Researchers recorded Japanese and Dutch actors expressing the neutral phrase 'is that so?' in angry and happy ways. Videos were edited to match angry tone with happy facial expression and vice versa. Japanese and Dutch volunteers watched the videos in both languages and were asked to assess whether the person was happy or angry. The study found that Japanese participants paid more attention to vocal tone, even when instructed to concentrate on facial expression. Researchers suggest this reflects different ways of communicating that may lead to misunderstandings.
Researcher Akihiro Tanaka commented:
"I think Japanese people tend to hide their negative emotions by smiling, but it’s more difficult to hide negative emotions in the voice."
Japanese people may be used to listening for emotional cues. A Dutch person used to the voice and face matching may see a Japanese person smiling and overlook the upset tone, thereby reaching the wrong conclusion about the person's mood.
Detecting false smiles
Research by Masaki Yuki (Hokkaido University), William Maddux (INSEAD) and Takahiko Masuda (University of Alberta) published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2007 compared Japanese and American interpretations of computerized icons and human images showing a range of emotions.
Findings suggest that where emotional control is the cultural norm (e.g. Japan) eyes are the key to interpretation. In cultures where there is more open expression of emotion (e.g. USA) the mouth is the main focus.
Takahiko Masuda commented:
"We think it is quite interesting and appropriate that a culture that tends to masks its emotions, such as Japan, would focus on a person's eyes when determining emotion, as eyes tend to be quite subtle. In the United States, where overt emotion is quite common, it makes sense to focus on the mouth, which is the most expressive feature on a person's face."
Researchers also detected these differences in interpretation of computer emoticons, used in email and text messaging. Japanese emoticons distinguish happiness and sadness in depiction of the eyes, while American emoticons use direction of the mouth. The results suggest that Japanese may be better at detecting "false smiles".
Takahiko Masuda said:
"These findings go against the popular theory that the facial expressions of basic emotions can be universally recognized. A person's culture plays a very strong role in determining how they will perceive emotions and needs to be considered when interpreting facial expression."