Smile—Because That’s How We Read Faces in America

Did you know that culture plays a major role in how we interpret facial expressions? If we compare American and Japanese cultural interpretations, for example (according to behavioral scientist Masaki Yuki at Japan’s Hokkaido University), people from Japan tend to look at a person’s eyes for emotional clues, while Americans tend to look at a person’s mouth.

Americans frown or smile to show emotions, opening their mouths wide and raising the corners of their mouths exaggeratedly to display happiness.

People from Japan, on the other hand, whose culture tends to value humility and suppress shows of emotion, look to the expressive muscles around the eyes for clues to a person’s genuine emotions. (Since the eyes are more difficult to control than the mouth, the eyes probably do provide better clues about a person’s true emotional state—even if he or she is trying to hide it.)

Take a revealing look at differences in electronic communications’ symbolism in Japan and the U.S.: emoticons.  Aside from American emoticons’ being horizontal and Japanese emoticons’ being vertical (which relates to the differences in American and Japanese keyboards),

Americans use emoticons with upturned mouths as happy faces . . .


And with down-turned mouths as sad faces. . . .


The Japanese use emoticons for both happy and sad faces have emotionally neutral mouths, but show differences in eyes.

Japanese happy faces have crinkly eyes . . .


And their sad faces have uncrinkled eyes (and tears). . . .


Seeing the differences between American and Japanese virtual emotions, or emoticons, illustrates the cultural differences in flesh-and-blood people from both cultures: People from America actually do show emotions mostly with their smiles, and people from Japan, mostly with their eyes. Although general rules governing an attractive smile apply universally, proportions of the individual anterior (front) teeth do not. Asians tend to have narrower front teeth than Caucasians. In fact, the more Western the country, the larger and brighter its inhabitants’ teeth are inclined to be. In the most Western countries, the smiles considered most attractive are wide enough to reveal ten to twelve upper teeth.

One thing is certain: No matter where your family came from, your smile makes a strong and lasting impression on your social life—and on your career.

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