Are Facial Expressions Perceived Differently Across Cultures? Find Out Here.

Languages have shaped our genetics in terms of physiological differences in speech.

The roof of the mouth, for instance, differs across cultures.

But language isn’t the only part of communication.

Facial expressions and mannerisms are a big part of communication, and the interpretation of these types of expression differs across cultures.

The facial musculature of humans is highly developed, far more so than in any other primate species.

As such, the lips and eyes reveal a lot about human emotion.

According to Herbert Gintis’ “Gene-culture coevolution and the nature of human sociality”:

“Humans have evolved a highly specialized and very costly complex of physiological characteristics that both presuppose and facilitate sophisticated aural and visual communication, whereas communication in other primates, lacking as they are in cumulative culture, goes little beyond simple calling and gesturing capacities.”

While other primate species’ may go “little beyond,” how far does ours go?

Emotional Expression

Prior studies have suggested that the evolutionary nature of facial expressions does not differ across cultures, but at least one study has found that expressions of happiness, anger, and sadness are perceived differently between the East and the West.

According to the study’s abstract:

“Briefly stated, the universality hypothesis claims that all humans communicate six basic internal emotional states (happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sad) using the same facial movements by virtue of their biological and evolutionary origins [Susskind JM, et al. (2008) Nat Neurosci 11:843–850].”

Published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the research, led by Rachael E. Jack, PhD, of the University of Glasgow, opposes this theory.

The Study

Looking at the way in which Western Caucasians and East Asians view various expressions according to their facial features, two groups – one of Caucasians and one of Chinese participants – were selected.

The study’s participants viewed emotion-neutral faces that were altered at random using technology. They were asked to classify the faces as happy, sad, angry, disgusted, fearful, or surprised.

Researchers were then able to identify the facial features that the groups of participants associated with the emotions.

From the responses, researchers deduced that Western Caucasians focused more on the mouth and eyebrows when identifying facial expressions, while Chinese participants focused primarily on the eyes.

These differences can lead to complexities in communication across cultures, resulting in misinterpretation or missed signals of emotional expression. 

The findings support the concept of gene-culture coevolution and how culture is increasingly driving human behavior more than genetics.

We’ll talk more about cultural mannerisms and body language next week.

Chrysler & the PT Cruiser: A Cross-Cultural Case Study

A French office is like a royal court; a German office is a well-oiled machine.

As we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, analogies are simple mental models that can aid cross-cultural understanding.

While behavioral changes are inevitable when working a new culture, it can be impractical to completely alter your cultural identity. Analogies provide a rough blueprint so you can play by the rules.

They show you how another system works by transposing that system onto a concept that’s relatable to you.

Analogies aren’t perfect, but they do enable you to better comply with behavior in another culture which will make you more effective as a colleague or manager.

Instead of making decisions from the bias of your own cultural anchor, by understanding the structure of the workplace, you better understand its mechanics and are able to intuit decisions that more appropriately align.

If you don’t have a zookeeper to come up with an analogy for you – like an expat or local who’s worked in a similar cross-cultural capacity – observe the nuances of the culture and create your own simple but clear analogy to use as a mental model.

Here’s one example of how author and professor, Clotaire Rapaille, did just that.

The Culture Code

Having been exposed to numerous cultures in childhood, it was natural for Rapaille to dedicate his life to researching the differences of cultures around the world.

In doing so, he became a personal advisor for CEOs of top global companies and is on retainer for many Fortune 100 companies.

By applying basic analogies in his book, The Culture Code, his concise observations of other cultures make cross-cultural understanding more efficient.

Chrysler Case Study

One case study Rapaille presented in The Culture Code involved the development of Chrysler’s PT Cruiser.

Data from focus groups helped Chrysler analyze and understand the “code” of American car consumers.

What did they find?

  • A car means family: For Americans, the family car is made important during primary socialization. Therefore, the nostalgia of childhood and family are aspects entering into this code.
  • A car means freedom: As with most things American, owning a car in one’s youth means owning freedom in more ways than one. It was found that 80 percent of Americans have their first sexual experience in the backseat of a car.
  • A car means identity: There is a strong correlation between a person’s car and their identity in the U.S. In some ways, you are what you drive.

Considering this data, it’s clear that there’s a powerful emotional relationship between Americans and their cars.

As production planning for the PT Cruiser went into effect, German car manufacturer Daimler-Benz (Mercedes) took over Chrysler.

The German culture’s relationship with their vehicles is much different.

The legal driving age in Germany is 18, so the correlation between youthful freedom (and the nostalgia of a first sexual experience in a car) isn’t as common.

Moreover, German cars are ubiquitous with quality engineering. The focus is on advanced technology rather than on the powerful emotional relationship a consumer might have with their car.

Due to these differences in culture, the PT Cruiser project was not as successful as it could have been.

While the retro and individualistic design of the Cruiser pushed the right buttons for the American consumer, the German executives ignored this, instead focusing on the vehicle’s modest quality engineering.

They assumed the PT Cruiser would be a marketing disaster and consigned its production to a small plant in Mexico.

Because of this decision, supply couldn’t keep up with demand, when the car became a big hit with Americans.

The company could have sold much more in the first year had Daimler-Benz better understood and catered to the culture of the American car market.

This is one example where exploiting a cultural analogy (one shaped by family, freedom, and identity) could have guided decision-making and led a company to greater commercial success.

The Nose Knows: Scent Emotion & Memory

You’re strolling down a path, when you brush past a lilac bush. You take a deep breath in, and suddenly memories of your grandmother flood in.

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“Nana…” you think. “Why am I suddenly recalling my gran?”

Then you recall the big lilac bushes in her backyard.

We’ve heard it all before: scent triggers memory. But just how does it work?

Scent -> Emotion

Last week, we talked about the power of our sense of smell. And perhaps this power is one of the reasons why scent triggers emotion and memory recall.

Consider ads for body fragrance, perfume, or scented products. Marketing specialists know that scent triggers certain emotions and, thus, attracts consumers to particular fragrances. And so, they bank on that.

The scent of nostalgia at Christmas -> buy a pine-scented candle.

The scent of joy in the summer -> a citric body spray will do the trick.

The scent of love/romance -> try something dusky and mysterious, like sandalwood.

Some fragrances serve as aphrodisiacs, others trigger positivity, and some even trigger productivity.

This association between fragrances and emotion is what may provoke recollections and vivid memories.

How Does It Work?

Here’s how:

  • The nose has olfactory receptors that are linked to the limbic system, which is the seat of emotion in the brain.
  • These smell sensations travel to the cortex, which is the seat of cognitive recognition.
  • Recognition only sparks after the depths of our brains have been ignited, so after feeling a certain emotion from a scent, it usually takes a moment for cognition and memory to catch up.

Why Don’t We Value Smell?

So, if our sense of smell is so powerful, why don’t we value it as much as, say, sight or touch or hearing.

During the 18th and 19th century, scientists and philosophers revalued the senses. The period’s elite believed sight to be the most important sense, the most civilized. The superior sense, if you will.

Sight was based on reason, while smell was considered of a lower order. According to Katie Fox’s The Smell Report, published by the Social Issues Research Center, smell was considered:

“a primitive, brutish ability associated with savagery and even madness.”

The culture of the time drew the link between smell and emotion and believed that this connection threatened the rational detachment that was in vogue.

This strange view of smell has impacted culture’s relation to it, especially when it comes to language. We’ll talk more about that next week.