The emoticon for “smile” in most western cultures is this :). One of the ScienceBloggers does it backwards (: (can you guess who?), but the symbol is essentially the same. In Japan, however, the smile is depicted like this: ^_^.
You might think that’s just because the traditions evolved separately, but emotion researcher Masaki Yuki doesn’t buy it. He argues that the difference in Japanese emoticons is related to cultural differences in real smiles.
when Yuki entered graduate school and began communicating with American scholars over e-mail, he was often confused by their use of emoticons such as smiley faces ? and sad faces, or :(.
“It took some time before I finally understood that they were faces,” he wrote in an e-mail. In Japan, emoticons tend to emphasize the eyes, such as the happy face (^_^) and the sad face (;_;). “After seeing the difference between American and Japanese emoticons, it dawned on me that the faces looked exactly like typical American and Japanese smiles,” he said.
Later, Yuki worked with a team that asked Japanese and American students to rate the emotional valence of real photos that had been manipulated in Photoshop to emphasize happy and sad emotions in the eyes and mouth. As predicted, Japanese students responded more to eye expression, while Americans responded more to the mouth. There was, however, one interesting twist to the research:
both the Americans and Japanese tended to rate faces with so-called “happy” eyes as neutral or sad. This could be because the muscles that are flexed around the eyes in genuine smiles are also quite active in sadness, said James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the research.
Research has shown that the expressive muscles around the eyes provide key clues about a person’s genuine emotions, said Coan. Because Japanese people tend to focus on the eyes, they could be better, overall, than Americans at perceiving people’s true feelings.
Some other work on faces and emotion: