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Emotion Families: Part 2

interpret facial expressions

How to interpret facial expressions of emotion

Excerpt from Semiotics around the World: Synthesis in Diversity

From Emotion Families: Part 1, we learned that “…we consider each emotion as constituting a family of related affective states, which share commonalities in their expression, physiological activity, and in the types of appraisal which call them forth.”

What information is conveyed by a facial expression?

We know virtually nothing about the type of information people typically derive from a facial expression when they see the expression in situ, as it usually is accompanied by speech, gestural and postural behaviors, and when the person observing the face has the usual array of expectations about what may be the most likely to occur in that situation. The studies which determined the information observers obtain from facial expressions when they are seen out-of-context answers the question of what the face can signal, not what information it typically does signal.

How do we interpret facial expressions?

Consider the message(s) which might be conveyed by a facial expression in which the brows are lowered and drawn together, the upper eyelid raised with the lower lid tightened, lips tightly pressed. The message conveyed may be antecedent, resulting from of an event that took place prior (e.g., “someone must have insulted her”), a reflection of what the person is feeling (e.g., “she must feel very tense”) or what the person is thinking (e.g., “she looks vengeful”). The observer may even interpret the expression in terms of what the person is likely to do next (e.g., “she’s going to hit me”). Still another possible message would refer to an emotional state using a metaphor, such as “she is boiling”, or an emotion, either a specific one (e.g., “she is mad”) or a more general one (e.g., “she doesn’t feel good”).

A cross cultural perspective

I expect that we could find better than chance agreement within a cultural group about each of these emotion-related messages – antecedents, simultaneous behaviors, metaphors, and consequent events –  just as we have found agreement about specific emotion terms. Lakoff and Kovecses (Lakoff 1987) found similar emotion metaphors in English and Hungarian, but they only examined anger. The question remains as to how much cross-cultural agreement there might be about each type of message for each emotion (i.e., universal facial expressions). It is also not known which type of message participants in a social interaction typically derive, and whether this varies with the social context in which the expression occurs, the demographic characteristics of the expresser and  the observer, or the personality of these individuals.

If a language has no words for an emotion, as has been reported by some anthropologists (Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990), that does not mean that  the emotion does not occur in that culture, only that it is not represented by single terms in the lexicon. Levy (1984) argued that although the Tahitians have no word for sadness, he saw sad expressions in people who had experienced a loss. Unfor­tunately, Levy did not determine whether the Tahitians would have selected a “sad” expression if he had asked them to identify which face was that of a person who had experienced some loss, such as their child dying. Such studies have not been done in any of the language groups which reportedly do not have single terms for some emotions.

Contrasting expressions of emotion

We do not know how salient facial expressions are when they contradict what a person is saying and/or what the observers believe to be normative in a particular situation. One could equally well argue that expressions will be ignored, overwhelmed by other sources of information, or just the opposite, that expressions will stand out due to contrasts noteworthy in such circumstances. Probably both will be found to occur, depending on  the emotion, the situation, and characteristics of the observer and the expresser.


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