Perception of emotion is culture-specific

September 15, 2010

Want to know how a Japanese person is feeling? Pay attention to the tone of his voice, not his face. That's what other Japanese people would do, anyway. A new study examines how Dutch and Japanese people assess others' emotions and finds that Dutch people pay attention to the facial expression more than Japanese people do.

"As humans are social animals, it's important for humans to understand the state of other people to maintain good relationships," says Akihiro Tanaka of Waseda Institute for Advanced Study in Japan. "When a man is smiling, probably he is happy, and when he is crying, probably he's sad." Most of the research on understanding the of others has been done on facial expression; Tanaka and his colleagues in Japan and the Netherlands wanted to know how vocal tone and work together to give you a sense of someone else's emotion.

For the study, Tanaka and colleagues made a video of actors saying a phrase with a neutral meaning—"Is that so?"—two ways: angrily and happily. This was done in both Japanese and Dutch. Then they edited the videos so that they also had recordings of someone saying the phrase angrily but with a happy face, and happily with an angry face. Volunteers watched the videos in their native language and in the other language and were asked whether the person was happy or angry.

They found that Japanese participants paid attention to the voice more than Dutch people did—even when they were instructed to judge the emotion by the faces and to ignore the voice. The results are published in , a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

This makes sense if you look at the differences between the way Dutch and Japanese people communicate, Tanaka speculates. "I think Japanese people tend to hide their negative emotions by smiling, but it's more difficult to hide in the voice." Therefore, Japanese people may be used to listening for emotional cues. This could lead to confusion when a Dutch person, who is used to the voice and the face matching, talks with a Japanese person; they may see a smiling face and think everything is fine, while failing to notice the upset tone in the voice. "Our findings can contribute to better communication between different cultures," Tanaka says.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Following a friend leads to unsafe driving behavior

June 23, 2017

Have you ever tried following a friend in a car? It can stressful; if you don't keep up, you are likely to get lost. To avoid this, you may make unsafe driving manoeuvres to keep sight of the car ahead.

Tough times make for more impulsive pre-teens

June 23, 2017

The loss of a grandparent. Marital discord at home. Trouble with peers. When pre-teens are forced to deal with adverse life events such as these they tend to become more impulsive in their decision-making later in life. And ...

Video games can change your brain

June 22, 2017

Scientists have collected and summarized studies looking at how video games can shape our brains and behavior. Research to date suggests that playing video games can change the brain regions responsible for attention and ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

katchaotica
5 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2010
Oh! That explains why Japanese voice acting is SO much more expressive.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.