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Facial Expressions Don't Always Translate

Facial expressions and body language are often thought of as a universal language. However, researchers from The University of Glasgow have now discovered that the way people perceive facial expressions varies across different cultures. The research focused on the ways that natives of East Asia and Europe read emotion from facial expressions and found some surprising differences.

In the study, 13 European subjects and 13 East Asian subjects were shown slides of people displaying different emotions. They were asked to place the faces into different categories based on the emotion depicted in each slide. While the test subjects classified the pictures, researchers observed their eye movements to see what parts of the face they spent the most time looking at.

The European group did significantly better at choosing the correct emotion for each facial expression because they observed both the eyes and the mouths of the people in the pictures. The East Asian group looked primarily at the eyes. According to the researchers, this is because Asian cultures tend to use the eyes to express emotion more than the mouth.

In a press release, here’s how the researchers summed up their findings:

“In sum,” the researchers wrote:

“our data demonstrates genuine perceptual differences between Western Caucasian and East Asian observers and show that FACS-coded facial expressions are not universal signals of human emotion. From here on, examining how the different facets of cultural ideologies and concepts have diversified these basic social skills will elevate knowledge of human emotion processing from a reductionist to a more authentic representation. Otherwise, when it comes to communicating emotions across cultures, Easterners and Westerners will find themselves lost in translation.”

As an interesting footnote, the press release also notes that Asian emoticons focus on the eyes. For example, Westerners indicate happiness by typing :). Asians type ^.^.

This study underscores the importance of learning at least a little bit of the local language when you travel. You can’t expect people to understand English everywhere. Depending on where you travel, you might have some difficulties communicating without words, as well.

Hit West End Show Pioneers Translation Device

The hit West End show Hairspray, currently showing at the Shaftesbury Theatre has introduced a pioneering system which translates the show into 8 languages according to the BBC.

With one third of theatre audiences in London being tourists AirScript developers, Cambridge Consultants, hope the handsets will attract more tourists to London’s theatres.

The translation is received via WIFI and scrolls down throughout the performance. The handset has LED backlighting and the screen has a black background and orange text to minimise glare. It could be quite annoying for other theatre users if the device was too bright. It costs just £6 to hire the device.

The translated subtitles are delivered manually to make sure the line hits the screen at the same time as it is delivered on stage.

It could be quite distracting to look at a device for the whole show rather than getting lost in what’s happening on stage, but it is a great tool for tourists and can only get better as the technology advances.