e.g., has cried).

The Merrill Institute

Stay tuned to our next blog as we individually analyze the micro expressions of surprise.

Contact The Merrill Institute to learn more about Body Language Training and Micro-Expressions