Communication, whether verbal or non verbal, is inevitable with any and all relationships. Humans have been made to communicate with one another as well as the outside world. However, at times It does remain doubtful, that the information sent to the recipient is received the way that the sender intended it. Even if non verbal communication is executed advisedly, the message may not reach the receiver correctly. In the light of intercultural differences it is highly doubtful that communication lines would be crystal clear. Charles Darwin once stated, “… the same state of mind is expressed throughout the world with remarkable uniformity”, implying that facial expressions are universal globally. It has been suggested that it is nearly impossible to not communicate with one another. Every single behavior and action conducted, even those that are merely silent or considered below the level of consciousness, are suggested to reveal information about oneself (Watzlawick) The focal point of this paper is the cross-cultural similarities and differences of facial expressiveness, in regard to Asian and Western Cultures.
According to his work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin claims to have discovered the six most relevant feelings (happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sad). Darwin argued that these feelings are reflected identically by facial expressions throughout the entire world, since we all share the same ancestors. This theory was considered valid over several years. However, Rachael E. Jack (2012) challenges Darwin’s statement by stating that “cultural specificity in the facial expression models therefore likely reflects differences in the facial expression signals transmitted and encountered by observers in their social environment”.
Verbal communication without moving any body parts is easily done, whereas speaking without moving your face is nearly impossible. Therefore, one can assume that facial expressiveness, besides speech, is the most common and important way of revealing feelings and present information. More importantly in some situations, because facial expressiveness is the speech’s companion, when some people reveal feelings, they may not want to or cannot express themselves verbally. So in other words: “Even though the human species has acquired the powerful capabilities of a verbal language, the role of facial expressions in person-to-person interactions remains substantial” (Ekman, Rosenberg).
Facial expressions are generated by muscles, which are contracted at different angles and intensities. There are 43 muscles have been identified in the face, however, it is possible to have fewer (Matsumoto, 2011). Therefore, it is presumable to generalize how many facial expressions humans possess. Facial muscles are, contrary to other muscles, only connected to skin and not to the bone. A research study from the University of Portsmouth agrees with Susann Sherwood by statingmthere are five core muscles which are used for eliciting the six standard expressions mentioned above, moreover, further outcome of this research is that some individuals are missing nearly 40 percent of the indicated 43 muscles. These people tend to look sad or gloomy. In other words their lack of facial muscles persuade others to decode their facial expression incorrectly (Waller et al. 2008).
Paul Ekman was the first one person who successfully introduced a coding system for facial expressions in association with Wallace Friesen. They had adopted the system by the Swedish anatomist Carl-Herman Hjortsjö. This system is called Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and is a tool to measure facial expressions by analyzing the contraction of facial muscles. The facial areas being observed are separated into Action Units (AU), since one muscle can be involved in several movements and therefore can be affected by different emotions. The FACS manual was first published in 1978. According to Ekman the FAC is globally adaptable, because the Facial Action Coding System presumes that there are no cross-cultural differences in facial expressiveness. In other words changes of Action Units are to be assessed equally independent from the cultural background (Ekman and Rosenberg, 2008).
The system was used widely to decode expressions and even became an implement in the film industry to create faces in animated films. The corresponding belief of a global uniformity of facial expressiveness seems to have been taken for granted over recent decades (Susskind, J. M., 2008). However, technical capabilities have been improved in recent years and so have the possibilities of performing scientific studies. Thus, the hypothesis of an overall applicable measuring system for facial expression has been challenged. This opinion of general equality has become a dogma. Rachael E. Jack, a psychologist at the university of Glasgow, along with her colleagues and Roberto Caldara from the university of Fribourg, have been hesitant about the thesis. Apparently, one of their latest studies had prove them right. “Our results show that facial expressions of emotion are culture specific” (Jack et al. 2012).
Jack and her team developed both western and asian looking 3D animated faces showing the 6 core emotions and a neutral one modeled on the guideline of FACS criteria. The study was conducted with fifteen Western Caucasian and fifteen East Asians. The test subjects were shown the accordingly facial expressions and asked to identify the presented emotion. All test subjects had minimal experience in foreign culture and normal or regulated normal vision and at least basic English skills. The research team then, registered where the view falls to decode the expression. Once the study was completed, the research team revealed the outcome of the experiment. The results indicated that Western Caucasians do not struggle to decode the presented facial expressions correctly, whereas Eastern Asians only determined the two fundamental emotions happy and sad correctly. Another significant difference between the Western and Asian culture is that certain parts of the face are observed to determine the facial expression. The study also concluded that Europeans put emphasis on the mouth, whereas Asians concentrate more on the center of the face thus the nose and eyes, which is also mirrored by the emoticons used by Europeans and Asians. Asians use: ^.^ is used to express happiness and ;_; to illustrates sadness. This suggested that the focus is obviously on the eyes while Europeans let the mouth act as an indicator: 🙂 means happy and 🙁 means sad.
Jack reasons this by pointing out that facial expressiveness also evolves. Jack argues that biological hardwired facial expressions become an instrument of our social interaction. These expressions are developed through interactions, cultural upbringing, and past experiences. Therefore, differentiating facial expressions are in accordance to the appropriate culture. Asians
tend to disguise negative feelings which is easy to achieve by using the mouth section of the face. Therefore, they rather observe the eyes than the mouth to recognize true emotions. Furthermore, Asians place value on different emotions such as shame, guilt, or pride (Jack et al. 2012).
A further study regarding cultural differences in communications was conducted by Akihiro Tanaka in 2010. He and his team put emphasis on the interaction of vocal tone and facial expressions. During the study, a Dutch and Japanese actor were recorded saying a neutral sentence: “Is that so?” angrily and happily. Afterwards the video was edited so that there were two versions available: A person saying the sentence happily with an angry face and vice versa. Participants were then asked to watch the videos in their native and the other language. Once trying to ignore the voice and another time trying to ignore the facial expression. The results indicated that Japanese people rather judge by the sounds of voice. “This result indicates that Japanese people are more attuned than Dutch people to vocal processing in the multi-sensory perception of emotion. Our findings provide the first evidence that multi sensory integration of affective information is regulated by perceivers’ cultural background” (Tanaka et al. 2010).
By comparing the outcomes of Jack’s and Tanaka’s studies independently from each other, the studies striking parallels become apparent. The resulting theories and overall findings of the studies, appear to be consistent with each other. The core statement is that people are shaped by the Western culture. Suggesting that Westerns emphasizes on the face to judge
emotions, more precisely on the mouth, whereas Asians rather listen to the inflection of tone or observe the eyes, since they tend to cover bad feelings by putting on a smile. In other words their culture forces them, to a certain extent, to not appear bad-tempered when encountering other people. To frame this into the lens of cultural differences, one can assume that cultural development plays a crucial role in accordance of facial expressiveness.
Despite this, there are contemporary studies asserting global unity in facial expressions. David Matsumoto, proponent in the field of facial expressions, published a study along with Bob Willingham in 2009. The study stated that different facial expressions are genetically determined. He justifies this by stating that blind people generate the same facial expressions as non-blind individuals. Matsumoto states that, “(…) there were no cultural differences in expression. These findings provide compelling evidence that the production of spontaneous facial expressions of emotion is not dependent on observational learning but simultaneously demonstrates a learned component to the social management of expressions, even among blind individuals” (2009). He explains that the in accurateness of Asians by detecting facial expressions of 3D modeled faces or photographs by a lack of real interpersonal circumstances.
Another aspect that has to be considered is how different cultures handle eye contact and gaze. Both Western Europeans and East Asians experience a higher affect from direct eye contact than an adverted gaze. According to Hironori Akechi and his team state that throughout their published 2013 study that this becomes apparent because of higher heart rates, and shorter
looking times presented by Western Europeans and East Asians (Hironori Akechi 2013, p. 137). Desmond Morris (2002, p. 106) agrees to that: “(…) it can be said that a direct stare indicates intensely active feelings of an amorous, hostile, or fearful kind, while a deflected gaze is linked with shyness, casual superiority, or downcast submissiveness.”
However, regardless of the different studies, it is evident that there are cultural differences. This is because the way in which the different cultures make use of eye contact and gaze differs. In the Western Culture direct eye contact is considered as a sign of respect, whereas in the Eastern culture a person in a lower hierarchical position shows respect by not gazing into the eyes of a higher positioned individual. Consequently East Asians would perceive another person’s face as angry or even objectionable if direct eye contact exceeds a certain period. Vice versa, Western Europeans may evaluate avoidance of eye contact as disrespectful. During a cross-cultural coming together, this can lead to serious misunderstandings resulting in unfounded aversion (Hironori 2013, p. 163).
The interface between facial expressiveness and body language may be the movement of the head. Therefore by examining the similarities and differences in head movements, for example yes/no signals such as the “head nod”. This signal is “(…) always a “yes” sign, never a “no” (Morris 2002, p.97). Morris also assumes that head nodding may be inborn, since even people born blind and deaf have been observed performing this movement. As globally understood as the nod is, the horizontally “head shake” is the best known signal for a negative
response and may have been arisen from the infant’s movement of rejecting the breast or food by simply facing away from it. A less obvious statement provides the “head sway”, “The head tilts rhythmically from side to side, describing an arc as if it were an inverted pendulum” (Morris 2002, p. 99). The most common interpretation of this movement is “maybe”. However, in some southeastern parts of Europe it means “yes”, even though the movements is more familiar to the “head nod”. Consequently this can cause a lot of confusion throughout communication. “When Head Shaking Russian soldiers were occupying Bulgaria in the last century, they had trouble understanding the local inhabitants. The Bulgarian “yes” looked so much like Russian “no” that complications arose” (Morris 2002, p.99).
In summary, it can be stated that the latest studies and researches basically share the opinion that cultural differences in facial expressiveness do exist in regard to Asian and Western Cultures. However, there are still proponents of the idea of global uniformity, in which this origin can be traced back to Darwin. Nevertheless, cross-cultural similarities and differences do exist and cannot be overlooked. What remains debatable is to what extent facial expressiveness is in the status of a constant change. The process of globalization has had effects on almost every life situation. If in fact cultural development has led to differences in facial expressions then globalization may, in the future, have the possibility to reverse it by unifying cultures.