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Emotions at Face Value

Facial expressions don't always translate between cultures. One researcher is finding that what means one thing to Americans can look like something completely different to others.


What started Siu Wa Tang wondering was the incident in Changchun, China, more than two years ago.

Tang, chairman of the UC Irvine department of psychiatry, was visiting pharmaceutical factories, and the Chinese plant managers greeted him with courtesy. But they took an instant dislike to his colleague, a young American academic who seemingly had done nothing to offend.

What angered the Chinese? Tang thinks he knows now. It was probably just the look on his face.

The popular assumption that facial expressions are the universal language turns out to be not such a good call. They can cause huge misunderstandings between cultures, as Tang's preliminary experiments indicate.

Over the summer, he showed photographs of expressions that virtually all Americans recognize in the same way to a group of 123 medical students in Japan. Many, sometimes most, interpreted the emotions behind the expressions differently. It didn't matter whether the face was male or female, Asian or Caucasian. And sometimes the interpretations missed each other by a mile.

Take Slide No. 30. Nine in 10 Americans instantly recognize the man's expression as fear, yet six in 10 Japanese thought the man was surprised or merely sad, not fearful.

Slide No. 6, obvious anger to nine in 10 Americans, meant disgust or contempt to nearly three-fourths of the Japanese students.

"There was much more misunderstanding than we expected," says Tang, who was testing only seven basic emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. Misunderstanding is likely to be even greater for more subtle facial expressions, he says.

Toshiki Shioiri, a UC Irvine visiting professor of psychiatry from Japan, is assisting Tang. He says he experienced some of the same confusion about expression when he arrived in the United States.

"For example, American people look at other people when talking. Eye contact is very strong," says Shioiri.

"In Japan, you look at the other person's cheeks, not the eyes. Looking in the eyes is a very aggressive thing to do. It surprised me when I came here, but now I'm used to it."

The process works in reverse, Tang says. At UCI, which has a large group of foreign students, teachers sometimes are taken aback by what seem to be inappropriate expressions. One teacher complained that the angrier she became with a foreign student, the broader the student smiled. "So she just got more and more angry," Tang says.

That's understandable, because in face-to-face communications, it's the face that does the most important communicating, Tang says. "Certain things are just understood. You understand my intentions by seeing my facial expression. It's efficient; I don't have to say it. It becomes a cultural norm."

Some basic emotions do translate well. Happiness and surprise were well understood cross-culturally in his tests. "Probably a dog can perceive whether you're happy or not," Tang says.

"These stereotypes are probably formed very early in life. Babies very soon, within a few months, start looking into adults' eyes, and the adults' facial expressions--very basic ones--do elicit responses. We assume these are the same in all cultures."

But when it comes to verbal communication, adding facial expression sometimes is vital. To avoid misunderstandings, smiling face images are often added to electronic mail to make sure the reader understands the statement is meant to be friendly or joking.

Much has been published in psychological journals about cross-cultural facial expressions, "but businessmen are probably not aware of these issues," Tang says. Many are traveling to the Far East and vice versa, "and we assume they are encountering problems because of it."

Tang, therefore, is planning to expand his study. Assisted by Shioiri and Daiga Helmeste, an associate professor of psychiatry, Tang is seeking funding for a second experiment.

He plans to hire actors in Japan, photograph them simulating facial expressions easily recognized by the Japanese, then test Americans' ability to interpret the emotions.

He expects that Americans will be just as confused by the expressions understood in Japan as the Japanese were by the looks understood in the United States.


Emotions at Face Value

What emotions do you see in these seven photos? Anger? Contempt? Disgust? Fear? Happiness? Sadness? Surprise? These were among 56 slides shown to 123 medical students in Japan, who were asked to state what emotion was being depicted as part of research by Siu Wa Tang of UC Irvine on how the Japanese understand American facial expressions.


86% of Americans recognized this as anger. The Japanese identified it as:

Disgust: 67.5%

Anger: 24.4%

Contempt: 4.9%

Sadness: 1.6%

Fear: 0.8%




67.2% of Americans recognized this as contempt. The Japanese identified it as:

Contempt: 36.6%

Happiness: 27.6%

Disgust: 19.5%

Anger: 6.5%

Sadness: 3.3%

Fear: 2.4%

Surprise: 0.8%



91.4% of Americans recognized this as disgust. The Japanese identified it as:

Disgust: 61.0%

Contempt: 19.5%

Anger: 17.1%

Sadness: 0.8%

Fear: 0.8%



88.9% of Americans recognized this as fear. The Japanese identified it as:

Surprise: 50.4%

Fear: 34.1%

Sadness: 8.1%

Anger: 4.1%

Disgust: 3.3%



98.1% of Americans recognized this as happiness. The Japanese identified it as:

Happiness: 69.9%

Disgust: 10.6%

Sadness: 8.9%

Contempt: 6.5%

Fear: 2.5%

Anger: 0.8%

Surprise: 0.8%



91.1% of Americans recognized this as sadness. The Japanese identified it as:

Disgust: 39.8%

Sadness: 37.4%

Contempt: 11.4%

Anger: 4.9%

Surprise: 2.4%

Fear: 1.6%



96.3% of Americans recognized this as surprise. The Japanese identified it as:

Surprise: 96.7%

Contempt: 2.5%

Fear: 0.8%

David Matsumoto and Paul Ekman 1988

(When percentages total less than 100%, some subjects were undecided.)

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