The Micro Expression of Surprise

The Element of Surprise

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D.

Surprise cuts both ways.

Surprise can be positive and absolutely breathtaking: an unexpected gift, a marriage proposal, bumping into a long-lost friend, a surprise party. Or, surprise can be negative and sometimes deadly; infidelity, an assault, an ambush. Either way, surprise is the micro expression we show when we experience the unexpected.

When we are surprised, we open our eyes to see better and open our mouths to breathe more deeply. Of all the micro expressions, surprise is the shortest in duration. Oftentimes, surprise can be bundled or masked with other micro expressions:

  1. We show surprise when we are fearful.
  2. Surprise can quickly turn to anger when you are attacked or mistreated.
  3. Surprise can also dissolve into disgust when you are thrust into an unsavory situation from which you would like to be removed.
  4. We show surprise when we are presented with a sudden delightful event such as surprise gift or surprise birthday party (although for some, this can be downright terrifying).

Surprise has many variations. A common indication of surprise is when the mouth drops open with relaxed lips. Your eyebrows can also convey surprise when they are raised, untense and coupled with a quick lift of the upper eyelids. My colleagues Kasia and Patryk from the Center for Body Language are showing genuine micro expressions of surprise below.


Remember, surprise occurs very quickly.  If the eyelids are raised for a longer period of time, then it is likely fear you’re seeing instead. In addition, someone who raises their upper eyelids briefly can simply be signaling high interest in what they are hearing. Elongated raised eyebrows can also be conversational signal for emphasis.

What to Do When You Encounter Surprise?

To summarize, when you experience the unexpected you will react with surprise. When you encounter expressions of surprise in others, try the following:

  1. To the extent possible, try to figure out what, if anything, you may have said to surprise them. In Human Resources, for example, you might learn very quickly whether your salary offer is well received (surprise coupled with a genuine smile) or not (surprise followed by disgust or anger). Change your offer accordingly.
  2. Change the topic.

The Merrill Institute

Stay tuned to our next blog as we individually analyze the “neutral” micro expression. If you’re a poker player, you won’t want to miss this blog.

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