Emotions Lost in Translation when East meets West

Published: 13 August 2009

Facial expressions are not a universally-understood language as is commonly thought, according to researchers.

Facial expressions are not a universally-understood language as is commonly thought, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow.

When it comes to reading facial expressions to interpret the emotional states of others, different cultures focus on different parts of the face, which can cause confusion, the study found.

The study, in which Western Caucasian and East Asian volunteers looked at photographs of faces displaying different expressions, found that East Asian participants had difficulty recognising facial expressions of fear and disgust, and mistakenly interpreted them as surprise and anger instead.

The reason for this, according to the researchers, is because unlike the Western participants who took clues from the whole face, particularly the eyes and mouth, the East Asian participants focused mainly on the eyes, where the information is often just too similar to discriminate some expressions.

Rachael E Jack, of the Department of Psychology, who led the study, said: “Eastern observers persistently focus on the eyes to decipher facial expressions of fear, disgust and anger and neglect the mouth.

“Interestingly, although the eye region is ambiguous, subjects tended to bias their judgements towards less socially-threatening emotions – surprise rather than fear, for example. This perhaps highlights cultural differences when it comes to the social acceptability of emotions.

“Understanding facial expressions of emotion is an essential skill for effective human interaction and although many consider facial expressions to be the ‘universal language of emotion’, our research questions this and highlights the true complexities of cross-cultural communication.”

The researchers point out that the focus on different facial features for communicating emotion can be seen in the way ‘emoticons’ – typographical characters used to create rudimentary faces in emails to express the writer’s emotional state – are constructed in the West and East.

The Eastern emoticons, which are also correctly orientated, focus on the eyes, whilst the Western emoticons use the mouth to change emotional expression. So ‘happy’ in the West is :-) whereas in the East it is (^_^).

The study involved 13 Western Caucasians and 13 East Asian subjects who were shown photographs of faces displaying the seven basic universal emotional expressions of happy, sad, angry, disgust, fear, surprise and neutral.

The researchers used eye-trackers to monitor where the participants were looking when interpreting the expressions. A computer programme which used the same information as the East Asian subjects (i.e. the eyes) also made the same confusions between ‘fear’ and ‘surprise,’ and ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’.

The paper entitled ‘Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions are Not Universal’ is published in the journal Current Biology.

For more information contact Stuart Forsyth in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 4831 or email s.forsyth@admin.gla.ac.uk

Notes to Editors
The photographs shown to the subjects were Same Race or Other Race FACS-coded faces. FACS – Facial Action Coding System – is a standardised, scientific method of categorising facial expressions according to the facial muscles used to display them.

Emoticons are typographical characters used in emails and other electronic communication (eg. SMS) to convey emotional states. The characters used to construct emoticons differ between Western and Eastern cultures and reflect the different emphasis on the facial features that the two cultures place when determining emotional state. Contrast Western and Eastern styles:

Happy:        :-)     (^_^)
Sad:        :-(    (;_;) or (T_T)
Surprise:    :-o    (o.o)

First published: 13 August 2009

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