Facial expressions have been called the "universal language of emotion," but people from different cultures perceive happy, sad or angry facial expressions in unique ways. In some cultures, smiling at a person you don’t know well (such as a clerk in a shop or someone on the street) makes you seem gauche and even rude.

Researcher Rachael E. Jack says, "By conducting this study, we hoped to show that people from different cultures think about facial expressions in different ways. East Asians and Western Caucasians differ in terms of the features they think constitute an angry face or a happy face. "A mental representation of a facial expression is the image we see in our ‘mind’s eye’ when we think about what a fearful or happy face looks like. Mental representations are shaped by our past experiences and help us know what to expect when we are interpreting facial expressions."

And since different cultures give rise to different types of experiences, people interpret expressions differently. Some prior research has supported the notion that facial expressions are a hard-wired human behavior with evolutionary origins, so facial expressions wouldn’t differ across cultures. But this study challenges that theory.

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