Smile! And I tell you where you’re from

Although a popular belief (and a heartwarming children’s song) hold that we all laugh in the same language, recent research has found that people are remarkably adapt at detecting local accents in the way that emotions are expressed.  In this blog, I will review research that suggests that the long-assumed universality of emotions is limited. 

One of the most classic findings in psychology that you will find in every introductory textbook is that people around the world are able to recognize a basic set of six emotions that are expressed on the face: disgust, anger, fear, happiness, surprise, and sadness (e.g., Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002; Ekman & Friesen, 1971). Not only are these findings taught to psychology students around the world, but they also inspired TV shows, and led to the development of government trainings for security agents. Part of the pervasiveness of this finding is probably due to the fact that it reflects the underlying evolutionary and universalistic principle, which Darwin already noted in 1872 that: “…the young and the old of widely different races, both with man and animals, express the same state of mind by the same movements.”

Darwin seems to have gotten the basic grammar of the language of emotion right. There are literally thousands of studies that support the claim that people around the world recognize and portray a standard set of emotions in response to similar situations (e.g., “He is looking at something which smells bad”, as describing a disgust scenario). Just as in verbal language, there are however regional dialects and accents in the styles and ways that they are expressed. These subtle differences make it easier to recognize the facial expressions of members of our own cultural groups. 

This in-group advantage in emotion recognition was discovered quite serendipitously by Elfenbein and Ambady (2002). They realized that in the 87 articles on emotion recognition that they analyzed for their meta-analysis, many studies that were intended to demonstrate universality, actually included an unintentional cross-cultural component. For example, researchers used experimental material that was designed by colleagues in other countries. When Elfenbein and Ambady re-analyzed this data to check for cultural differences, they found that participants were more accurate when judging emotional expressions from pictures that were taken of actors from their own cultural background. Issues of language or race could not explain these differences away, because the difference emerged across cultural groups who share the same native language and ethnicity (e.g., American vs. Australian English).

When they went back to the lab to formally test the effect of these accents in emotion expression, Marsh, Elfenbein and Ambady (2003) found that participants were able to detect whether the actor on the image that they were presented with during the study, which was designed to be equivalent across cultures, was Japanese born or Japanese American. They were however only able to do so when the actors expressed an emotion, not when they had a neutral facial expression. This rules out that participants were able to correctly identify the cultural background based on anything other than the actor’s facial expression (like hair style, or the effect of diet or climate on facial appearance).

Nonverbal accents in our facial expressions thus seem to communicate information about our background and even nationality to others. Moreover, we are less able to correctly identify the subtle emotions expressed by foreigners. Is that bad news or good news for our increasingly multicultural societies? Elfenbein assures us that despite the fact that these findings initially suggest a barrier for effective intercultural communication, that one easily learns emotion dialects when practiced (Elfenbein, 2006). Like linguistic dialects, we easily pick up emotional dialects when we are exposed to a new cultural environment. That means that multicultural exposure could do wonders for the development of our emotional intelligence. Now that is a message to make us smile indeed! 


 Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124–129.

Elfenbein, H. A. (2006). Learning in emotion judgments: Training and the cross-cultural understanding of facial expressions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 30(1), 21-36.

Elfenbein, H. A. (2013). Nonverbal dialects and accents in facial expressions of emotion. Emotion Review, 5(1), 90–96.

Elfenbein, H. A., & Ambady, N. (2002). On the universality and cultural specificity of emotion recognition: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 203-235.

Marsh, A. A., Elfenbein, H. A., & Ambady, N. (2003). Nonverbal “accents”: Cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. Psychological Science, 14(4), 373–376.