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Facial Expressions: East Doesn't Meet West

A study in the journal Current Biology finds that Eastern and Western facial expressions related to emotional states may differ enough for possible nonverbal miscommunication. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Westerners traveling to Asia may expect some language barriers. Perhaps enthusiastic facial expressions will help them be understood. Well, not so fast. According to research published August 13th in the journal Current Biology, Easterners and Westerners might not speak the same facial language.

University of Glasgow researchers enlisted 13 Western Caucasians and 13 East Asians. They had everyone examine pictures of expressive faces that were labeled according to a recognized western system called the Facial Action Coding System. The faces were purported to be happy, sad, surprised, fearful, disgusted, angry or neutral, and the participants categorized them as such. Turns out the East Asians were less likely to categorize the faces by Western standards.

By tracking the subject’s eye movements, researchers concluded that Westerners look at whole faces. But Easterners kept their focus mainly on the eye region. So while Westerners may use their whole faces to show that they’re elated, Easterners may express that feeling mainly around their eyes. Which means that facial expressions are not a universal language. That’s a fact that international travelers are sooner or later forced to face.

—Cynthia Graber

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