Facial Expression Differences Between Chinese and European Americans

In my trip to Rwanda, the most interesting complain that I heard from my Rwandan friends are about Chinese facial expression: different from European Americans (EA), Chinese people have “poker-face” and people can never tell their feelings from their faces. Unfortunately, what he complained are true. Chinese traditional culture considers that people who want to be noble men should show neither joy nor anger. Apparently, the understandings on “poker-face” are different. Diverse cultures form various understandings and facial expressions.

In theory, facial expression is a fundamental element in human social interaction. People’s facial expressions responding to emotions differ from culture to culture, with the exception of expressions to sensory stimuli like smells (Camras, Bakeman, Chen, Norris, Thomas, 2006). There is a significant difference between facial expression of Chinese and EA resulted in cultures. The individualism and indulgence dimensions in Geert Hofstede’s study can explain the differences as follows. This research paper will introduce the three most significant facial expression differences between Chinese and EA. Then it will explain the cultural issues underlying these differences with the help Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. An interesting finding about the fundamental reason later will be addressed.

These have been interesting studies in scholars’ facial expression researches. Chinese respondents express emotions primarily through eyes while EA respondents reveal through eyebrows and mouths (Jack, Caldara, Schyns, 2012); Compared to EA respondents, Chinese respondents rarely express interest-excitement and disgust-revulsion facial expressions (Chan, 1985). Chinese respondents facial expression of anger-rage is more easily identifiable than the one expressed by EA respondents (Chan, 1985).

Chinese are more reserved and calm when excited or disappointed. They use eyes to express emotions while the EA respondents use eyebrows and mouth. Facial expressions represent internal representations, which demonstrate emotional signals influenced by diverse cultures (Jack et al., 2012). According to Hofstede (2016), the United States culture is strongly individualistic and Chinese culture is more collectivist. EA people are aware of “I”, would love to express personal feelings, and advocate the “right of privacy”. On the contrary, Chinese culture, a collectivist culture, advocates “we” and harmony (Hofstede, 2016). Respondents who belong to Chinese culture fall under “stress on belonging”. Moreover, as Confucius said, gentlemen should be able to control emotions and maintain gravity. Being able to control emotions and reveal neither joy nor anger is one of the characters of noble men in Chinese concepts. Therefore, EA respondents are likely to express emotions with explicit and incidental facial expressions by moving eyebrows and mouth. Chinese respondents influenced by the harmony and collectivism culture tend to express emotions with implicit and controlled facial expressions especially when expressing excitement and revulsion.

Though Chinese respondents can control mild emotions well, they are less reserved in strong negative emotions, such as anger. According to Hofstede (2016), people in restraint culture are “less likely to remember positive emotions” and fewer of them think that they are happy. They even consider leisure is not important. On the contrary, people with high indulgence, the EA respondents, value leisure more highly, like to remember positive emotions, and believe themselves to be happy. Think of it this way. Positive emotions and more sensitive in feeling happy can balance strong negative emotions. Besides, fewer restrictions allow people in less restraint culture express strong negative emotions freely. Therefore, it is possible for people who live in less restraint culture and more sensitive about positive emotions to weaken strong negative emotions. Thus, as the researches reveal, Chinese respondents are more likely to become irate and influenced by negative emotions while EA respondents respond to anger in a milder way.

Carmas (2006) provided another interesting possible explanation—mom. EA mothers express more positive emotions than Chinese mothers (Carmas, 2006). Chinese mothers are outstanding in aggravation and strictness (Carmas, 2006). Therefore, as revealed in the study, Chinese mothers’ aggravation and strictness result in less smiling and more negative mistrust (Carmas, 2006). Combining this finding with Freud’s psychic determinism theory, no doubt the oppressive feeling and stress influenced by Chinese mothers’ aggravation and strictness contribute to Chinese respondents’ rare facial expressions in response to excitement and revulsion as well as their high levels of anger and restrained feelings. Mothers are the first and the most intimate teachers. By influencing individuals, mothers create human history, and influence diversity in cultures.

While we think of facial expressions as innate and natural, they are clearly culturally determined. With a greater understanding of intercultural competence and people’s facial expressions, intercultural communication can be conducted much more smoothly and effectively. However, people should not stereotype the general understanding of Chinese facial expression since Chinese people’s backgrounds are varied from gender, ethnicity, region, social and economic status, and generation.


Camras, L.A., Bakeman, R., Chen, Y. Norris, K., & Thomas, R. (2006). Culture, Ethnicity, and Children’s Facial Expressions: A Study of European American, Mainland Chinese, Chinese American, and Adopted Chinese Girls. Emotion, 6(1), 103-114. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1528-3542.6.1.103

Chan, D. W. (1985). Perception and Judgment Of Facial Expressions Among The Chinese. International Journal of Psychology, 20(6), 681.

Jack, R.E., Caldara, R., & Schyns, P.G. (2012). Internal Representations Reveal Cultural Diversity in Expectations of Facial Expressions of Emotion. Journal of Experimental Psychology,141, 1, 19–25. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xge-141-1-19.pdf

National Culture. (n.d.) In the Hofstede Center. Retrieved from http://geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html