Are facial expressions universal or culturally specific?

A look at cultural expressions in public and private

Excerpts taken from Dr. Paul Ekman’s scientific autobiography, Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code (pp. 70-74)

Display Rules

As I was preparing to make my second trip to New Guinea, I knew that even if I obtained strong results supporting Darwin’s claim of universals in facial expressions, I would need to explain why so many smart anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, had come to believe that expressions were culture-specific. So, I came up with the term display rules- rules we learn in the course of growing up about who can show which emotion to whom, and when. Display rules can specify that an emotional expression be suppressed, de-amplified, exaggerated, or even masked altogether. Since display rules operate primarily in public, this would explain why expressions would appear culturally different (due to display rules) especially when observed by outsiders in social situations. Therefore, Mead and Darwin could both be right!



Public and Private

The idea that it is possible to control facial expression wasn’t original with me, but it had not been elaborated before, nor had it been used to explain how and when expressions of emotion would be pan-cultural or culture-specific. The first step in a series of experiments I did in Japan on this topic was facilitated by Dick Lazarus. Dick had spent a sabbatical year at Waseda University and was continuing to do research on stress, comparing Japanese and U.S. college students, measuring their physiological reactions when watching very unpleasant films. I planned to videotape the facial expressions of both Japanese and American students when alone and when in the presence of an authority figure, expecting to find similar expressions when alone but different facial expressions – due to display rules – when in the presence of an authority figure.

Universal and Culturally Specific

Importantly, the students in both countries did not know that my hidden video camera was observing their expressions. The measurements we made of the facial expressions revealed no difference between the Japanese and Americans when they watched the emotionally arousing films in private. When a scientist was present while they watched the emotionally arousing films, the Japanese but not the Americans masked disgust and fear expressions with a smile. In this one study, I had shown both Darwin’s evolved, universal facial expressions (when the students thought they were alone), and Mead’s culture-specific expressions (when there was a scientist present) due to the operation of display rules!


You can now purchase your own copy of Dr. Ekman’s scientific autobiography, Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code, here.



Subscribe to our newsletter and receive a special 20% discount on our training tools today!