Body Language: Cultural Or Universal?
Body language and various other nonverbal cues have long been recognized as
being of great importance to the facilitation of communication. There has been a
long running debate as to whether body language signals and their meanings are
culturally determined or whether such cues are innate and thus universal. The
nature versus nurture dichotomy inherent in this debate is false; one does not
preclude the other’s influence. Rather researcher’s should seek to address the
question how much of nonverbal communication is innate and how much is
culturally defined? Are there any true universal nonverbal cues or just universal
tendencies modified to suit cultural ideals and constraints? It is my proposal that of
all forms of nonverbal communication the most universal is the communication of
emotions through facial expression. Other channels of nonverbal communication
are also of great importance in many cultures. However which channels are
emphasized, what cues are considered acceptable and the symbolic meaning of the
cues may vary from culture to culture.
Ekman and Friesen (1969; and discussed in Ekman and Keltner, 1997)
undertook an important cross-cultural study to determine how easily and accurately
people from various literate Western and non-Western cultures could identify the
appropriate emotion term to match photographs they were shown. The
photographs were of Caucasian faces posed in certain facial expressions. The terms
the subjects were given to choose from were happiness, surprise, disgust, contempt,
anger, fear and sadness. The result was consistent evidence of agreement across all
cultures examined. In order to rule out the possibility that exposure to mass-media
had taught the subjects to recognize Caucasian facial expressions Ekman and Friesen
undertook a similar study among a visually isolated culture in New Guinea (Ekman,
1972). A different methodology was used; people were shown the photographs of
posed Caucasian facial expressions and were asked to make up a story about the
person and the moments leading up to that image. From these stories Ekman and
Friesen concluded that these subjects were able to identify the emotions accurately.
The one exception was that there seemed to be some confusion between surprise
and fear expressions. Similar research was undertaken by Heider and Rosch
(reported in Ekman, 1972) with the intent of disproving Ekman and Friesen.
However, the data gathered also supported Ekman and Friesen’s conclusions.
A similar experiment (Argyle, 1975) compared the perception of the emotions
of English, Italian and Japanese performers by subjects from these three countries.
The results (reported in Argyle, 1975) were as follows:
Both the English and Italian subjects could identify their own and each others
emotions but had difficulty with the Japanese. The Japanese subjects were able to
identify the emotions of the English and Italians better than those groups had been
able to judge the Japanese. However the Japanese subjects had difficulty
determining Japanese facial expressions. This would seem to indicate that the
Japanese face does not express emotion in the same manner as those of other
cultures. However, another experiment (Ekman and Keltner, 1997) demonstrated
different results. American and Japanese subjects were observed while watching
films designed to evoke fear and disgust. During part of this observation the
subjects were videotaped while watching the film alone. It was presumed that
during this time no social rules would restrict the subject’s display of emotion. No
difference existed between the American and the Japanese subjects in the display of
emotion when alone. When watching the film with an authority figure (the
researcher) present the Japanese were more likely than the Americans to hide
negative emotions with a smile.
Observation of children who were born deaf and blind show that they make
the same emotional expressions (Ekman and Keltner, 1997). There is no way that
these children could have learned this behaviour through sensory input. Similarly, a
study involving sighted babies under six months of age has showed that they react
with fear to negative faces (Segerstrale and Molnar, 1997). These infants were too
young to have learned which faces had negative connotations. It would have to be
an innate response.
Although different cultures define when and where it is acceptable to display
certain emotions (i.e. crying at a funeral may or may not be expected) and the
stimulus that triggers a certain emotion may vary from culture to culture, the facial
expression of emotions seems to be a universal. There may be an evolutionary
advantage to this form of communication. When people are communicating they
tend to mimic the faces one another make. It has been shown that making a face
associated with an emotional