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Facial Expressions Not Universally Understood

Cultural differences in reading emotions may affect communication, study shows

THURSDAY, Aug. 13 (HealthDay News) -- Eastern Asian people have more difficulty than Westerners telling the difference between facial expressions of fear and surprise, or disgust and anger, a new study finds.

That's because Eastern Asians focus their attention on a person's eyes, while Westerners observe the entire face, according to a study published online Aug. 13 in the journal Current Biology.

The findings show that human communication of emotion is much more complicated than previously believed, said the researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. This means that facial expressions once considered universally recognizable aren't a reliable way of conveying emotions in cross-cultural situations.

"We show that Easterners and Westerners look at different [facial] features to read facial expressions," Rachael E. Jack, one of the researchers, said in a news release from the journal's publisher.

Jack and colleagues recorded the eye movements of 13 East Asians and 13 white Westerners while they looked at pictures of expressive faces and categorized them as happy, sad, surprised, fearful, disgusted, angry or neutral.

"Westerners look at the eyes and the mouth in equal measure, whereas Easterners favor the eyes and neglect the mouth. This means that Easterners have difficulty distinguishing facial expressions that look similar around the eye region," Jack stated in the news release.

The researchers concluded that further examination of "how the different facets of cultural ideologies and concepts have diversified these basic social skills will elevate knowledge of human emotion processing from a reductionist to a more authentic representation. Otherwise, when it comes to communicating emotions across cultures, Easterners and Westerners will find themselves lost in translation."

More information

For more on reading body language, see Changing Minds.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Cell Press, news release, Aug. 13, 2009

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