The Body Language of Emoticons


Is Paul Ekman wrong? Paul who? Paul Ekman – the psychology professor who discovered that the facial expressions of emotion are universal across human cultures and thus biological in origin. This was big news at a time when most anthropologists believed that all expressions of emotion were culturally determined. Ekman found that at least six expressions were universal – those indicating anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.

I’ve mentioned him before in relation to classes I’ve taught on body language and lie-detection. He’s most famous here for his work on microexpressions – those brief glimpses into what someone is really feeling – and his attempt to map the relation between every facial muscle and the emotion that triggers it off (the Facial Action Coding System).

Anyway, to put it bluntly, he might be wrong, at least in part. Recent research has suggested that facial expression are not global. The difference comes between East and West. The study showed that Easterners focus on the eyes, while Westerners scan the whole face. But, in Ekman’s defence, I might suggest that this has more to be with someone’s secondary interpretation than your primary expression.

The slightly quirky element to this study was its claim that there is a link between this and the different sorts of emoticons used by both groups. For instance, while the Western emoticon for sad is of course :- ( the Eastern is (;_;) or (T_T). The Eastern emoticons emphasise the eyes, while for the West its the mouth that moves.

Surprised? And if so, is that :- o or (o.o)?