Judging emotion across culture works surprisingly well

New research on cultural barriers and judging emotion uncovers some surprising universality.

We’re better at judging the emotions of people from our own country, according to research on the vocal expressions of people in the United States, Australia, India, Kenya, and Singapore.

In a separate study, the researchers also discovered that Australians and Indians could read each other pretty well despite cultural barriers.

When one native inflected differently on phrases, a person from the other country knew how to interpret the utterer’s emotions via non-verbal language or expressions: anger, fear, happiness, pride, relief, sadness, serenity, and shame. No matter the emotion, the words spoken were constant: “Let me tell you about something,” or “That is exactly what happened.”

“The way they interpreted emotional expressions, they tended to be the same,” says Hillary Anger Elfenbein, professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School of Washington University in St. Louis.

Elfenbein is coauthor of the study in Royal Society Open Sciences. “[Their interpretations] were almost universal, which is an important finding that fits with existing work from my own team and others that shows a lot of emotion is universal,” she says.

Judging emotion

This particular Australian-Indian finding differed from the previous research, which appeared in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The team found that participants were better at judging emotions from their own countries. In this study, researchers looked not at the emotion people believed the actors were expressing, but rather at the intent they believed was behind it.

In detailed analyses, 90 Australians and 40 Indians, all at a mean age between 21 and 22 (primarily college students) heard audio clips of professional actors from each of the countries making the two aforementioned statements in English. (While English was the primary language of the Australians, the Indian group reported their primary tongues as Nepali, Assamese, Hindi, and Tibetan but were also fluent in English.) The actors received instructions to enact scenes associated with anger, fear, happiness, pride, relief sadness, serenity, and shame.

Surprising results

The scenarios were judged across multiple computational platforms, including Bayesian analyses and other ratings previously used by Elfenbein in emotional intelligence research. Different from previous cross-cultural research on emotion reception, the participants didn’t judge the emotion categories but instead offered ratings across many dimensions that appraised such things as novelty, intrinsic pleasantness, goal conduciveness, urgency, and power. Of 96 comparisons, 17 (18 percent) supported a difference between listener cultures and 61 (64 percent) supported no difference.

“It’s always a surprise when you get nearly no cultural differences,” Elfenbein says. “You expect every culture to have its own style. Especially something like this, how to interpret when we hear somebody’s voice. I didn’t quite expect it to be so similar.”

Collaborations on the work are from Stockholm University in Sweden, Sikkim University in India, and the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Funding for the work came from the National Science Foundation, the Swedish Research Council, and the Australian Research Council.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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