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.
Cultural 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.
Controlling 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 non-Asians.
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.
» This post is part of a series on nonverbal behaviour.
About 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:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do