Which Culture Most Controls Their Facial Emotions?

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According to some research
it’s Russians! And the least control over facial emotions? Americans. These are
just two relatively new findings to emerge from studying cultural differences
in nonverbal behaviour. Perhaps the best known findings about differences
between cultures relate to interpersonal space. Arab males sit closer than
American males. Indonesians interact more closely than Australians. Italians
more closely than Americans or Germans, Columbians closer than Puerto Ricans.
Despite these differences, there are also surprising commonalities.
In fact some major aspects of
nonverbal behaviour are stable across cultures (Matsumoto, 2006). Facial
expression of emotion is a good example. Painstaking work by researchers like
Paul Ekman has brought solid evidence for the universality of basic facial
expressions. But out of studying these commonalities has come a greater
understanding of the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences between cultures.
display rules
Differences in facial
expressions between cultures have been termed cultural display rules. We learn
these types of rules as we grow up from those around us. Different cultures
have developed subtly different rules.
One useful distinction in
these rules is made between cultures which are considered generally
‘collectivist’ such as the Japanese and cultures considered ‘individualist’
such as Americans. Collectivist cultures tend to prize ‘fitting in’ and
homogeneity and getting along with others, while individualist cultures tend to
emphasise the importance of individual autonomy and power. Studies have found
that those from collectivist cultures are more likely to mask negative emotions
with smiles – but only do this when in the presence of others, not when they
are alone.
facial emotion
Recent work has looked at the
levels of control exerted over different emotions across different cultures
(Matsumoto, 2006). This has found it is Russians who most tightly control the
display of their emotions, closely followed by the Japanese and South Koreans.
On these measures, Americans displayed the least control over their facial
expressions. The same study also uncovered significant sex differences. Men are
more likely to hide surprise and fear while women control disgust, contempt and
anger and many other emotions.
But it’s not just the type of
expression we display that differs across cultures, it’s also the way these
expressions are interpreted. In the intensity of emotions, for example, it has
been found that Asians tend to judge displayed emotions as less intense than
So, given these differences,
what happens when we interpret the facial expressions of someone who isn’t from
our culture? Are we more likely to hash it up? Recent, still relatively
controversial findings, suggest people are actually better at understanding
facial expressions of those from their own culture.
Overall, then, the basic
nonverbal behaviours are surprisingly similar across cultures. There are,
however, many differences which research has only just begun to uncover. Facial
expression of emotion is just the tip of the iceberg.
the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.

He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.