Language and Dialect

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  • Topic: Emotion, Paul Ekman, Emotional expression
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Emotion 2007, Vol. 7, No. 1, 131–146

Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association 1528-3542/07/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1528-3542.7.1.131

Toward a Dialect Theory: Cultural Differences in the Expression and Recognition of Posed Facial Expressions Hillary Anger Elfenbein
University of California, Berkeley

Martin Beaupre ´
University of Quebec at Montreal

Manon Levesque ´
Omar Bongo University

Ursula Hess
University of Quebec at Montreal

Two studies provided direct support for a recently proposed dialect theory of communicating emotion, positing that expressive displays show cultural variations similar to linguistic dialects, thereby decreasing accurate recognition by out-group members. In Study 1, 60 participants from Quebec and Gabon posed facial expressions. Dialects, in the form of activating different muscles for the same expressions, emerged most clearly for serenity, shame, and contempt and also for anger, sadness, surprise, and happiness, but not for fear, disgust, or embarrassment. In Study 2, Quebecois and Gabonese participants judged these stimuli and stimuli standardized to erase cultural dialects. As predicted, an in-group advantage emerged for nonstandardized expressions only and most strongly for expressions with greater regional dialects, according to Study 1. Keywords: emotion, expression, recognition, dialects, in-group advantage

An enduring question in the study of emotional facial expressions is the extent to which these expressions are universal (e.g., Darwin, 1872/1965) versus culturally determined. A considerable body of research supports the conclusion that the expression of emotion is largely universal and biologically evolved, for example, through similarities between human and nonhuman emotional expressions (e.g., Chevalier-Skolnikoff, 1973; Darwin, 1872/1965; Redican, 1982) and the mutual recognition of emotional signals across species boundaries (e.g., Itakura, 1994; Linnankoski, Laasko, & Leinonen, 1994). Across cultures, classic studies by Ekman, Izard, and their colleagues (Ekman, 1972, 1994; Ekman et al., 1987; Izard, 1971) have demonstrated that displays of basic emotions are well recognized even across cultures that have relatively little contact with each other. This view contrasts with perspectives viewing emotional behavior as determined com-

pletely by cultural influences on social prescriptions (e.g., Lutz & White, 1986; Wierzbicka, 1994). Many approaches take an intermediate position (e.g., Ekman, 1972; Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998; Fridlund, 1994; Mesquita, Frijda, & Scherer, 1997; Rosenthal, Hall, DiMatteo, Rogers, & Archer, 1979), acknowledging both universals and cultural variations in the expression and recognition of emotion. The current article focuses on one such intermediate perspective: the dialect theory of communicating emotion. Dialect theory proposes the presence of cultural differences in the use of cues for emotional expression that are subtle enough to allow accurate communication across cultural boundaries in general, yet substantive enough to result in a potential for miscommunication (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002b, 2003).

Elaborating the Dialect Theory
In linguistics, dialects are the variants or varieties of a language used by different speakers who are separated by geographic or social boundaries (Francis, 1992; Romaine, 1994). Although there is an old adage that a language is simply a dialect with its own army and navy (Fasold, 1984)—suggesting a sometimes arbitrary distinction between the two concepts—linguists argue that dialects but not languages should allow basic mutual comprehension (O’Grady, Archibald, Aronoff, & Rees-Miller, 2001). Accordingly, the dialect theory of communicating emotion argues that the language of emotion is universal. As with other languages, different cultures can express themselves in different dialects, which is the first proposition of dialect theory. The second proposition is that the...
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