Emotional cues can differ greatly across cultures. For example, research by Matsumoto, Yoo and Fontaine (2008) compared the facial expressions of Japanese and Americans. They found differences in expressions of emotions and how these were interpreted according to the culture.
Display rules are the cultural norms that dictate how emotion should be expressed. Cultural context acts as a basis for reading emotional cues when people are trying to communicate. People with different cultural backgrounds allocate their attention differently.
For example, East Asians focus more on the central region of a person’s face, specifically towards the eyes and the direction of the gaze. Western Caucasians, on the other hand, concentrate more on the eyebrows and mouth of the person they are speaking to.
This is illustrated in the stylised emoticons used by Asian and Western communities. Asian emoticons express emotion through the eyes, while the mouth typically stays the same. Meanwhile, Western emoticons express emotions through the mouth, while the eyes remain neutral. You can see sample emoticons in the table below:
You should take note of these differences to know what type of expressions is appropriate to respond with. Though culture changes from place to place, general knowledge of how these cultures express emotions will give you a general guideline on what to watch out for. Different cultures respond to emotions, depending on how they were conditioned to react. Australians usually have no trouble deducing people’s true feelings based on facial expressions. Meanwhile, Japanese people may be more likely to look for contextual cues such as phrases or actions to understand others’ emotions better.
If you are speaking to someone from a Western culture, since you know that they will most likely be looking at the movements of your eyebrows and mouth, you can utilise these to nonverbally support your message. And if you are talking to someone from an Asian culture, they will most likely use their eyes to communicate while the rest of their face is neutral. While speaking, you can gauge their interest and agreement to what you are saying by observing their eyes.
It is also important to note that in the broadest definition of culture, social groupings like gender and socio-economic standing are also included. People will express their emotions according to their upbringing and the norms of their community.
Culture is not static. Cultures continue to evolve, so categorising a culture as strictly ‘individualistic’ or ‘collectivistic’ provides an inaccurate picture of the culture. It may help to associate a culture with their common individualistic or collectivistic behavioural patterns, but it is best to not limit them to those. Every aspect of emotion is affected by culture. It influences how people identify emotions and decide what emotions to express. Thus, exploring emotions in different cultures is very important in developing your emotional intelligence.
Planning around different cultural backgrounds will give you a good idea of how other people may react and how you should respond to them. However, keep in mind that although a person’s cultural background impacts their emotional expression, you should also observe their individual patterns. Putting the person first before the culture will guide you into not just becoming a more understanding person, but a better leader as well.