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Face Value

Are facial expressions universal?

So you're planning a business trip to Tokyo? Well, consider this: The basic, everyday facial expressions you wear during negotiations may be misunderstood. That's because, according to the findings of a recent study, Japanese natives sometimes misconstrue even common facial expressions like sadness or fear.

"Some basic human expressions are generally universal--like a happy face--and the majority of Japanese and Americans would have no problem [identifying them,]" says Siu Wa Tang, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, who is conducting the ongoing Human Facial Expressions and Culture study. "But when it comes to expressions like surprise or contempt, which are a bit more complex, there seems to be some difficulty."

To test his theory, Tang evaluated more than 100 Japanese medical students who were asked to identify seven basic facial expressions. While 89 percent of Japanese subjects correctly identified surprise, only 67 percent accurately identified sadness and only 55 percent correctly identified contempt. Happiness won out, with a recognition rate of about 95 percent.

Although the findings are only preliminary, it's certainly something to keep in mind during your next overseas meeting or videoconference call. "You need to accept that people might not have the same facial expressions in another culture," says Tang.

So it's probably not a good idea to rely on facial expressions for communication. "Be more flexible in interpreting facial expressions," advises Tang. And when in doubt, ask.

This story appears in the July 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »