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        Understanding how other people are feeling is crucial for a successful social interaction.  It is pertinent in the development and maintenance of our relationships.  If we don't know how someone is feeling, we can't respond appropriately to them.  Most people are drawn to others who they feel really "understand" them.  We want to be with and surround ourselves with people who can read us and anticipate our needs.  If we don't know if someone is happy, we can't celebrate with that person.  If we don't know if someone is sad, we can't comfort that person.  If we don't know someone is angry, we can't help fix the problem.  If we don't know someone is fearful, we can't help calm his or her concerns. 


There are several cues we could use to determine how other people are feeling if they do not come right out and tell us (which is most often the case).

Facial Expressions

Facial expression is the primary way we express our emotions nonverbally, therefore it is the most impotant indicator.  When looking at facial expressions, we look at individual features (eyes and mouth) as well as the entire face.  The eyes (including eyebrows) and mouth features are probably the most obvious and important indicators of emotion. 

Vocal Expressions

We also express our emotions through the sound of our voice.   We pick up emotions from the tone and the pitch of the way somebody says something.  The content of the sentence can be completely neutral, but we could tell how someone is feeling by the way they say it.  Sometimes the content of the sentence is the opposite of the actual emotion that is being felt.  This is the basis for sarcasm: "Thanks for helping out today" could be meant sincerely, or sarcastically.  The tone in which it is said is important for recognizing the true meaning behind the sentence.

Social Context

We can also refer to the context of the situation to infer how someone is feeling.  This includes knowing the actual event or situation at hand and being able to infer how someone would feel based on what is going on.  In order to do this, we must know what the person wants, believes and expects from the situation.  We must also tune into the persons' behaviors and what we think that reflects.  Are they crying?  Slamming things?    Together this information could be used to make accurate inferences about how someone is feeling.


If we combine all of this information from facial and vocal expressions with the social context, it is likely that we will be somewhat successful in knowing what someone is feeling. 

Exercises to improve your ability to recognize other people's emotions