Facial expressions and culture

The Link between Facial Expressions and Culture

As any holidaymaker will know, when you’re struggling with a foreign language you revert to the basics to get by. At Linguistica International, by no means do we condone the act of pointing at pastries in some far flung corner of the world, but sometimes, when a language barrier exists, there are few other methods of getting your message across.

Along with the pointing and the brainless gesticulating comes your friendliest, most disarming smile. You know the smile we’re talking about, it’s the one that says: “Hello there, I don’t speak your language and I’m very sorry about that, but I would love three of your delicious looking apple strudels please.” The trouble is, your slightly gormless, toothy smile might be disarming here in the UK, but it won’t necessarily be perceived in the same way in that delicious foreign cake shop.

What does the research say?

Most of us would assume that facial expressions convey the same emotion or meaning wherever you are in the world. However, recent research has caused an about turn in conventional thinking, and could be the reason why you’ve been getting all those funny looks…

In the first study, two completely different cultural groups, visitors to the Boston Museum of Science and the Himba people from the Namibian mountains, were asked to listen to nine different audio clips. They were then asked to describe the emotion each sound evoked in a single word.

The American participants guessed the emotions tied to all the sounds correctly, but the Himba’s accuracy in seven out of the nine sounds was less than five percent.

In another study, the same two ethnic groups were asked to interpret a number of facial expressions. The participants were asked to sort pictures of the faces of 36 African Americans into five different emotional groups, before labelling these five piles with the emotion attributed to them.

The American respondents split their pictures into five different expressions, which included: smiling, scowling, neutral, wide-eyed and a combination nose-wrinkled and pouting. The Himba created two piles, one with happy and the other with fearful expressions. The three other piles they created were completely different to those assembled by the Americans. The Himba also found it hard to describe the piles by attributing a mental state to each, and instead had to resort to facial actions to describe their piles.

What this shows, the researchers believe, is that the meaning of some facial expressions changes in different parts of the world.

How do we interpret facial expressions?

Interpreting facial expressions in a study is not the same as it is in everyday life. When you’re out and about in a foreign country, or just in your home town, you are using a number of different signals to interpret what you think people’s expressions mean.

Context is hugely important. Humans do not actually recognise emotions in others, but perceive them. As an example, the facial expression of an athlete who is jumping for joy after winning an event, if viewed alone, could look pained. It is not until the full image is revealed, which shows us some context, that we can see they are celebrating a triumph.

We once believed emotions to be natural events that are specific signatures, but we are now starting to realise that emotions are “constructed events that arise in the moment from a set of more basic ingredients.” Our emotions can actually be filtered by elements such as a positive/negative mood, and these perceptions are not fixed but occur in a moment.

What can we learn?

This tells us that different people, in different cultures, can express their emotions in different ways. But more than that, the facial expressions the Himba used to describe the emotions evoked when sorting the picture piles suggests that the very notion of emotion can differ in each culture as well.

This simply enhances the importance of appreciating, acknowledging and understanding the cultural differences at play when working with foreign customers, suppliers or business partners. The incorrect interpretation of cultural signals is one of the greatest challenges that businesses expanding into new markets must overcome. While our mother tongue linguists can help you get the language right, interpreting emotions and facial expressions is something only experience can help with.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced a miscommunication resulting from your incorrect interpretation of a facial expression? What about body language? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.