Reading emotions – East vs. West

I found this while looking up information about facial characteristics and it was just too fascinating to ignore. Basically this study had Caucasian and Asian subjects look at faces and tracked their eye movements as they performed facial recognition tasks and identified emotions.

It found that when reading emotions, Caucasians tended to look at the face as a whole where Asians focused on the eyes. Thus, Asians in the study would miscategorize negative emotions such as mistaking fear for surprise, for instance. Asians would ignore changes in the mouth that would cue them in.

I doubly found this fascinating because the princess in my current manuscript, a very observant person who’s learned how to survive in court by reading peoples’ intentions, distinctly notes that the hero, a westerner, poses a different set of challenges for her because the way he reacts and displays emotions is so different from what she’s accustomed to. Nice touch, eh? Well, I thought so. 😉

I found several other articles on the same study with some additional insight. First, that this behavior seemed to be cultural rather than genetic as Asians raised in Western cultures didn’t show the same tendencies. Another thought was that this may be adaptive behavior due to the fact that Asian culture tends to look down upon showing negative emotion in public so Asians trained themselves to look carefully at the eyes because facial expressions were not so open.

Science Daily article – Caucasians and Asians Don’t Examine Faces in the Same Way

I’m interested to see what people think of this. Isn’t it a great way to describe cultural differences into a multicultural relationship? There are subtle, ingrained differences in addition to the larger obvious ones.


  1. Susan Blumberg-Kason
    Jan 30, 2010 @ 06:18:39

    This is very interesting! Thanks so much for posting it! I’ve been writing about facial expressions in my memoir to show tension. I focus on pursed lips, and then move up to the furrowed brow when describing the main Chinese character in my manuscript. I’ll keep this in mind when my Chinese character interprets my character in other scenes. Very helpful! Thanks!

  2. Victoria Dixon
    Jan 30, 2010 @ 06:56:00

    Excellent post, Jeannie Lin! Thank you. I linked to this and the article and also mentioned a book you and your readers might be interested in: “What Everybody Is Saying” by Joe Navarro.

    Back to work, now. This potentially changes some things for my Amazon entry. Again. LOL

  3. Jeannie Lin
    Jan 30, 2010 @ 07:34:18

    I’ll have to check out that book Victoria. *sigh* The path of research is an endless one, isn’t it?

    Susan, I’m glad the article was useful. I think we realize these things instinctively, but when they’re spelled out this way with research or observation, it helps strengthen our approach. Definitely a good thing to have in the back of my mind, even if it doesn’t show up explicitly on the page.

  4. Michelle Styles
    Jan 31, 2010 @ 01:07:38

    I am not surprised. One of the Body Language books I have goes on about cultral differences and how easy actions can be mis interpreted. For example, the amount of space you need around you to feel comfortable in a social sitiuation. Even hand gestures have different meanings in different cultures.

    Think the HSBC ads in the airports (or perhaps they are not in the US airports?) about the different meanings and how you have to know which is which in which culture.

  5. Jeannie Lin
    Jan 31, 2010 @ 17:30:14

    We don’t have those in the US airport, but the fact that they have those overseas shows a better sense of public awareness. I’ll have to look for those if I’m ever traveling abroad.

    A body language workshop for writers would be absolutely fascinating. Anyone know of one?

  6. Dara
    Feb 01, 2010 @ 11:03:13

    Very interesting! The ironic thing–in my current WiP, it’s the eyes that my MC looks at for emotion, not the face. 😛 Weird!

    I definitely need to save this for future reference, especially for my other WiP where it’s the East vs. West setup.

    And I agree about the body language workshop for writers. I’d definitely attend one.

  7. Lisa
    Feb 01, 2010 @ 20:15:18

    This is SO cool. It never would have occurred to me, but I find it fascinating. I love that you’ve weaved it into your upcoming book!

  8. Jeannie Lin
    Feb 02, 2010 @ 16:50:24

    Lisa – well, I accidentally on purpose wove it into my manuscript. 😉