Facial Dialogue

Actor Paul Eddington just finds out his political rival has died in Yes, Minister.

"Never mind. Your face just broke the language barrier."
Delenn, Babylon 5

Facial Dialogue occurs when a character is communicating not just his emotional reactions or intense feelings, but entire reams of dialog using nothing more than their facial expressions and without saying a single word. When two characters do this to each other, it results in entire paragraphs of byplay, all perfectly understandable to the audience despite the entire exchange being silent.

Used correctly, such scenes can be as good as, or even better, than those with actual spoken dialogue.

Eye Take, Aside Glance and Fascinating Eyebrow may be used as part of the Facial Dialogue, but by themselves are only limited versions. Often the forte of The Silent Bob, The Voiceless and The Quiet One. Often featured in a No Dialogue Episode. It is just as often used by characters who are perfectly capable of speaking, but just don't on this occasion, but in that case you should consider whether or not it qualifies instead as a Meaningful Look.


Anime and Manga
  • Takeo from Magic Users Club has literal facial dialogue at times, with his thoughts being written out on his face.
  • Kinos Journey has an excellent example in one episode: Kino is in the land of the people who drank nanomachines that transmitted every thought and feeling, and each eventually had to live apart from everyone. After the man telling the story finishes, Kino's pep talk causes him to realise something; he silently thanks her, and her expression clearly says, "You're welcome." She explains all this to Hermes to ensure the audience get the point too.
  • Kotarou from Gakuen Babysitters, who rarely speaks actual words due to being a young toddler, usually communicates in this fashion.
  • Baccano! has Chane, according to Claire. No one else can see it, but mostly they know better than to question him.

Comic Books
  • Duma, the Angel of Silence, speaks entire volumes with nothing but expressions in The Sandman. His gestures and actions also say (and accomplish!) volumes more than his partner, Remiel, despite his almost complete inability to shut the hell up.
  • The "intra-couple communication stealth mode" (between Empowered and Thugboy). Subtitled for the reader's sake.
  • Watchmen is famed for doing this as well as having dialogue, adding a lot of depth to characters. The most famous example is when Rorschach's landlord begs him not to reveal to her children that she is a prostitute—his silent response is fascinatingly difficult to decipher.
  • Peewee Friendly seems to communicate with his big brother Freckles by this means in the Richie Rich comics.

Film - Animated


  • Aly and Dove manage to hold an entire conversation like this in the second Daughter of the Lioness. (Apparently it's a hereditary trait, as in the previous book Aly notes how Dove's father and stepmother are able to hold a conversation purely by facial expression. She considers it a sign of a good marriage.)
    Word of the arrests reached Balitang House in the early evening. Dove, furious, came flying into the workroom as Aly met with her pack. Aly smiled at her young mistress as sweetly as she knew how. They understood each other. Dove did not need to ask if Aly had known about the arrests. Aly did not need to tell her that she had the matter in hand. The girl turned and walked out again.
  • The little girls in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's novels often give each other communicative looks, demonstrating the almost-ESP said girls experience when together. Ivy and Martha do this a few times in The Changeling, usually over the real-world confirmation of an element in their imaginary games. In The Egypt Game, April and Melanie look at each other this way when something strikes them as particularly appropriate for Egypt. Toby grouses that it's "like they have Siamese brains or something". When Pomma and Teera in the Green-Sky Trilogy do this, sometimes they actually are communicating telepathically.
  • An amusing variation in Judge Dee: While interviewing a possible suspect (an antiques collector), the judge passes his lieutenant as a connoisseur himself. The suspect eagerly asks him his opinion on a new piece of he has doubts on. The unfortunate lieutenant pulls off an expression of such disgust that the guy says he thought it was a fake, but he didn't think it was so obvious.

Live-Action TV
  • The page quote comes from an episode of Babylon 5. After Ivanova told Delenn that Sheridan had been "carrying on cranky", Delenn (being a Minbari, mostly fluent in English but not a native speaker) tried to look up the word "cranky", only to be given the runaround as she got shunted from one synonym to another. Finally, partway into a conversation with Sheridan, she finally got it just by looking at his rather grumpy expression.
  • Simon Tam did this a lot in Firefly, particularly with his sister. It's probably genetic.
    • After Simon's very awesome moment in the operating room in "Ariel", River gives Jayne this very glowing smile that all but says "That's my brother!"
  • Almost every character on White Collar is capable of pulling this trope off. Quite a lot of Neal/Peter and Neal/Mozzie interaction is entirely facial expressions.
  • Stargate SG-1:
    • Christopher Judge as Teal'c was the master of unspoken dialogue.
    • Parodied in a supposed "flashback" in the episode "200". While he and an invisible O'Neill are walking down a corridor (O'Neill's location is given away by the floating coffee mug he's drinking from), O'Neill makes a comment about being invisible which Teal'c responds to with his usual stare. Since he can't see O'Neill's response, Teal'c remarks after a moment, "I assume I am staring at you stoically."
    • Gets a Lampshade Hanging in an earlier episode where Daniel describes, in his normal mile-a-minute delivery, a non-vocal conversation he'd had with Teal'c moments earlier.
  • This is supposedly what got Peter Tork selected as a member of The Monkees. He didn't speak during his interview, just communicated with over-the-top facial expressions.
  • Merlin and Arthur talk in looks a lot, even when they're speaking out loud. Put any of their scenes on mute and you'll get the idea and it will still be almost just as funny.
    • Merlin's face at 0:52.
    • This scene from the same episode. They have their entire conversation silently and almost leave it at that until Arthur decides to verbalize it anyway — probably because he felt Merlin wasn't embarrassed enough.
  • The "telepathic conversations" on How I Met Your Mother. Although we hear what the characters are thinking, you can still get the gist of it just by the expressions alone. They are occasionally subverted when the other doesn't get it.
    • In "Bachelor Party", Robin attempts to convey an important message to Lily with facial expressions, and Lily interprets it as a request for a tampon.
    • Ted and Stella agree they have to help Stella's sister who was dumped right before her wedding. Ted thinks they agreed on paying for her dinner. Stella thought that the facial dialogue was about taking her wedding venue and getting married instead of them.
    • In "Doppelgängers", everyone else is having a telepathic conversation about Ted's hairstyle, and Ted's voiceover says, "What are we talking about? Nachos?"
  • According to the writers of Yes, Minister, during filming Paul Eddington would deviate from the script by replacing his lines with an expression. He was so good at this that in later episodes they actually annotated the script with "Paul doesn't have to say this line if he doesn't want to" where they expected this to work. An exceptional example is when he finds out a minister who was about to publish some embarrassing memoirs has unexpectedly died. The brief sadness, then joy, then abrupt attempt to look sad again is something to behold.
  • Used in Everybody Hates Chris. While narrating, Chris says that his parents would try not to fight around them, but they did have their fights through facial expressions.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Allegiance", Picard is abducted by aliens for the purpose of study. When Picard turns the tables on his captors, they return him to the Enterprise, but before they leave the bridge, Picard and the crew, communicating with only subtle facial expressions, trap the aliens in a forcefield to show them what it feels like to be imprisoned. Picard makes a point of the fact that he and the crew communicated this way.
  • The scripts for Frontline frequently had lines in parentheses if they were intended to be implicit in facial expressions or body language.
  • The Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble of Doctor Who play this trope for laughs. They are both spying on the episode's villain by looking through adjacent windows, the villain's office between them, and catch each other's eye. A conversation follows using comically exaggerated expressions, lip reading and mime. The conversation ends when Donna gestures to the villain, who, it turns out, has been watching them embarrass themselves and simply asks, "Are we interrupting you?"
  • Mulder and Scully of The X-Files are infamous for this ability. Already masters at the Held Gaze and Longing Look, most scenes have an embedded layer of subtext within the facial expressions. It makes their relationship look very intimate and almost make an onlooker feel as though they've walked in on something they shouldn't have.
  • Grey's Anatomy has a good conversation between George and Izzy. After waking up with an alcoholic blackout of the night before, Izzy remembers George cheating on his wife with her, but George doesn't. Later on, George's memory comes back, and he and Izzy share an entire conversation without speaking.
  • The first episode of Bugs, courtesy of voice-triggered bombs.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • "Hush" features demons that steal all of the voices in Sunnydale. Although the cast sometimes use handwriting, they also rely on this trope out of necessity.
    • There's also the scene in season 5 where Buffy and Giles have a long discussion about him dressing up in a Robe and Wizard Hat for the opening of the Magic Box without either of them uttering a single word..
  • Horatio Hornblower, second instalment "Mutiny" and "Retribution": Many characters exchange significant looks when they cannot talk freely. Usually it's because they are in front of their superiors, one of those is Insane Admiral who loses his ability to control his crew. It heavily overlaps with Meaningful Look, but some of the conveyed messages were rather complex.
    • Hornblower signals to 1st Lt. Buckland that he shouldn't interfere with crazy Captain Sawyer and that he should carry out his order to arrest all the other lieutenants, him including.
    • Their Spanish adversaries and prisoners, Senor and Senora Ortega share a worried look after they were forced to the unconditional surrender. We later find out its meaning. He wanted her to pull The Vamp and Femme Fatale, and she obliged. She pretended she was interested in having sex and killed one stupid Red Shirt, and the Spanish prisoners took over the ship.
  • Charlie Young does this a lot in The West Wing. Since he's not one of the senior staff and thus not usually a participant in the complex policy discussions, but he is always with the President, his reaction to a lot of situations and crises (petty or dramatic) is done silently.
  • A Harry and Paul skit "Eeny Miney Minie Mole" has two George Smileys (from the 1979 miniseries and the 2011 film) competing to see which one should remain employed by MI5.
    Alec Guinness Smiley: Might I suggest a solution? A contest, to see which one of us looks the most disappointed with the world.
    Gary Oldman Smiley: Whilst at the same time, suggesting a hinterland of other interests.
  • The frequent use of this in Eastenders is mocked by Charlie Brooker in Weekly Wipe, in which he describes most of the inhabitants of Albert Square as "communicating in some sort of weird silent theatre of the mind".
  • Gibbs's functional mute characterization on "NCIS" partly comes from Mark Harmon choosing to not say his lines during the show's early seasons and react to his co-stars through facial expressions. This turned Gibbs from being merely a gruff authority figure into someone who famously has no patience for the extraneous.
  • Generation Kill: In the second episode, Cradle of Civilization, Encino Man announces over the radio that the convoy got lost because Colbert took a wrong turn (omitting the fact that Encino Man ordered him to take that turn despite his protest that it was the wrong road). Colbert keys the mike on his radio to say something in response, but Lieutenant Fick makes eye contact with him and shakes his head, silently convincing Colbert to let it drop rather than get himself in trouble by mouthing off to the Captain.
  • The Small Council scenes in Game of Thrones are full of this, with special note going to Conleth Hill's Varys, who manages to snark without saying a word, and spotting his facial expressions in the background as other characters are talking has become an unofficial sport among fans. In "Mhysa" everyone reacts to Joffrey mouthing off to Tywin with a variation on an oh shit expression, but each with different connotations.
  • On 30 Rock, the male writers are using Jenna to get invited to a gay Halloween party. After she informs a gay friend of hers of this, this exchange follows.
    Gay friend: Girl, I don't even have the energy to tell you what's happening here, so read my face.
    Jenna: [Beat] [Gasps] Oh my God! They're using me to get invited to Gay Halloween so they can meet hot girls!
  • In Proof, one flashback shows the Barliss family about to enter the church for Will's funeral. As Len and Sophie are about to go in, Cat is just standing outside, and her anguish and guilt are written all over her face. Len immediately understands that she's suffering too much to be able to face her dead son, and he and Sophie go in without her.

  • The "Weird Al" Yankovic song "Jackson Park Express" is about a man riding the bus who thinks he is having an increasingly detailed and bizarre conversation with the girl in the seat across the aisle from him using only this. It ends when the girl (who probably had no clue what was going on in the guy's head) reaches her stop and gets off the bus.

Web Comics