Their face doesn’t say it all!

It’s not just words that sometimes need translating across the globe. A study this month has concluded people from different cultures read facial expressions differently.

Research on these cultural differences
, carried out by a team largely from Glasgow University, showed that East Asian observers found it more difficult to distinguish some facial expressions.

“We show that Easterners and Westerners look at different face features to read facial expressions,” said Rachael Jack. “Westerners look at the eyes and the mouth in equal measure, whereas Easterners favour the eyes and neglect the mouth. This means that Easterners have difficulty distinguishing facial expressions that look similar around the eye region.”

Interestingly this difference in focus is also reflected in emoticons – the textual portrayal of a writer’s mood commonly used in emails and text messages.

Western emoticons primarily use the mouth to convey emotional states, e.g. : ) for happy and : ( for sad. Eastern emoticons use the eyes, e.g. ^.^ for happy and ;_; for sad. So a quirky brochure design that revolves around a smiley in English might need a total re-think for the Chinese translation.

The final word on this goes to the research team, who wrote:

“In sum, our data demonstrate genuine perceptual differences between Western Caucasian and East Asian observers … From here on, examining how the different facets of cultural ideologies and concepts have diversified these basic social skills will elevate knowledge of human emotion processing from a reductionist to a more authentic representation. Otherwise, when it comes to communicating emotions across cultures, Easterners and Westerners will find themselves lost in translation.”