^_^ vs. :-) and Asian – Western facial expressions

It was something I noticed within a few days of starting my first job in Asia, back in Hong Kong. One of my co-workers sent me an email that included a smiley, only it had distinct Chinese characteristics. Instead of the usual (for Westerners) smile of :-), it had the eyes on top and the mouth on the bottom: ^_^. I’ve since seen this countless times throughout Greater China.

My immediate thought was that this was meant to symbolize the shape of local people’s eyes, as opposed to rounder Western eyes. But according to this article, the difference between the two smileys is of much deeper significance, and in fact represents a difference between how Westerners and Asians express their emotions, and how we interpret the emotions of others. The article focuses on Japan, but I would guess the findings would apply to much of Asia.

Research has uncovered that culture is a determining factor when interpreting facial emotions. The study reveals that in cultures where emotional control is the standard, such as Japan, focus is placed on the eyes to interpret emotions. Whereas in cultures where emotion is openly expressed, such as the United States, the focus is on the mouth to interpret emotion.

Across two studies, using computerized icons and human images, the researchers compared how Japanese and American cultures interpreted images, which conveyed a range of emotions.

“These findings go against the popular theory that the facial expressions of basic emotions can be universally recognized,” said University of Alberta researcher Dr. Takahiko Masuda. “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”

These cultural differences are even noticeable in computer emoticons, which are used to convey a writer’s emotions over email and text messaging. Consistent with the research findings, the Japanese emoticons for happiness and sadness vary in terms of how the eyes are depicted, while American emoticons vary with the direction of the mouth. In the United States the emoticons : ) and : – ) denote a happy face, whereas the emoticons ๐Ÿ™ or : – ( denote a sad face. However, Japanese tend to use the symbol (^_^) to indicate a happy face, and (;_;) to indicate a sad face.

So we in the West first look to people’s mouths to judge whether they are happy or sad, while the Japanese tend to look at their interlocutors’ eyes. Maybe this is why so many in the West have for centuries described Asians as “inscrutable” – because we can’t tell from their facial expressions how they feel, but only because we aren’t looking at the right part of the face. If we looked more closely at their eyes instead of their mouths, maybe we’d see they aren’t so inscrutable after all. Interesting idea.

The Discussion: 31 Comments

“So we in the West”

No. You in America…. I don’t know where that “Asians are inscrutable” meme came from, but I don’t think it has anything more to do with facial expressions than do the misunderstandings between people from different Western cultures.

Having said that, I believe my fellow Kiwis use American-style emoticons. But I don’t pay much attention to such things. I hate emoticons. They seem like a cheap, lazy way out of having to write properly.

April 6, 2007 @ 2:50 pm | Comment

considering the eyes are generally more sincere people should be looking at them instead regardless ;p

April 6, 2007 @ 3:32 pm | Comment

Chris, I admit, in the US I was taught that Asians were “inscrutable” because it’s hard to read their facial features. Is that unique to America?

Even now, modern business books tell Western entrepreneurs seeking to expand their businesses into China that often “yes means no” and you can’t tell what your Chinese partner or customer is thinking based on their facial expressions. In other words, “Asians are inscrutable,” which I somehow don’t believe is a meme exclusive to America, though it could be. I would be surprised, though, if the meme of Asian/Chinese inscrutability didn’t actually start with the Europeans who got there first…

April 6, 2007 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

So do all asians think Westerner’s have beady-little eyes because of our emoticons?

April 6, 2007 @ 5:11 pm | Comment

“These findings go against the popular theory that the facial expressions of basic emotions can be universally recognized,” said University of Alberta researcher Dr. Takahiko Masuda. “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”

Does it really go against that? All it says is that universal interpretations of facial expression are culturally shaped, a position no one could argue with. It would go against that theory if the Japanese deduced emotions from looking at elbows or checking out the state of the palm, or if Japanese read as expressions of rage what Americans saw as expressions of joy. But all I see are two cultures that seat emotional reading on the face, one emphasizing different parts from the other.

And you know this article only got published because of the cute emoticons at the bottom.

Michael

April 6, 2007 @ 5:48 pm | Comment

“yes means no”

A very polite way of saying that lying and deception are considered sound business practice in China. This is not a new idea, either. It is easy to forget as one reads the chapter entitled Lying that Giles made his observations over 130 years ago.

April 6, 2007 @ 5:57 pm | Comment

No Richard, that meme isn’t unique to America, but that wasn’t my point. I just think this issue is far more complicated than simple facial expressions and that there’s no magical East/West divide. There’s a wide variety of expressions among Western cultures (note the plural, please) and I suspect that it’s just as easy for two people from different Western cultures to misinterpret each others’ facial expressions as it is for Westerners to misinterpret Asian facial expressions.

And I don’t particularly care who started the inscrutability meme, but I suspect good old fashioned xenophobia played a role in its popularisation.

April 6, 2007 @ 6:02 pm | Comment

Chris, I don’t think I disagree with you there. It’s like most other cultural memes – usually there’s a grain of truth to it, though the reasons for it being so are often not racial but due to circumstances, environment and other factors. Then the meme is abused and turned into a stereotype (Jews are good with money and can’t be trusted, Italians are emotional, Germans are efficient, blacks are good dancers, etc.).

April 6, 2007 @ 6:11 pm | Comment

So do all asians think Westerner’s have beady-little eyes because of our emoticons

I hope not.

April 6, 2007 @ 6:15 pm | Comment

I know I’m probably going to get laughed at here, but I had always assumed that ^ in ^_^ were ears, as in Hello Kitty-like cat ears. The thought never even crossed my mind to consider them as eyes until I read this post, and then the first thing that I thought when I realized they were eyes was that the mouth isn’t smiling, so I looked down at my keyboard to see if I could find a way to make it smile. Reading to the end of the post with all that had just gone on in my mind provided for a fascinating revelation.

April 6, 2007 @ 6:50 pm | Comment

I’ve had problems commenting on this blog lately via a direct connection. I write my comment, type in the spam stuff, click post, wait and a minute later stare at a timed out page. My comments sometimes eventually appear after a few refreshes (which to me indicates a potential server problem) and sometimes don’t. Commenting via Tor seems to alleviate this problem.

April 6, 2007 @ 6:55 pm | Comment

Or, just conceivably, at the furthest, tenuous extent of the most distant penumbra of thought, whatever wag came up with Japanese emoticons simply stumbled upon ^_^ before :-).

If the experimenters really want to test this, they need to get a bunch of Asian people who have never seen or created emoticons (still gotta be a fair number out in the nongcun), and challenge them to use a keyboard to create faces with no more than three characters. If a statistically significant majority comes up with ^_^ I’ll think they’re on to something. If a statistically significant majority comes up with @-) I’ll think there’s been some pretty heavy drinking in the nong of late.

I admit, I always thought ^_^ was kitty or doggie too (and I use those infantilized words on purpose) because it’s usually sent to me by chirpy, female Chinese colleagues obsessed with their kitties and doggies.

As for western stereotypes (let’s avoid the appalling word “meme”) I think Asians on average are as scrutable as everyone else. They have some particularly hardass negotiating tactics that emphasize not betraying emotion (thick face etc.) and they’ve reamed out generations of western businessmen largely by virtue of home-field advantage. But let’s not confuse that with any dangerous, mystical inscrutability. After all, your Peking thick face is my Vegas poker face. Seems like a pretty universal negotiating tactic. I think “inscrutability” is an unconsciously racist way to explain away getting your ass kicked at the table, because the alternative is simply to admit you were beat by the heathens.

Next time you see two dongbei men in a heads-up screaming match over something trivial, like a parking space, please explain to me how they are being “inscrutable”.

April 6, 2007 @ 7:47 pm | Comment

Totally agree about the word “meme,” and sorry I used it, too. It doesn’t apply to this case.

The issue of “Asian inscrutability” is ages old, and probably got a good boost from the sleazy series of Fu Manchu pulp novels so popular in the US back in the 50s (? 40s?). My favorite on-screen example of this notion is the famous closing line spoken to Jack Nicholson, “Forget it Jake – this is Chinatown!” The point being, I always thought, you won’t make sense of the situation here, where everything is so…so…so inscrutable.

Meanwhile, I did find the thesis of the article interesting. I mean, the fact (if it’s a fact) that Westerners look to people’s mouths for signs of emotion, while Asians look to eyes, and the reasons the article gives for this. I honestly don’t think ^_^ would have caught on in the West, simply because to us (or me) it doesn’t convey a smile. It’s always been the mouth that we use to express happiness. So likewise, I am skeptical ^_^ would have stuck in Asia if it, too, didn’t strongly convey to the audience that it represented a smile.

If I sound groggy, it’s because I am. Looong day.

April 6, 2007 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

Stuart,

Thanks for the link to Giles. I think he would have been a China blogger were he around today.

April 6, 2007 @ 10:36 pm | Comment

I immediately thought of Charlie Brown’s worry lines ((. .)) when I read this post.

Tangentially, I wonder where the western convention of marking someone’s eyes with ‘x’ to mean ‘dead’ came from.

April 6, 2007 @ 11:07 pm | Comment

“Thanks for the link to Giles. I think he would have been a China blogger were he around today.”

I agree. A little off topic, but some of Giles’ comments resonate highly with modern China. Even if emoticons were a century after his time he certainly recognised inscrutability in the nature of Chinese people.

April 6, 2007 @ 11:49 pm | Comment

&&&
^ ^
  V

Great post! A wonderful nugget which does illuminate cultural differences. I think the inscrutability issue is possibly an oversimplification of the initial puzzlement of cultural differences, and I rarely hear it used or read it these days. When you walk out of “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” and into “don’t make waves, a harmonious society is the most important thing” naturally there is some perplexity. For me it was a broadening of my perspective to include, not replace, different values, different ways of looking at things.

While facial expression is almost always primary in evaluating a person or a people, there are coresponding cultural differences in gestural communication. For instance, don’t make the OK sign (thumb & index fingers in a circle, fingers extended) in Brazil and expect a smile and a nod!

You can counter that gestures are more deliberate and facial expressions more reflexive, but we “train” facial expressions as well. In Asia, girls are discouraged from showing their teeth when smiling. In the U.S. to children posing for photos they say “big smile.” I will leave it to the sociologists to interpret the difference, I frankly haven’t a clue.

Globalization will, in another generation or two, merge many cultural differences. And much of both delight and perplexity of difference will be lost.

April 7, 2007 @ 12:38 am | Comment

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emoticon#Asian_emoticons

Wikipedia is your friend.

April 7, 2007 @ 1:38 am | Comment

When I saw the title of this thread, I immediately felt the understanding at a certain level. It’s like, “Ahhh! Finally someone’s talking about this stuff.”

Although I’m not so sure about the theory of different cultures focus on different parts of the face, I do have noticed the difference between the responses people gave me when I used ๐Ÿ™‚ and ^_^.

When I put ๐Ÿ™‚ or ๐Ÿ™‚ in my correspondence with my colleagues and customers, who are mostly Americans, often times something would back in their response, :), ๐Ÿ™‚ or ๐Ÿ˜› etc.

But when I used ^_^, never for once, have I gotten anything back, not even :). Not sure about the facial difference, but this definitely says something.

But again, this could be because they haven’t really seen ^_^ that much, and if they had, it would very likely have been the other way around.

April 7, 2007 @ 6:24 am | Comment

The English Wikipedia emoticon entry mentioned above gives plenty examples to show that Western style emoticons are variations mostly on the mouth, while Eastern style emoticons are variations mostly on the eyes. This lends a lot of support to Dr. Takahiko Masuda’s claims in my mind.

April 7, 2007 @ 10:10 am | Comment

That Wikipedia piece is one of the best entires I’ve ever seen. I think it validates the article nicely.

April 7, 2007 @ 10:56 am | Comment

Ellen, thanks for the wonderful comment. I do disagree, however, about your point that Westerners aren’t calling the Chinese inscrutable much anymore. Honestly, I see it all the time and the association between the two appears alive and very well. Just a few months ago I reviewed a book on living in China, and one of its pearls of wisdom was that, yes, “the Chinese are inscrutable.” This one isn’t going away so fast.

April 7, 2007 @ 11:11 am | Comment

Inscrutability runs deeper than facial expression. The point has often been made, accurately in my assessment, that no knowledge will be imparted by the Chinese unless it benefits the giver. I don’t know if this thinking is taught explicitly or not, but it often seems that “all war is based on deception” is applied as the starting point of any negotiation.

This seems especially true when dealing with westerners, who tend to be more forthcoming about their intentions, and possess a greater inclination to honour a deal. Sweeping generalisation, couldn’t help myself ^_^

Facial expressions impart information – and the Chinese like to withhold information. Then again, if, as has been suggested, the Chinese smile when they don’t mean it, why wouldn’t they use ๐Ÿ™‚ more often?

April 7, 2007 @ 12:04 pm | Comment

Just because they don’t have their tongues lolling out and don’t wave their arms around like monkeys, doesn’t mean they’re “trying to withhold” something.

A little pattern recognition ability goes a long way, something more fine-tuned than identifying a large mass of people with a single generalized expectation of behavior.

April 7, 2007 @ 1:36 pm | Comment

Just because they don’t have their tongues lolling out and don’t wave their arms around like monkeys, doesn’t mean they’re “trying to withhold” something.

Ferins, I really cringe when I read extreme and artificial contrasts like that. I don’t think anyone here ever made anything even approaching such a contention.

April 7, 2007 @ 1:47 pm | Comment

“The point has often been made, accurately in my assessment, that no knowledge will be imparted by the Chinese unless it benefits the giver.”

“westerners, who tend to be more forthcoming about their intentions, and possess a greater inclination to honour a deal”

Sounds like he’s delusional to me.

April 8, 2007 @ 7:08 am | Comment

“So we in the West first look to people’s mouths to judge whether they are happy or sad, while the Japanese tend to look at their interlocutors’ eyes. Maybe this is why so many in the West have for centuries described Asians as “inscrutable….”

This might be off topic somewhat, but I watched a long interview with John Woo while he was filming Mission Impossible II (Oscar-worthy, that film was).

He talked extensively about how Chow Yun-Fat’s best attribute was how expressive his eyes were, and how no Hollywood directors could capture his personality because they didn’t a.) understand him as an actor b.) didn’t notice his eye movement during his acting or action sequences.

Then he went onto say Tom Cruise’s personality and shot is all about a close up, from the hairline to the chin.

Not rocket science, but again, very interesting and sort of on topic.

I’d say that its more about understanding the habits and rules of other societies. Its pretty hard to do and well, that’s why most people barely understand their own societies– shouldn’t ask them about other societies, they probably don’t know.

April 9, 2007 @ 5:00 pm | Comment

Not sure about the inscrutinable thing… I did know a Japanese guy who told me that Westerners were so much more easy to ‘read’ than Japanese, because in Japan people aren’t supposed to show their emotions (so they don’t, or they don’t too much), where in the West there is no such taboo (so Westerners show their emotions much more)

April 10, 2007 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

without wanting to add to the stereotypes it has to be said that “The West” is a reductionist simplification. The stereotypes are much broader than that ;p – brits and germans are considered hard to read and more aloof/reserved than say italians/spanish or americans.

i can’t agree that orientals are inscrutable. you just have to learn to pick up on different things, as people have said.

perhaps it could be said to be partly cultural. americans are composed of a society of immigrants from many different cultures. this means they have to create a culture of being more direct as otherwise there might be confusion. an allusion or hinting at something that would work in one culture will not necessarily work in another.

from my personal experience i also find that some westerners seem to lose the ability to spot when someone is being disingenous or ironic the moment they leave their own country. contrary to popular belief foreigners do irony too!

April 10, 2007 @ 10:37 pm | Comment

Try smiling without your eyes.

April 12, 2007 @ 1:01 am | Comment

Try smiling without your mouth ๐Ÿ™‚

April 14, 2007 @ 11:07 pm | Comment

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