International Business; How the Meanings of Facial Expressions and Gestures can Vary Across Cultures

facial expressions and meaningsThe meanings of different facial expressions and gestures give us endless fascination. Much of your communication comes across through your facial expressions, before you’ve said a word. When you’re working across cultures, striking international deals and speaking to clients from around the world, a little awareness of how your face comes across is really important.

In our personal relationships, interpreting expressions is one thing – think how often you can tell your partner is annoyed, just by the look on their face! In international business though, an expression can mean one thing to you and another completely different thing elsewhere.

Figures vary but somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of our communication with others is nonverbal. Facial communication is just one facet of nonverbal communication but it is perhaps far more nuanced than other physical gestures gestures.

This is because the human face conveys an enormous amount of information in a very short amount of time – expressions come and go in as fast as 1/15 to 1/25 of a second. As a blink of an eye is between 0.1-0.4 sec, it is quite literally a case of blink and you’ll miss it when it comes to micro expressions.

In a negotiation, this could prove critical.

The Range of Emotional Facial Expressions

The next difficulty is the range of emotion that we can express with our faces. This study defines 21 distinct emotion categories, more than the 6 or 7 that were commonly posited previously.

The face is the window into our emotions and it turns out that facial expressions are universal. In other words, people in the UK make the same face for sadness as people who have never seen TV or movie characters to model themselves after. Congenitally blind individuals, those blind since birth, also make the same micro expressions as everyone else, despite never having seen another face.

For us to do cross cultural business, we need to know how our different styles of facial communication can translate. It’s also the case that some cultures rely more heavily on non verbal communication than others.

High and Low Context Cultures

“High-context” cultures rely heavily on nonverbal communication, using elements such as the closeness of their relationships, strict social hierarchies and deep cultural knowledge to convey meaning. Think Japan, Arabic countries and some Latin American Countries.

Here, facial expressions and gestures take on greater importance in conveying and understanding a message, and the receiver may require more cultural context to understand “basic” displays of emotions.

In contrast, “low-context” cultures depend largely on words themselves. Communication tends to be more direct, relationships tend to begin and end quickly, and hierarchies are more relaxed. Think Germany, the United States and Scandinavia.

One way is not better than another – it’s just that they’re different. They also exist on a continuum, so some are more pronounced than others, while others may be something of a blend.

Even though this is all about what we say when we’re not talking, choosing not to talk says something in itself! Greeks use silence to refuse things, while Egyptians use it to consent. Some cultures (Asian for example) are generally more comfortable with lengthy silences than others.

One negotiation study even found that silence could be a strategic advantage. A Japanese businessman used the time spent translating his responses to observe his American counterpart’s facial expressions. Because he understood English to a reasonable degree, he could also use the translation time to consider his own response more carefully. The American spent his time looking at the interpreter, denying himself the information that his counterpart’s face would have given him.

This same study found that while American participants found their Japanese opposites ‘poker-faced’, the observers found that they were actually just as facially demonstrative as the Americans, finding no difference in the number of facial expressions, and that there was a degree of facial illiteracy across cultures.

‘Actually the culture of the observer changed the way the information was sampled from the face,’ explains Dr. Rachael Jack. ‘Easterners and Westerners looked at different parts of the face during facial expression recognition and that’s why I continued on looking at cultural differences in the decoding and representation of facial expressions.’

Different Facial Expressions, Features and their Meanings

Smiling

According to this study, in Germany and Switzerland, smiling faces were judged to be significantly more intelligent whilst in Japan, India and Iran they were interpreted as significantly less intelligent. Smiling was not regarded as overwhelmingly indicative of intelligence or otherwise but most cultures do regard it as a sign of honesty with Switzerland, Australia, the Philippines and Colombia finding it especially trustworthy.

Nodding

In most societies, a nodding head means agreement or approval. But in some cultures, like parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, a nodding head means ‘no.’ In most Asian cultures, the head is where spirit resides and one should not touch another’s head.

Winking

Winking is a facial expression particularly varied in meaning. In Latin America, for example, the gesture is often considered a romantic or sexual invitation. The Yoruba people in Nigeria wink at their children if they want them to leave the room. And the Chinese consider the gesture rude.

Eye contact

Good eye contact is praised and expected in the West. Confident eye contact is evident in Spain, Greece and Arab countries where it shows you are taking an interest in what someone is saying.

In other cultures, such as Latin American, Asian and African cultures, it is seen as a sign of disrespect or challenge. Finns and Japanese are embarrassed by another’s gaze.

In Muslim countries, eye contact has a gender dimension – it’s important that male and female employees do not indulge in too much eye contact, whereas between two males or two females strong eye contact demonstrates trust.

Again, these differences exist on a continuum and there is no one answer. What is an acceptable degree of eye contact varies from place to place.

Blinking

Blinking more than the average 6-10 times per minute can be a good indicator that a person is attracted to the person they’re talking to, and is for this reason used as a sign of flirting.

Lips

Some cultures – Latin American, Filipino and Puerto Rican for example – use lips to point rather than fingers. Western cultures often kiss hello or goodbye whereas many Asian countries consider it too intimate for public display.

Pupils

We cannot control the size of our pupils. Eckhard Hess (1975) found that the pupil dilates when we are interested in the person we’re talking to or the object we’re looking at.

As a test, check a friend’s pupil size when you’re talking to them about something interesting, then change the subject to something less interesting and watch their pupils contract!

The future of the reading and perception of facial expressions

While we’re constantly finding out more about how best to interpret our expressions, to the point where we might even have bots that crawl our video calls and decode the facial expressions of our counterparts, it seems that for the moment, pupil size is the one facial micro expression that is commonly interpreted across cultures. Just make sure you keep your light conditions consistent if you want to read this facial expression without bias!