Are facial expressions interpreted in the same way in different cultures? Do we react similarly to the same situations in Scandinavia, South America, and Europe?
We have probably often looked at the facial expressions of our interlocutors, wondering whether they feel comfortable with us, are embarrassed, ashamed, unsure of themselves, etc. It turns out that the culture we live in can dictate certain behaviours, including emotions, which we see primarily through facial expressions, and in particular through eye movement. Cultural differences, resulting mainly from the lack of knowledge about customs, traditions, history, experiences, culture and, most importantly, language, affect (most often negatively) mutual agreement and interpretation of the messages. However, there are areas that remain common to all people in the world.
In 1969, Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and pioneer in the field of the study of emotions and their facial motor expression, began a study involving 7 different Western and non-Western cultures. The Fore group from the south-eastern areas of Papua New Guinea, living in complete isolation from the Western world, was one of the participants of the study. Ekman observed no significant differences in the ability to read emotional expression. The Fore group correctly recognised all emotions except fear and surprise. Ekman’s study proved that the ways of showing emotions through facial expressions can be universal.
In a study of 1972, Ekman compared two groups of people living in industrialised countries: Japan and the United States. Members of both groups were recorded watching films: the first video depicted eye surgery, and the second one was free from stressful images. Recordings of facial expressions were assessed in terms of the type of emotions. Some subjects were recorded watching the films alone while others watched the films in the company of others. For those who watched the films alone, no differences were observed between the facial expressions of Americans and Japanese. They also did not differ in identifying whether members of their own group or another group watched a stressful film.
This study also proved that both the expression of different emotions and the ability to recognise emotions from facial expressions are universal human properties. However, for the subjects recorded in the presence of other people, clear differences between the facial expressions of Japanese and Americans in response to the films they watched were observed. The Japanese were much less likely to show negative emotions than the Americans. They inhibited expression and put up a brave face. This resulted mainly from the Japanese culture: people, especially men and especially when not alone, are not allowed to show weaknesses.
Therefore, although the ways of expressing facial emotions are universal throughout the world, culture has a significant influence on when disclosing specific emotions is considered socially appropriate. Our general belief is that we need to be ourselves and behave naturally. However, the concept of natural behaviour can be understood differently by different people.
One thing is certain though: when we are happy, our face shines regardless of the latitude, and when we are in pain, we feel pain in the same way.