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Communicating Emotions Across Cultures

Culture has vast implications for social perception.

Key points

  • The way we interpret facial movements and the messages we derive from facial expressions can be influenced by our cultures.
  • Some facial expressions of emotion translate better than others. What gets lost most often in translation are the nuances of emotions.
  • There are both commonalities and differences in facial expressions of emotions across cultures.
  • A better understanding of cross-cultural communication of emotion can have wide-ranging benefits for societies.

The human face is a trusty map when navigating the landscape of everyday affairs. Mostly, we are very skilled at using it. We can detect someone’s joy. We can sense another’s disenchantment. We can read blame, bliss, boredom. A hint of a frown here, a glint of a smile there—the hills and valleys of our faces lift, stretch, pull in coordinated patterns to mirror our innermost states. How remarkable to not be left solely at the mercy of our languages, and to have these maps facilitate our interactions!

But with as many maps as there are humans in the world, do we all read them the same way? Would strangers underneath some foreign skies be able to decipher the subtle dance of your facial muscles to mean awe or anxiety just as the people who you spend your life with?

The evolutionary significance of facial expressions coupled with the diversity of human cultures has made the cross-cultural study of emotion a fascinating example of the nature-nurture interaction. University of Glasgow professor Rachael Jack has been using a novel multidisciplinary approach that combines methods from cultural and mathematical psychology, social cognition, computer graphics, and vision science to explore the mysteries of facial signaling of emotions across cultures.

Here are 11 insights from Dr. Jack, in her own words, from her research on how people communicate their emotions.

Culture influences social perception.

There is not much variation in human facial musculature. But the way we interpret facial movements and the messages we derive from facial expressions can be influenced by our cultural expectations. Culture is essentially conceptual knowledge about the world and we cannot separate it from social perception. Thus, there are both commonalities and differences in the way we communicate our emotions.

Some facial expressions of emotion translate better than others.

One of the more surprising findings has been the variability by which facial expressions are used to communicate emotions across cultures. Despite this variability, some facial expressions are very well understood across cultures, whereas others aren’t. There are big differences in the extent to which cross-cultural communication is successful. Sometimes, one or two differences in facial signals can have striking effects on communication.

One example is the facial expression of confusion. In our research, when we built Eastern and Western models of confusion, the top part of the face had similar signals across cultures (i.e., frowning eyes), but the mouth would be stretched open in different ways, depending on the culture. Yet, despite these very few differences, when Westerners looked at Eastern models portraying confusion, they often didn’t recognize it as "confused." In cross-cultural situations where confusion is often rife, the facial expression for confusion doesn’t actually aid communication.

Facial expressions have their own accents and dialects.

Consider the parallel with languages. English is spoken with many different accents, and yet, we can all understand each other. Whereas a dialect, oftentimes, can be mutually incomprehensible. Similarly, the facial expressions of happy—despite having cultural accents—are rarely confused. But when signal differences of facial expressions impact cross-cultural communication, these could be considered dialects. Currently, we are researching which signals are more dialectical and which are more about accents.

The human face can express a myriad of emotions.

In principle, given the many thousands of expressions that the human face can make, each could convey a different message. Even though the face has the capacity to communicate so many different messages, some emotions are not habitually communicated by the face. For example, we often express jealousy using other social behaviors. Moreover, the values and ideals that cultures impose on emotions can influence how emotions are displayed, and what emotions are ritualized in facial expressions.

Effectively communicating emotions through facial expressions has significant implications.

Emotions are central to humans and affect most aspects of our lives. Because humans operate as a group, it’s important for us to be aware of the emotional states of others, since it can help us predict each other’s decisions and respond accordingly. If you know that somebody is grieving, you will respond differently than if you know that somebody is angry.

The visual system of the brain has evolved to be very sensitive to the visual properties of facial expressions (for example, the high contrast of wide-open eyes; the large features of the mouth that can be seen from longer distances.) In animal communication, expressing and reading facial signals can be used to maintain group survival. For example, displays of certain threat signals can communicate “stay away or I will attack you” rather than “I definitely want to fight you now.” Thus, such signals are often projected to warn others and prevent injury.

There are both commonalities and differences in facial expressions of emotions across cultures.

The advent of new technology has allowed researchers to further explore the question “Are facial expressions of emotion universal?” by using a wider range of methods than were previously available. For example, in our laboratory, we have now used a combination of multidisciplinary methods to model dynamic facial expressions of over 60 different emotions across two cultures to better understand cross-cultural and culture-specific facial signaling.

Our findings showed that across the 60 facial expressions, four main facial movement patterns structure this wide variety of facial expressions. These expressive patterns (for example, raised lip corners, lowered eyebrows) are like building blocks that have common basic meanings across cultures. They can be combined in different ways to create a variety of complex facial expressions of emotions across cultures. Among each one of the 60 facial expressions that we investigated, the consistent structure (i.e., the core set of action units) was common across cultures, while the specific signals (i.e., accents) were not.

There are more ways to express negative emotions than positive emotions.

There are many more negative emotions than positive emotions. Interestingly, facial signals tend to vary much more for negative emotions than for positive emotions. This makes sense in terms of survival because you want to know what kind of negative emotion others are communicating to respond appropriately.

What gets lost most often in translation are the nuances of emotions.

In part due to the differences in signaling, what can get lost in communication is nuance. Similarly, if you are learning a new language, you can get the gist of what is being said, but you might miss some subtle yet important details.

So, while the basic meaning of the message is preserved across cultures, the more refined meanings of the accents in facial signaling might be lost. It’s really about the precision of communication. For example, a face depicting confusion might be interpreted as "something’s not right." But what kind of "not right" it is might be missed.

Emotions can have different meanings across cultures.

Another way in which communication can differ across cultures is differences in the meaning and appropriateness of expressing certain emotions. For example, when people see someone smiling broadly, they will usually interpret this facial signal to mean that this person is very happy. However, depending on the culture, the implication of this message might vary: in some parts of the world, a broad smile can indicate social intelligence, in others—eccentricity.

A lot of these differences can be attributed to learned norms. If you go to a new culture, you’ll notice the differences and adapt to them. At the same time, why cultures value certain emotions over others could arise from various historical developments and environmental factors.

How we read faces can depend on our cultural backgrounds, as well as our motives.

There are cultural differences in the information that people use from the face to make inferences about emotion states. For example, on average, when East Asians try to read the face for emotional cues, they tend to search the eye region. Similarly, East Asian emoticons tend to have more variation in the eyes compared to the mouth. But if we change the task (for example, when East Asians are asked to make personality inferences from faces), then they might use other face regions to make their judgments.

A better understanding of cross-cultural communication of emotion can have wide-ranging benefits for societies.

We don’t yet fully understand the complex and mysterious system of human communication. Research into how humans express and read emotions from facial expressions can help us fill this knowledge gap.

As the world becomes more interconnected and culturally integrated, this knowledge can be applied directly in a variety of domains—from cross-cultural communication to politics and business. Furthermore, in our digital era, we now have virtual agents who are moving into the human social domain. If we want these digital agents, like companion robots, to be useful, then they need to be equipped with a good model of human communication. Insights from psychology and the study of emotions across cultures, thus, can also play a key part in the design of digital agents.

Many thanks to Rachael Jack for her time and insights. Dr. Jack is a Professor of Computational Social Cognition in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Glasgow.