Body language varies significantly across cultures. What is considered rude or foolish in a Nordic country may be welcomed as warm and friendly in an African one. What a Canadian businessperson would perceive as arrogant, an American executive may see as healthy confidence.
But what remains consistent across all known cultures are microexpressions. These brief, involuntary flashes of facial expression reveal our true feelings about another person or situation.
People might try to hide or obscure them in different ways informed by culture, but to a practiced reader the true emotions are always visible. Consider the contrast in expressiveness between Filipino and Japanese people. In the Philippines, showing emotion — both positive and negative — is a sign of openness and honesty. In Japan, the opposite is true. Visible negative emotion is seen as rude or hostile, while expressing too much positive feeling is considered indelicate. However, when we evaluate people from both countries for their microexpressions, we find that they actually experience emotions at more or less the same level of frequency and intensity. It’s just that the Japanese consciously try to mask their reactions, often by smiling, while Filipinos wear their feelings for all the world to see.
The ability to read microexpressions can be useful anywhere — as we’ve previously shown, salespeople who have this knack get better results — but it’s particularly useful in more buttoned-up cultures, where people are careful managers of the physical signals they send out.
Here’s another example: A few years ago, my husband and I traveled to Qatar to lead a body language workshop for 200 HR executives. Immediately, cultural norms made it difficult to gauge how the audience was receiving our presentation. Women’s bodies were completely covered, so we couldn’t see their posture or gestures. When I stood on stage with my husband, all the men looked exclusively at him, and all the women looked exclusively at me. But we could read the microexpressions we saw around the room. We knew from the videos we’d previously made of Qataris that the flashes of emotion in their faces reflected the same sentiments we might find from audience members anywhere else in the world. And, so we could calibrate our presentation accordingly, and felt just as comfortable as we would have at home.
Recognizing and interpreting microexpressions takes practice, but there are a few things you can start doing immediately to improve your skills.
First, study the common microexpressions pictured above so you know the hallmarks of each. Disgust, for example, involves down-turned lips, while people feeling contempt might show it by inadvertently pulling one side of the mouth up. Surprise and fear might look similar, but the latter emotion will cause people to pull their brows together.
Second, if you know you’re about to visit or interact with another culture, educate yourself on the local body language — including masking techniques. YouTube is a great tool for this: Find videos of 10 executives from that culture and watch how they communicate.
Third, when you’re in the moment, pay attention. You can’t interpret microexpressions if you don’t notice them. Don’t make your counterpart uncomfortable with an unwavering stare. But do keep your focus on the face.
Fourth, listen to your intuition.When you notice a tiny facial movement, ask yourself: “What could that mean?” Humans are wired to subconsciously detect even the subtlest of emotional flashes, so your gut instinct may be correct.
You might also try to mimic the movement. When you repeat what you saw — whether it was a quick eyebrow raise or tightening of the lips, it not only gives you more time to think, but also fires the mirror neurons in your brain, making it easier for you to associate the movement you saw with the correct emotion.
If you’re still perplexed, start to exclude emotions. After memorizing the expressions above, you should be able to quickly assess what the facial cue does not mean. For example, if you saw someone’s eyebrows going down, you can exclude surprise, fear, or sadness — all of which are associated with raised eyebrows — and work from there.
If you’re presenting to a crowd, as we were in Qatar, continue to scan the audience for microexpressions. Don’t fixate on one negative look; instead try to discern the sentiments of the majority.
Body language can be cultural, but emotions are universal. Microexpressions reveal someone’s true feelings in a fragment of a second, and so it pays to notice them and calibrate your behavior in cross-cultural interactions accordingly.