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Are Dutch and Japanese people able to understand each other’s nonverbal expressions of emotions? Disa Sauter (University of Amsterdam) and Michiko Yoshie (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Japan) conducted a cross-cultural experiment and found that Dutch people have trouble picking up when Japanese people vocally express anger and triumph, but Japanese people can pick up on those nonverbal expressions of Dutch people.

People trying to listen to each other

Laughs, screams, and sighs, are all powerful ways to communicate emotions without using words. Some vocal signals are used and understood across even dramatically different cultures, but not all.

Sauter and Yoshie tested the hypothesis that vocal expressions of socially disruptive emotions like anger and triumph would not communicate easily between East Asian and Western cultures, because these cultures are too fundamentally different in their cultural norms. Their experiment proved them right, and is now published in the journal Emotion of the American Psychological Association.

Different cultural norms to look at the self and others

Sauter and Yoshie hypothesized that East Asian and Western cultures differ too much regarding their perceptions of the self to allow for easy vocal and nonverbal communication of socially disruptive emotions. In American and Western European cultures, people have an independent view of the self: each individual stands on their own, independent from others. Communicating one’s own needs or goals is encouraged as necessary to obtain culturally desired autonomy and independence.

In East Asian cultures, however, people regard the self as part of a larger social unit. The emphasis is put on harmonious interdependence with others, and group goals are more important than personal ones. Socially disruptive emotions that focus on personal goals are therefore discouraged.

A cross-cultural experiment with Dutch and Japanese listeners

To test their hypothesis, Sauter and Yoshie asked Dutch and Japanese listeners to categorize and rate nonverbal vocal expressions of a variety of emotions that were produced by Dutch and Japanese native speakers. Specifically, they were interested in the nonverbal vocal expressions of triumph (a positive socially disruptive emotion) and anger (a negative socially disruptive emotion).

The results of the experiment

On average, both Dutch and Japanese listeners were generally able to recognize emotions expressed by both in-group and out-group members, but:

  • Listeners in both cultures were better able to recognize emotions from expressions made by their own cultural group. 
  • Dutch listeners could hardly recognize Japanese vocalizations expressing anger. They perceived them as less intense and aroused than did Japanese listeners. This was the largest cultural difference in the study. Complementing this finding, Japanese listeners perceived Dutch anger vocalizations as more intense than did Dutch listeners.
  • Dutch listeners also found it difficult to recognize Japanese vocalizations expressing triumph. They perceived Japanese vocalizations of triumph as less positive than did Japanese listeners.

Western listeners struggle to understand Japanese vocalizations of anger

Sauter and Yoshie conclude that Western listeners find it challenging to interpret Japanese vocalizations of socially disruptive emotions, especially anger. Japanese listeners however could recognize Western vocalizations of anger and triumph as accurately as those of other emotions. There is thus an asymmetry in the recognition of nonverbal vocalizations of socially disruptive emotions between East Asian and Western cultures.