Trying to communicate without a common language can be an exercise in bizarre and energetic gesturing, combined with exaggerated facial expressions. Yet, according to research published online in Current Biology, it’s not just our words, but even our smiles and frowns that can get lost in translation. A team of researchers led by Rachael E. Jack at the University of Glasgow recruited 13 Western Europeans and 13 Eastern Asians, and tracked their eye movements as they looked at pictures of people conveying a range of emotions—surprise, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, anger or no emotion. They found striking differences: whereas Westerners eyes darted around the entire face, Eastern Asians tended to focus their gaze on the eyes. The distinction, the researchers say, suggests that emotional expression is concentrated around the eyes in Eastern Asian culture, and more often spread across the face, with more emphasis on the mouth and less on the eyes, in Western Europeans. It’s a difference that researchers say could possibly explain some cultural confusion.
The group of psychologists and neuroscientists believe that further evidence for the different concentrations of facial expression comes in the form of emoticons used in Western as compared to Eastern Asian culture. They point to a 2007 study that showed the digital figures in the U.S. tended to have big smiles :) or frowns :( but those in Japanese culture put more emphasis on the eyes, with ^.^ suggesting happy, and ;_; meaning sad. (Predating the study, the New York Times did a story on this phenomenon back in 1996.)