Research by Masaki Yuki (Hokkaido University), William Maddux (INSEAD) and Takahiko Masuda (University of Alberta) published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2007, compared Japanese and American interpretations of computerized icons and human images showing a range of emotions.
These Findings suggests where emotional control is the cultural norm (e.g. Japan) eyes are the key to interpretation. In cultures where there is more open expression of emotion (e.g. USA) the mouth is the main focus.
According to Takahiko Masuda:
We think it is quite interesting and appropriate that a culture that tends to masks its emotions, such as Japan, would focus on a person’s eyes when determining emotion, as eyes tend to be quite subtle. In the United States, where overt emotion is quite common, it makes sense to focus on the mouth, which is the most expressive feature on a person’s face.
Researchers also detected these differences in interpretation of computer emoticons, used in email and text messaging. Japanese emoticons distinguish happiness and sadness in depiction of the eyes, while American emoticons use direction of the mouth. The results suggest that Japanese may be better at detecting “false smiles”.
These findings go against the popular theory that the facial expressions of basic emotions can be universally recognized. 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, Takahiko Masuda added.