Despite the universal nature of many expressions, it is pretty clear that cultural differences exist, but why?
It certainly would be simplistic to think that all emotional expressions are the exact same around the world, despite the existence of basic emotional expressions across cultures. In fact, a major 2015 study sought to trace the development of different expressions based on historical and cultural trends. This study found that historical migration patterns were powerful explanatory factors for cultural attitudes to emotional expressions.
We have previously written on the evolutionary basis of basic emotions as theorized by Charles Darwin, himself. Our fundamental way of interacting with the world helped to develop certain connections between expression and emotion, such as the narrowing of eyes when perceiving something disgusting.
This has led a team of scholars, including Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto, to track the historical migration patterns in different cultures as explanations for differing emotional expressions.
Essentially, they categorized numerous nations based on the extent to which the current population of each country descends from either a variety or a small number of “source countries.”
They found that diverse source populations, which they termed “historical heterogeneity,” accounted for variations in norms of emotional expressivity. For instance, historically diverse nations like Canada saw more varied expressions and an increased reliance on nonverbal behavior to convey individual differences.
On the other hand, more homogenous nations, like Pakistan or Austria, observed more predefined practices for guiding emotional expectations. Based on these norms, rules of etiquette and language use allowed for more predictable emotional expressions.
The study authors also sought to more specifically trace back the development of the use of smiles. While a smile of joy is one of the basic emotions, the particular expression of the smile is employed in diverse ways, such as to provide an emotional reward, maintain social bonds, or negotiate status.
After studying the use of smiles in homogenous nations, such as Japan, they concluded that smiling was rarely used to negotiate status given fixed hierarchies in those nations. Instead, it often pointed out transgressions or designated efforts to maintain existing statuses.
In contrast, heterogenous nations saw less predictable social hierarchies and structures, so smiles were often used to clarify positive intentions, such as the desire to share resources.
This all underscores what we told you last week about how better reading people can help facilitate cross-cultural communication. The study authors emphasized the importance of this research in promoting human interaction given the vast cross-cultural contact we experience in a globalized society.
While it can be overwhelming to try to keep both the universality of expressions and the different circumstances in which these emotions are applied straight, Humintell is here to help. Try checking out some past blogs for more information! Or even sign up for our cross-cultural training program!
At Humintell, we certainly talk a lot about reading other people’s emotions, but why is this such a big deal?
One obvious answer is that it is just really fascinating psychology, but there are also relevant and practical reasons to improve your ability to read microexpressions and other nonverbal cues. Not only are they particularly useful during law enforcement interrogations or cross-cultural interactions, but the ability to read others is useful in almost any interpersonal setting.
But first, what exactly is a microexpression? As Humintell’s Director, Dr. David Matsumoto, explains, “Microexpressions are unconscious, extremely quick, sometimes full-face expressions of an emotion. And sometimes they’re partial and very subtle expressions of emotion.”
Often, these microexpressions signify one of the seven basic emotions, but the majority of people either does not see any expression change or cannot understand the brief facial tick they see. Part of this is due to the incredibly brief nature of microexpressions, which can pass over a face as quickly as one-fifteenth of a second.
This means, Dr. Matsumoto points out, that freeze frame shots of individuals exhibiting microexpressions are not particularly subtle, but instead “if you take a freeze frame on it on a video, you’ll see that a lot of times there’s a big facial expression that is very clear about what the person’s mental state is.”
Reading other people’s emotions is not limited to microexpressions, however, as gestures and other types of nonverbal behavior are also telling signs of subtle or hidden emotional states. Dr. Matsumoto divides gestures into “speech illustrators” and “emblems.” The former, speech illustrators, are everyday animated gestures that many people use to emphasize or complement their speech.
Speech illustrators tend to be used by people from every culture, but they do differ in specifics. Emblems, on the other hand, are culturally specific gestures that refer to specific phrases, like a thumbs up.
The ability to read microexpressions is incredibly helpful in law enforcement or national security-related settings, where an interviewee may actively be concealing information. Nonverbal behavior analysis can help us “understand other people’s true feelings, their thoughts, their motivations, their personalities or their intentions.”
Yet, as Dr. Matsumoto points out, the application of emotional detection is “very clear for anybody whose job it is to be able to get that kind of additional insight.” It is not limited to law enforcement professionals but can be helpful to psychotherapists, sales professionals, lawyers, doctors, etc.
Similarly, as the cultural dependency of different gestures alluded to, the ability to understand nonverbal behavior can help us understand exactly what a person is trying to say. Knowing specific gestures can help, but also given the universality of basic emotional expressions, happiness, anger, or fear all present themselves similarly across the world.
The more impersonal communication gets, the more we remember the need for personal contact.
While technology has many great features, it can often distill communication down to text messages, emails, or instant messages. These really can help manage spread out workforces or enable people to work from home, but they also prevent us from reading each other’s nonverbal behavior. This does more than just prevent effective communication and can even prevent the development of trusting and empathetic relationships.
A 2012 study found that when comparing impersonal communication with face to face interaction, there were measurably different neurological responses in the brain. Moreover, the study authors concluded that the neurological effects unique to face to face dialogue may be crucial to successful interactions.
These neurological findings fit closely with the first hand experiences of a variety of entrepreneurs. For instance, Max Brown, the founder of Silicon Beach Trust emphasized the trust building aspects of in-person interaction: “Overall the biggest value of face time is that it’s really the only legitimate way to build trust with someone.”
This notion of trust proved crucial to other testimonials. Anna Barber, the managing director for Techstars, stressed the need for trust to mediate possible interpersonal conflicts. Barber contended that without trust “you won’t have a basic mutual empathy and understanding to fall back on when you hit the inevitable bumps that arise.”
Barber also emphasized that creative problem solving is much better employed while in the same room than when relying on phone calls or emails.
With such a wealth of benefits for in-person communication, it is a little concerning to see a tendency towards less personal methods of cooperation. However, the notion that all young people eschew conversation in favor of texting doesn’t seem to be correct.
Perhaps surprisingly, a 2016 survey found that 55 percent of millennials actually do prefer in person communication! That said, this is not a particularly overwhelming majority.
Followers of this blog will have already made the connection between in-person communication and either nonverbal behavior or microexpressions. We have found repeatedly that both are critical in really understanding a person, either by recognizing their underlying emotional states or by telling more effectively if they are lying to us.
While we cannot help you emphasize in-person communication, check out our past blog here about the power of reading into the sound of a voice, or just get better at handling the face to face conversations that are so important.