The Universal Expression of Emotion

Two men from different cultures talking to each other

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Emotions play an important role in our daily lives. Each and every day we spend a tremendous amount of time witnessing the emotions of others, interpreting what these signals might mean, and determining how to respond to and deal with our own complex emotional experiences.

Emotions in Psychology and Research

Emotions are also an important topic in psychology, and researchers have devoted a great deal of energy toward understanding the purpose of emotions and developing theories about how and why emotions occur. Researchers have also learned a great deal about the actual expression of emotion.

Emotions can be expressed verbally (through words and tone of voice) or by using nonverbal communication, including the use of body language or facial expressions.

Body language such as a slouched posture or crossed arms can be used to send different emotional signals. One of the most important ways that we express emotion, however, is through facial expressions.

Are Emotions Universal?

You have probably heard that body language signals and gestures sometimes have different meanings in different cultures, but does the same idea apply to facial expressions as well? Do people in other countries and cultures express emotions in the same way?

In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, famed naturalist Charles Darwin argued that human expressions of emotion were both innate and universal across cultures. Researcher and emotion expert Paul Ekman has found that, for the most part, the facial expressions used to convey basic emotions tend to be the same across cultures.

While he has found that the human face is capable of creating an astonishing variety of expressions (more than 7,000!), they tend to fall under six key basic emotions.

The 6 Universal Emotions

  • Happiness
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Fear

Researchers have shown photographs of people expressing these emotions to individuals from different cultures, and people from all over the world have been able to identify the basic emotions behind these expressions. Ekman believes that not only are these basic emotions probably innate, but they are also most likely hard-wired in the brain.

Cultural Variations

However, there are important cultural differences in how we express emotions. Display rules are the differences in how we manage our facial expressions according to social and cultural expectations.

In one classic experiment, researchers secretly watched Japanese and American participants as they viewed grisly images and videos of things such as amputations and surgeries. People from both backgrounds showed similar facial expressions, grimacing and conveying disgust at the gory images.

When a scientist was present in the room as the participants viewed these scenes, however, the Japanese participants were more likely to mask their feelings with smiles. Why would the presence of the scientist change how these viewers responded?

In Japanese culture, it is typically less acceptable to display strong negative emotions in front of others than in American culture. By masking their expressions, the Japanese viewers were adhering to the display rules of their culture.

The ability to express and interpret emotions plays an essential part in our daily lives.

While many expressions of emotion are innate and likely hard-wired in the brain, there are many other factors that influence how we reveal our inner feelings. Social pressures, cultural influences, and past experience can all help shape the expression of emotion.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Darwin C. The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. New York: Oxford University Press; 1872.

  2. Bartlett MS, Movellan JR, Ekman P, Donato G, Hager JC, Sejnowski TJ. Image representations for facial expression coding. Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems. 2000;12.

  3. Celeghin A, Diano M, Bagnis A, Viola M, Tamietto M. Basic emotions in human neuroscience: Neuroimaging and beyond. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1432. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01432

  4. Matsumoto D, Hwang H. Cultural display rules. In: Keith KD, ed. The Encyclopedia of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 1st ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2013.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."