23 August 2009


The BBC published an interesting article about how facial expressions -- the most basic and meaningful form of communication -- are not universal and can change quite dramatically from culture to culture. The study, carried out by Glasgow University, dealt specifically with Westerners and East Asians. This is great for me since I'm a Westerner living in East Asia.

According to the article, "East Asian participants tended to focus on the eyes of the other person, while Western subjects took in the whole face, including the eyes and the mouth." The study concluded that because of the relative importance of the eyes in conveying emotion, it can make things a bit ambiguous (and, really, a bit socially disastrous) cross-culture.

For example:

One of these faces expresses fear, and the other, surprise.

The article didn't mention smiles at all, which is interesting, because I think that's the biggest difference between Eastern and Western facial expressions. Here's a page from Canadian comic book artist Guy Delisle's book "Shenzhen":

Of course, this is not to say Westerners don't do this. To quote my old Japanese Studies professor, "is a matter of degree". I think we all do this -- dry laughs and sad smiles to smooth over anger or sadness or anxiety. I do this pretty much every day at work. I even know people who heartily chuckle when they're scared. The difference, I suppose, is people in East Asian people tend to do this at a higher frequency and maybe in different situations than Westerners.

In Will Ferguson's book, "Hitching Rides with Buddha" in Canada, or "Hokkaido Highway Blues" elsewhere, he talks about being given a ride by a Tokyo University professor and his less-than-enthused wife, who was "nodding with that painfully polite smile that many uninitiated Westerners mistake for being a sign of friendship. It is actually a sign of extreme disease." Later in the book, he describes someone smiling to express inexpressible sadness.

In other species such as chimps, I should add, baring ones teeth in what looks very much like a human "smile" is actually a sign of hatred.

Aside from the obvious anthropological reasons, the reason why this is all so important is -- like I said at the beginning -- facial expressions and body language are the cornerstone of human communication. In inter-cultural communication, being able to read things like expressions can be essential for assessing a situation. And so I'll end this with an open question-- has anyone ever had serious social faux pas with people from different cultures stemming in nonverbal communication?


Adam said...

I can't read Japanese people worth a damn. I'm sure I mix up facial expressions every day, and I have no idea what the differences are. At least I know of the existence of their fake faces and real faces. It may be years before I can tell fully what tatemae and honne is... but I'm learning.

Furious said...

At least we're lucky since at school a depressingly high number of our coworkers don't seem to make any expressions at all, ever. ;)

Anonymous said...

I read about the study at neurologica a few days ago. Interesting stuff, although I think the emoticons thing is bunk.

Furious said...

I agree completely re: emoticons. The author was probably someone that didn't grow up with the internet and reads too much into the semiotics of emoticons, like anyone else in the media that ever mentions those things. Like me writing " ;) " in my other comment somehow means I don't notice people's noses as much as someone that usually writes a " ;-) "...

AzzidisRidden said...

I've never had any faux-pas based on a non-verbal communication based misunderstanding... but I marvel at the inability of Japanese people to read the meaning of the "Fuck off and die" stare that I am sometimes guilty of. Though, I guess in the long run, it's better that they don't.

Also, there's no doubt about the emoticons thing. While there are some Japanese emoticons that focus on the eyes, I feel like most of them are mouth.