Facial Expressions Don’t Always Translate

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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.