In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Elsewhere | Main | Slow Fitness? »

September 20, 2006

Are Minor Facial Expressions Readable Across Cultures?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Here's an expression that -- in my experience anyway -- isn't a rare one to run across:

(Image of actress Amy Locane lifted from some godawful trash movie The Wife and I watched the other evening. What can I say? Sometimes we're more in the mood for trash than we are for Great Art.)

A familiar one, no? How do you read it? Here's my shot at an interpretation: "I know things are very hard right now, but I also want you to know that I sympathize with your predicament." As far as I can tell, the expression (which I have seldom if ever seen on a man's face, btw) conveys something like "pained empathy."

Here's my real question: Is this a facial expression that exists in all cultures?

Evo-bio eggheads tell us that certain basic facial expressions are in fact human univerals: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger. But are any of the more specialized facial expressions instantly comprehensible to everyone too? Even across cultures and time?

But perhaps this one is unique to a narrow slice of Americans. It's certainly an expression that's a familiar one to me. But what do I know? My life has its limits and boundaries. Sometimes I even wonder if this expression is unique to vanilla blondes. My midwestern sister makes this face on a regular basis, for instance -- yet urban gal friends who are of Mediterranean descent seldom if ever look at anyone like this. And if the pained-empathy corrugated forehead really is distinctive to vanilla blondes, well, why should this be?

A question for non-American visitors: Do you find Amy Locane's expression easy to interpret? And do you run across this particular expression often among gals in your own world?



posted by Michael at September 20, 2006


Goodness. I'm a native Connecticutitian and I took it for "But he said he loved me!'

Posted by: susan on September 20, 2006 12:40 PM

Don't have time to look up info now, but I remember that when Dienekes made the composite faces of Slavic vs Germanic female athletes, the Slavic girls' smiles were less prominent (often remaining neutral) compared to the Germanic girls. So it could be that some people make such expressions more often than others, even if everyone could hazard a good guess as to its meaning. Mediterranean peoples' gesticulating is another good example.

Posted by: Agnostic on September 20, 2006 1:31 PM

Yeah, I read it as her being the one in pain, as well.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 20, 2006 1:52 PM

The expression in the picture has more of a self-pain thing going on than an empathetic-pain thing. I know a few Brunettes who can do this expression, at least... As for other girls, it may not be possible for some to achieve that rippled look due to skull structure or musculature.

Posted by: Rendition on September 20, 2006 2:02 PM

¿"There is a bee in my panties"?

Posted by: Jonathan on September 20, 2006 2:15 PM

That's an incredibly American expression (I speak from a British point of view). It also looks like someone acting. It's unnatural and forced. I'm not sure I've ever seen it apart from on the faces of American actresses in films.

Posted by: Graham Asher on September 20, 2006 2:28 PM

Apparently expressions do not travel across cultures or even within them! I also read it as more "Whine-whine-whine-this-is-all-about-me" than empathic toward someone else. Maybe it's because you saw the movie and heard the dialog that you interpret it differently? Because I would think someone being empathic toward someone else's pain would like calmer, nicer. She's got a problem of her own she's expressing--and she's stressed out about it.

Posted by: annette on September 20, 2006 2:41 PM

Couldn't it be the case that the range of facial expressions is more limited than the range of human emotions, and therefore some facial expressions have to do double duty? C.S. Lewis has an essay called "Transposition" (if I recall off the top of my head) where he points out that when a richer medium is transposed into a more limited medium, something in the more limited medium has to do double duty. He gives the example of fluttery feelings in the stomach: The same feeling could be a sign of nervousness or of actual nausea.

Posted by: Stuart Buck on September 20, 2006 3:22 PM

Well, this is weird -- I just tried twice to post a comment, but it just disappeared without a trace. Is it being held for approval or something? Thanks.

Posted by: Stuart Buck on September 20, 2006 3:26 PM

Y'all don't see the "reaching out to you," "feeling your feelings," gushy side of her expression? That's funny -- it leaps out at me. But maybe because I know people who do this on a regular basis. So maybe it's not just culture-specific, maybe it's hyper culture-specific.

It's funny too the way that some expressions are so culture-specific, isn't it? When I moved to the big city, I had to do some real scrambling. I could read vanilla-blondes easily. But who knew what all those urban types were signaling. It turns out that there are dozens of different kinds of hand-waves, for instance. Yet nobody where I grew up gesticulated much. I'm a stranger in a strange land, I guess.

Stuart -- Apologies for the whole posting-comments thing being so confusing. As a defence against commentspam, we're monitoring comments, so it make take a bit for a comment you've posted to show up. I really have to put up a sign warning people that this is the case ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 20, 2006 3:45 PM

I know that there's a Japanese smile which means "Something terrible has just happened but I don't want to make you feel bad".

Many peoples suppress overt expressions of feelings -- E. European, Scandinavian, E. Asian, and me. But often there is a code to read if you can understand it.

Posted by: John Emerson on September 20, 2006 4:16 PM

Initially, I saw a harried mother, consternation in the forehead and sarcastic dismissiveness in the mouth, e.g.: "Well, I don't care if Jennifer gets to go to the park. You're coming to dinner with Grandma." Clearly, I overlooked the teary mascara.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 20, 2006 4:49 PM

I would caution against reading too much into a still photograph of a person's facial expression. People convey meaning through their facial expressions, that's certainly true, but it's a dynamic process. You have to see how the expression changes over a period of at least a few seconds, possibly much longer, in order to make a useful judgment.

Posted by: Peter on September 20, 2006 5:47 PM

I don't see empathy. Pained disgust/disgruntlement. Frequently followed with an immediate, swift upward look or outright eye-roll. "Well, where were your keys the last time you saw them?" "You're wearing THAT shirt to my sister's?" There's something going on with the position of the mouth -- it's too open -- for it to be regular old sympathy, or empathy. For that it would probably be closed, and the eyes would be more opened with less lower eyelid-area wrinkling going on. I once took an acting class where we picked assigned facial expressions apart, instructing the poser to tweak eyebrows or mouth corners just a scintilla to TOTALLY change meaning. Fascinating. The eyes aren't the windows to the soul -- the eyebrows are.

Posted by: Flutist on September 20, 2006 6:53 PM

Maybe attractive blondes can afford the empathy look more than mustachio'd mediterranean gals can. ;^)

Posted by: ricpic on September 20, 2006 7:31 PM

The first thing I thought of was the way that the nationally known news anchor (I forget her name and my google-fu is weak, but it may be Diane Sawyer) always gets that look when relating a tragedy.

The camera zooms in with an overly soft focus, the forehead is wrinkled appropriately - in other words, "fake empathy".

Posted by: Ed from Florida on September 20, 2006 9:32 PM

I'm with you on this one, Michael -- I see her looking down at a small child and saying, 'Oh, dear! You've poo'ed in your pants again!' If this expression is used in conversation with another adult, you can rest assured the word 'share' will be used very soon indeed. It's a mix of empathy and condescension that for some reason I immediately associate with women who have been good-looking all their lives, not necessarily blondes.

As for cross-cultural interpretation of facial expressions: there may be some broad universals, but there is a lot of room for misunderstanding. I've live in a foreign culture for 16 years now, and it took me a long time to figure out even some of the most basic differences. For example, people brought up here in Hong Kong often smile or even laugh when they're uncomfortable/embarrassed, and there's a lot less Oprahific, over-the-top empathizing. It's actually a nice fit for fairly taciturn upper midwesterners like me.

Posted by: mr tall on September 21, 2006 1:08 AM

I propose that it's the fakeness, the lousy acting, that Michael interprets as empathy in this photo, and in his friends.

Posted by: Douglas Knight on September 21, 2006 10:20 AM

Actually, I do kind of get what you mean, but women who look like this when conveying "empathy" are typically big fakers of it. Real empathy doesn't look like this. This looks like someone saying "See what a nice person I am? I'm cooing and saying these nice things and 'expressing concern'. Now, you are supposed to think I'm wonderful." I never actually think someone who communicates like this will actually do a damn thing about my problem. But, the expression obviously can communicate different things---either the problem is really all about me, or I-am-pretending-to-be-concerned-for-you-so-its-still-really-all-about-me.

Posted by: annette on September 21, 2006 10:57 AM

Another thing to remember -- even if it paid for all normal humans to be able to read the basic, important emotions by facial expression analysis, that doesn't mean it paid for us all to be connoisseurs. Paul Ekman, the guy who broke most of the ground in this area, had to train for a long time to be able to decode nuance, and the law enforcement officers that are trained using his materials have a long arduous journey ahead if they want to pick up on subtle cues during interrogation.

Posted by: Agnostic on September 21, 2006 11:36 AM

Manfred Clynes did some interesting research on the question of emotional expression across cultures. (Start here for more info, or see his homepage.) He especially wanted to know how precisely art can communicate emotion. He concluded there is a small core of expressions that cannot be undone by social conditioning. (E.g., grief is invariably expressed by some kind of drooping gesture.)

An expression from another culture may be so alien that it fails in its effect, but it cannot produce the wrong effect, so listening to sad music from anywhere in the world may leave you feeling nothing, but it certainly won't make you happy. Or so said Clynes (if I got it right).

Posted by: Fredosphere on September 21, 2006 12:24 PM

I agree with Annette - this is an overblown see-how-caring-I-am look, which is just why many of the other comments associate it with actresses. It's similar to the oh-I'm-so-glad-to-see you look (think of the way that Tom Wolfe describes Manhattan party behavior).

Posted by: Derek Lowe on September 22, 2006 9:04 AM

She's a robot.

Posted by: Eric on September 24, 2006 12:19 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?