The University of Glasgow researchers have shown that facial expressions also show language barriers.
Led by Roberto Caldara, the researchers have basically tried to explain why people from East Asia tend to have a tougher time than those from European countries telling the difference between a face that looks fearful versus surprised, and disgusted versus angry.
Writing about their findings in the journal Current Biology, the researchers have revealed that rather than scanning evenly across a face as Westerners do, Easterners fixate their attention on the eyes.
"We show that Easterners and Westerners look at different face features to read facial expressions. Westerners look at the eyes and the mouth in equal measure, whereas Easterners favor the eyes and neglect the mouth. This means that Easterners have difficulty distinguishing facial expressions that look similar around the eye region," said Rachael E. Jack of The University of Glasgow.
Caldara says that the finding indicates that human communication of emotion is a lot more complex than experts have always believed, and, thus, facial expressions that had been considered universally recognizable cannot be used to reliably convey emotion in cross-cultural situations.
The researchers studied cultural differences in the recognition of facial expressions by recording the eye movements of 13 Western Caucasian and 13 East Asian people, while they observed pictures of expressive faces, and put them into categories: happy, sad, surprised, fearful, disgusted, angry, or neutral.
According to the so-called Facial Action Coding System (FACS), the faces were standardized, and each expression displayed a specific combination of facial muscles typically associated with each feeling of emotion.
The researchers then compared how accurately participants read those facial expressions using their particular eye movement strategies.
They found that Easterners focused much greater attention on the eyes and made significantly more errors than Westerners did.
Jack said that the cultural specificity in eye movements that they showed was probably a reflection of cultural specificity in facial expressions.
The findings indicate that while Westerners use the whole face to convey emotion, Easterners use the eyes more and mouth less.
"In sum, our data demonstrate genuine perceptual differences between Western Caucasian and East Asian observers and show that FACS-coded facial expressions are not universal signals of human emotion.
From here on, examining how the different facets of cultural ideologies and concepts have diversified these basic social skills will elevate knowledge of human emotion processing from a reductionist to a more authentic representation.
Otherwise, when it comes to communicating emotions across cultures, Easterners and Westerners will find themselves lost in translation," the researchers wrote.