A Flare for Emotion

When it comes to understanding the language of the nose, the nostrils are a good place to start. Have you ever noticed that when someone is sad, her nostrils flare? When that same person is shocked, her nostrils flare. And when she's angry beyond belief … well, what do you know? Her nostrils flare. Why does this happen, you wonder, and how should you react to widening nasal openings?

Animalistic Instincts

As often as you see it happen, you may never stop and ask yourself why nostrils flare and why it's usually in response to some unexpected or adverse event. This is something else that goes back to your primitive ancestors who were fighting to survive with the daily threat of animal predators knocking on their cave door. The fight-or-flight response had to kick in in order for your relatives to assess the situation and prepare themselves for battle (or to run away). The nostril flare is a physical adaptation that helped them to literally sniff out the enemy.

Modern Flare

The flare can signal an unpleasant state of mind. Now, this could well be in response to a perceived attack, but it doesn't necessarily indicate that it's physical in nature. Let's say you're driving to work with your pal Mary. She's telling you all about her boyfriend (a guy you can't stand). Seems he's found himself in some legal trouble and Mary's had to bail him out of jail and cough up the money for a lawyer. You're concerned for your friend and tell her that she's being taken advantage of, that her boyfriend will never amount to anything, and that you can't believe that she'd blow her vacation money to spring him from the clink.

Mary sits quietly listening to your outburst, so you assume that she's agreeing with your point of view. At the next red light, you look her way and notice that her eyes are squinted, her jaw is set in stone and her nostrils are flared widely. Because of her body language you know you've just crossed a line and sent her into an internal rage.

The nostrils are a great indicator of someone's emotions; as a result, you might see flared nostrils in all sorts of situations, depending on the nose in question. For example, the nostrils might open widely in response to:

  • Fear. Nonverbal cues are similar to surprise.

  • Anger. You read about Mary's strong reaction, how her eyes and jaw changed.

  • Disgust. An emotion somewhere between anger and disdain, where you might see crinkled eyes, curled lips, and flared nostrils.

  • The nostrils flare in response to extreme emotion.

    Is it always easy to read the nose? In other words, do flared nostrils always indicate one of the above reactions? Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, as you'll read in the following section.

    Naturally Nostrilly

    Some people have naturally large nostrils that appear to be flared even when they aren't. In other cases, rhinoplasty can alter the size or shape of the nostrils, so that, again, they appear to be permanently enlarged.

    Before you go pinning an emotion on someone, take care to note the normal state of her nostrils. Someone who has big nostrils will become angry if she hears twenty people ask her why she looks so angry.

    If you happen to have nostrils that are on the larger side, just be aware that flared nostrils are often perceived as an expression of emotion. You might want to think about adjusting the rest of your nonverbal cues so that your face is sending the messages that you intend. For example, if you tend to frown out of habit, this gesture, combined with your flared nostrils, is probably making you look angry a good part of the day. Maybe people are afraid to approach you — and if they do, they are automatically on the defense, because they think they're entering into your bad mood zone.

    The Nose on Cloud Nine

    You've just read how the nose flares in reaction to adverse situations. Let's not forget that the nose can react in the same way to good news. For example, when athletes win the much-coveted season-ending prize in their sport, you see their emotions displayed in all their raw glory — the smiles are broad, the eyes are wide open, and the nostrils are often flared.

    It's important to keep in mind that just because someone touches his nose doesn't mean he's up to something dastardly. He might have a legitimate itch, after all. Take care to note how long the rubbing and itching goes on, especially if he appears to be healthy.

    Now picture waiting for a friend to walk into her own surprise party. When she's caught in the glare of the lights and a crowd that was heretofore hidden from view, her emotion will be somewhere between fear and happiness. You'll see that displayed in her wide eyes, her open mouth, and her flared nostrils.

    And don't be surprised if you see that your date's nostrils are flared. This can also be an indication of arousal or excitement.

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