Language of Travel: Understanding Voice and Facial Expressions Varies Culturally

Facial expressions aren't the same in every country

If you thought the language barrier was the biggest hurdle when interacting with people of other countries, think again.  Our facial expressions and the tones of our voices may be even bigger obstacles.  A study conducted at the at Tilburg University found that people of eastern and western nations perceive emotions in remarkably different ways.

The study consisted of 20 native Japanese and 16 native Dutch adults between the ages of 21 and 30. The participants viewed short clips of facial expressions with voice segments of both Japanese and Dutch emotional phrases. During the first task, the participants were asked to label the faces presented as either angry or happy, while ignoring the coinciding voice segment. During the second task, the participants were asked to label the voice segments presented as angry or happy, this time ignoring the coinciding facial expression. The participants were then scored according to their accuracy.

The Japanese participants relied more on voice tone expressions to gauge emotion.  The Dutch participants relied more on facial expressions to gauge emotion. Although the participants listened to voice segments in both their native and non-native language, the effect of language was found to be insignificant. These results demonstrate how eastern and western nationalities depend on different contextual cues in order to perceive emotions.

A similar study discovered another difference in how eastern and western cultures perceive emotion through social context.  Overall, the results showed that Japanese determine the emotion of a person by assessing the facial expressions of the entire group, while North Americans determine the emotion of an individual exclusively through his own facial expression. Both of these studies provide evidence that emotional perception may largely be affected by social constructs.  Western culture is based upon individual success and encourages outward expression, whereas eastern culture revolves around group success while encouraging emotional suppression.

This research highlights the complexity of emotions and human interaction. Our emotions are not only experienced individually, but influenced by our culture and how we perceive others. As our world becomes more connected, we will increasingly interact with other cultures through business, friendships and family. Undoubtedly, understanding how cultures perceive emotions differently can help us form better relationships around the world.

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