The Situationist

Archive for June 11th, 2007

A Look Into the Way Culture Affects Facial Expression

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 11, 2007

Tom Kat SmileAs Americans, we are accustomed to the broad smiles of our actors and politicians. In part, it is because of those smiles that people are drawn to them. As election season draws nearer, maybe we should take our cues from the Japanese and examine Hillary’s eyes for that inner truth rather than her smile. According to a recent study by Masaki Yuki, a social psychologist at Hokkaido University, culture plays a role in what part of the face people look to interpret facial expression, and while Americans look to the mouth, the Japanese look at eyes. This day in age, this does not only come across on the television screen and on paper, but in the days of emoticons, through the computer as well ☺. Yuki’s study was the focus of an article from, which is excerpted below.

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Culture is a huge factor in determining whether we look someone in the eye or the kisser to interpret facial expressions, according to a new study.

For instance, in Japan, people tend to look to the eyes for emotional cues, whereas Americans tend to look to the mouth, says researcher Masaki Yuki, a behavioral scientistJapanese Guy at Hokkaido University in Japan.

This could be because the Japanese, when in the presence of others, try to suppress their emotions more than Americans do, he said. Japanese people tend to shy away from overt displays of emotion, and rarely smile or frown with their mouths, Yuki explained, because the Japanese culture tends to emphasize conformity, humbleness and emotional suppression, traits that are thought to promote better relationships.

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So when Yuki entered graduate school and began communicating with American scholars over e-mail, he was often confused by their use of emoticons such as smiley faces :) and sad faces, or :(.

“It took some time before I finally understood that they were faces,” he wrote. In Japan, emoticons tend to emphasize the eyes, such as the happy face (^_^) and the sad face (;_;).

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Intrigued, Yuki decided to study this phenomenon. First, he and his colleagues asked groups of American and Japanese students to rate how happy or sad various computer-generated emoticons seemed to them. As Yuki predicted, the Japanese gave more weight to the emoticons’ eyes when gauging emotions, whereas Americans gave more weight to the mouth. For example, the American subjects rated smiling emoticons with sad-looking eyes as happier than the Japanese subjects did.

Interestingly, however, both the Americans and Japanese tended to rate faces with so-called “happy” eyes as neutral or sad. This could be because the muscles that are flexed around the eyes in genuine smiles are also quite active in sadness, said James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the research.

Research has shown that the expressive muscles around the eyes provide key clues about a person’s genuine emotions, said Coan.

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To read the entire article, click here. To find out more about Japanese and emotion, take a look at our posting from last month, “The Loss of Empathy in Japan?

Posted in Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

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