mask2Humor me for a sec: Look at the face of someone near you–like a friend, co-worker, even a stranger.

Now try to figure out what emotions they’re feeling right now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Did you do it? Okay, ready to find out how accurate you are in your emotional assessment?

If you’re in the first half of your monthly cycle–from the onset of menstruation to ovulation, which is Week 1 and Week 2–chances are high that you accurately determined what emotion the person is experiencing. And you did so quickly.

However, if you’re in the second half of your cycle–which starts after ovulation and lasts to the day before your next period, which is Week 3 and Week 4–chance are, you were slower to figure out what emotion the other person is feeling and you were probably less accurate in your assessment. On top of that, it’s likely you zeroed in on someone with a more negative facial expression (like sadness, fear, disgust and anger). Or you mistook someone’s neutral or happy facial expression for a negative one.

That’s the word from a handful of studies (like this one, this one and this one) that show your ability to detect what someone is feeling by their facial expressions changes across your menstrual cycle–sharpening in the first half compared to the second half.

Why the big difference in how you perceive other people’s emotions?

Collectively, the researchers seem to agree on the theory that during the first half of your cycle, rising estrogen is pushing you to make more social connections and seek out a mate. So, being accurately tuned in to someone’s mood would be important for better and quicker communication.

Meanwhile, progesterone–the “pregnancy hormone”–in the second half of your cycle pushes you to stay safe in case you got pregnant during ovulation. As a result, you’re more apt to be on the lookout for potential threats–and negative facial expressions can help clue you in on possible problems you need to sidestep. Unfortunately, with this extra focus on finding facial cues signalling anger, sadness, irritability or fear, you’re more likely to end up perceiving facial expressions as negative when they really aren’t.

So, how can you use this cycle-related tidbit in everyday life?

During the first half of your cycle, take advantage of your heightened ability to correctly interpret emotional cues by changing your strategy as you notice someone’s facial expressions change, for instance, while pitching a project to your boss, selling something to a client, attempting to win over a recruiter on a job interview or connecting with a friend or partner. For example, you can switch the topic if you notice disinterest or focus more on a topic when you notice heightened interest. Or you can pump up enthusiasm if you see the person responds to high energy or dial it down if the person seems to respond better to a low-key approach.

And during the second half of your cycle, keep in mind that you’re prone to spotting negative facial expressions–which can drag down your mood by making you mistakenly believe the world is full of irritated or sad people. So, try to seek out happy people to gaze at, too, to balance things out. And when you think a friend, co-worker or partner is angry or grumpy–and they insist they’re not–take them at their word and remind yourself that you’re more prone to misinterpreting facial expressions as more negative than they really are.

By the way: Go ahead and ask the person you just looked at what emotion they’re feeling (if you can do so without making them think you’re a stalker or some kind of oddball) to see how it matches up to the research. You might be quite surprised!

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