Career & Success

Showing Your Smile From Behind a Mask: How Culture and Emotion Impact Communication

In this episode, we discuss how cultural values play an important role in how you communicate and how you perceive others’ communication.

September 11, 2020

| by Matt Abrahams

“In companies, you’re interacting with other people who come from different cultural contexts, and in order to be effective, you have to understand how much of your own communication and other people’s communication is shaped by their cultural ideas and their cultural values.”

On this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, we speak with Jeanne L. Tsai, professor of psychology at Stanford and director of the Culture and Emotion Lab. Tsai’s research focuses on cultural influences on psychological and social processes related to emotion. Tsai discusses why wearing a mask is more accepted for some cultures, and seen as prohibiting communication in others.

“Communication is just one of the places where you really can see culture at work,” she says. “In cultural contexts that promote these more independent views of the self, the core goal of communication is to express yourself, to express those beliefs, preferences, and desires that define who you are.”


Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: First time my wife met my family she came away asking, “Do you guys even like each other?” You see, in my family, the way to get heard is to speak louder and longer than anyone else. Now, my wife didn’t come from a family with that same goal.

In fact, the first time I met the woman who became my mother-in-law, she said something to me that no one in my family has ever said before. When I was done talking, she looked, smiled and asked, “Tell me more.”

No one in my family has ever asked anybody to say anything more. This exemplifies the difference that culture can have on our communication. And today, I’m excited to talk about that issue.

I’m Matt Abrahams. And I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” the podcast.

Culture and emotion exert a huge influence on our actions and attitudes. Today, I am excited to be joined by Stanford psychology professor. Jeanne Tsai. Jeanne’s work focuses on how culture shapes our emotions and its implications for health, decision making and person perception.

Jeanne is the director of the Stanford culture and emotion lab and an award-winning teacher. Plus, for the two of us, this conversation is a bit of a trip down memory lane because Jeanne and I were psychology undergrads together here at Stanford back in the day. Welcome, Jeanne.

Jeanne Tsai: Hey, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Great to reconnect with you. It’s so awesome that your career has come full circle from Stanford psychology student to Stanford psychology professor. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Jeanne Tsai: Me too.

Matt Abrahams: All right. Let’s jump in. Can you highlight some of the ways culture impacts the way in which we communicate both on what we say and how we perceive what others say?

Jeanne Tsai: Well, I think communication is just one of the places where you really can see culture at work. In cultural contexts that promote these more independent views of the self, the core goal of communication is to express yourself, to express those beliefs, preferences and desires that define who you are.

So ideal communication in these settings is really about expressing your beliefs as clearly and as directly as possible. And those are the communicators in those contexts — the communicators that we admire and respect the most are the ones who can do this. And we disapprove of the people who can’t really express themselves.

But in cultural contexts that promote more interdependent views of the self like in many parts of East Asia, the emphasis is really on maintaining interpersonal harmony and fitting in. So ideal communication is less about expressing your beliefs and more about thinking about the other person.

So you can express yourself. But you have to always keep the other person in mind without compromising or hurting the relationship you have with that person. So oftentimes, communication in East Asian contexts is less direct and more thoughtful of the other person’s perspective.

This often gets read, I think, in American and more independent contexts as being sort of inarticulate or unassertive. But in East Asian contexts, communication can actually be too direct and too clear, which can sound, again, kind of funny from a U.S. perspective.

Matt Abrahams: Really emphasizes that we have to appreciate that all communication happens in a cultural context. And you have to understand the perspective your audience brings because you can be seen as pushing boundaries or even speaking a way that’s seen as taboo that can set you back rather than pushing forward.

So it’s really about appreciating the differences. And in this area and in many situations in business, we are dealing with a global audience. So really thinking about these issues becomes very, very important.

Jeanne Tsai: Absolutely. I mean, as companies are increasingly global and as companies are interacting with — in companies, you’re interacting with other people who come from different cultural contexts. And in order to be effective, you have to understand how much of your own communication and other people’s communication is shaped by their cultural ideas and their cultural values.

The think about culture is that you often aren’t aware of how what you do, what you think, how you express yourself is influenced by your culture. So we can have really gut feelings about people’s communication.

We like people immediately, or we dislike them. We think they’re effective communicators or not. And we think that that’s about the person. We don’t really realize that it’s as much about us as it is about them and about the culture that we’ve been raised in and what we’ve been taught to value in terms of effective communication.

Matt Abrahams: Jeanne, that is really profound. Let me ask the same question but this time focusing on emotion. Can you highlight some of the ways cultural differences in emotion impact the way in which we communicate?

Jeanne Tsai: Well, I think people express the emotions that their culture values when they’re communicating with others. So much of communication is emotional. In the United States, people, as I said, value excitement, enthusiasm, these high-arousal positive states.

So they express a lot of it. When asked how they’re doing, Americans say, “Great.” And Americans show big, broad, toothy smiles like yours, Matt. I love your big, broad, toothy smile.

Matt Abrahams: [laughs] Thank you.

Jeanne Tsai: For those of you who don’t know what Matt looks like, you can just think Julia Roberts.

Matt Abrahams: [laughs]

Jeanne Tsai: You know, we compliment others. We say, “You look great. That outfit looks great on you.” And we use lots of exclamation marks to emphasize our high-arousal positive affect, you know, in texts or in emails.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Jeanne Tsai: So I think all of our communication you can see in the United States really is expressing a lot of excitement. But in other cultures that value high-arousal positive states less or low-arousal positive states like calm and peacefulness more, communication then is more about those calm states.

In many East Asian cultures that value low-arousal positive states, effective or good communication is about showing calm. You can think of the Dalai Lama or even showing just a neutral state because those calm states allow you to just sort of assess what’s going on in the situation, you know, to assess the best way to respond in that situation.

In fact, many of my East Asian colleagues from Japan or South Korea or Taiwan talk about how exhausting it is expressing so much excitement and other high-arousal positive states when they come to the United States, keeping their mouth open and that big, broad, toothy smile takes a lot of energy. [laughs]

So the problem is, as you said, that culturally shaped ideal affect also influences how we read others. So if we value excitement and the person we’re communicating with doesn’t really show a big, broad, toothy smile, doesn’t express excitement, then we almost immediately find them boring, withdrawn, stoic or even cold rather than realizing that they might just be showing the emotions that their cultures value and that what we’re doing is judging them according to our own cultural values.

So as you say, I think, in multicultural societies like the United States and as our world, of course, has become increasingly global, there’s much more room for these misunderstandings when we might be interacting with somebody who values different emotional states than our culture values.

And the problem with that is that we might leave then an interaction with really a misunderstanding of that person. That person may be actually quite friendly and warm. But we leave thinking that they’re cold and stoic when that may not be the case.

Matt Abrahams: And that can just put you on a bad path for the entire next communication. And you really need to step back and reflect. I have to say, Jeanne, I have never been compared to Julia Roberts before. But —

Jeanne Tsai: [laughs]

Matt Abrahams: — thank you for that. It seems to me that one of the things that we need to not only be mindful of but actively working on is to think to ourselves when we have an interaction h — to ask ourselves, how much of what I am seeing is the result of a personality trait or perhaps a cultural influence and then to think to ourselves, how much of what I am bringing to this is a result of my cultural background or my personality so that we can better understand what it is we’re trying to achieve rather than judging simply on these cultural expressions, I guess.

Jeanne Tsai: Yes. You know, I think there are some ways in which we’re really good about thinking about our biases when it comes to — we could do better always.

Matt Abrahams: [laughs] Certainly.

Jeanne Tsai: But we have some sort of awareness about racial biases and some awareness of gender biases. But we don’t really have an awareness of affective biases. I mean, emotion is one of those things that, because we think that they’re just partly what make us human, they’re just such a central part of human experience that we think that all emotions are the same.

And you know, what we — our research is really revealing is that we can have these affective biases too that come from our culture, that we think some emotions are better than others. And we judge other people negatively if they’re not showing those emotions that we value.

The downside is that we don’t really see that those are culturally shaped. And so we can walk away thinking that we really are good readers of a person’s personality or of their character when actually we’re good readers of whether or not a person’s affect or emotion is matching our values. But we don’t necessarily even know that that’s what we’re doing.

Matt Abrahams: Hmm. Are you aware, in your research or that of others, of ways that people have been made to be more sensitive to this? Are there things that people can do to become more sensitive to these affective biases?

Jeanne Tsai: In some of our own work, what we’ve done is just educate people about these cultural differences and ideal affect and how they might play a role in things like happiness or expressions of happiness. And that does seem to make a difference.

In one study, we were really interested in looking at clinicians in training. We showed them videos of people who showed excitement and who showed calm. And then, we asked them to assess how depressed do you think this person is.

And these American clinicians in training were more likely to rate a target as depressed if they didn’t show as much excitement on their faces. In fact, we saw that there was a relationship between how much excitement they saw in the face and how depressed they thought the person was, with less excitement more depression.

But when we taught them about these cultural differences in ideal affect, that some people value excitement more whereas other people value calm more, then they were less likely to use their assessments of how excited somebody was when they were judging how depressed that target was.

So I think you can educate people about these differences. And at least in the context of trained professionals, they can at least pause and think a little bit before they make their judgments.

Matt Abrahams: Well, it’s great to hear that there are ways to actually make us aware of our biases and perhaps then act on them. A few of our episodes on this podcast have focused on nonverbal communication. And you’ve done some really interesting work on smiling.

Can you share what you’ve learned and any advice you have regarding smiling especially in a world where many of us are covering our mouths with masks?

Jeanne Tsai: Well, we’ve learned through a lot of our studies in the last five years that Americans really like big, toothy smiles.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Jeanne Tsai: And again, this is directly related to the emphasis that they place on excitement, enthusiasm and other high-arousal positive states. So we’ve done a whole series of studies where we’ve shown European-American and Hong Kong-Chinese participants pictures of people with either these big, broad, toothy excited smiles or people with closed, smaller, calm smiles.

And these targets have — you know, they vary by race. They’re either white or Asian or their gender — they’re male or female. And what we find is that regardless of the race or the gender of the target, European-Americans judge the targets with the bigger smiles as friendlier and more trustworthy than the Hong Kong-Chinese do.

And this matters because, in some other studies, we find that they actually share more resources like money with people who show bigger smiles. Again, it doesn’t matter what race or gender they are. It’s just the fact that they’re showing this bigger smile.

But East Asians, who I’ve said, don’t value these high-arousal positive states as much, they don’t really rely on smile size as much — on a big smile as much as European-Americans do to judge how friendly or warm somebody is.

So they’re actually even more likely to share resources with people who show smaller smiles. We’ve even, through some studies with Brian Knutson, shown that these differences are reflected even in brain activity, that the European-Americans show more activity in brain regions that are associated with rewards like money when they’re looking at a bigger versus a smaller smile —

Matt Abrahams: Hmm.

Jeanne Tsai: — in comparison with Chinese. So European-Americans even find these bigger smiles as more rewarding than Chinese do. And so we’ve also done some studies that show that this then influences not only how much — how willing people are to share resources but also how likely they are to hire people as employees or even choose them as physicians.

So European-Americans are more likely to hire people who show excited smiles than Hong Kong-Chinese. And they’re more likely to choose them to be their — for their healthcare. So there’s a lot — we have a lot of evidence that shows that these cultural differences in ideal affect shape how we perceive a smile and how we respond to a smile.

But as I said, because there are people from cultures that don’t value these excitement states as much, they don’t show these big smiles as much. And they get judged then as less friendly, less warm, more cold than people who show bigger smiles in U.S. context.

So I think one general lesson is that how approachable or friendly somebody seems might have less to do with how they actually are and more to do with your cultural conditioning and what emotional states you value. Now, it’s really interesting with masks because, these days, obviously we all need to wear a mask.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Jeanne Tsai: A mask is covering exactly the part of the face that European-Americans use to judge friendliness and warmth. So what’s been so interesting is how people have responded to that.

I think that’s partly why U.S. Americans are so loathe to wear a mask. And you can see this in some of like the news articles reporting on people’s responses to masks. They say things like they want to be able to show their smile. They want to see other people’s smiles.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Jeanne Tsai: They feel like they’re really constrained. And it makes sense because their identities in some ways are being masked. I mean, if you think about it in the U.S., you know, people only wear masks to cover — when they have something to hide, you know.

Matt Abrahams: [laughter] That’s right.

Jeanne Tsai: We really —

Matt Abrahams: Somebody’s doing something bad or —

Jeanne Tsai: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, it’s really under extreme circumstances. Right. If you’re trying to — if a superhero is trying to hide his or her identity, that superhero wears a mask. Or if — so in any case, we don’t have our smiles. And —

Matt Abrahams: So Jeanne, I’ve been thinking, you know, working at the business school that one of our entrepreneurial students needs to create a mask that has emojis displayed on the mask, so you can read what’s going on behind the mask.

Jeanne Tsai: Yes. Yes. And there are some masks that do that. The problem is that they look so unreal that I think they’re not that effective.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Jeanne Tsai: But it’s so interesting looking at some of the work-arounds, the really clever ones that people have come up with. You know, just here at Stanford, there were health workers who, when they had to wear all their PPE that covered their mouths, they put pictures of themselves smiling on their lab coats so that their patients could see them with their big smiles.

And so I think that intuitively people understand this, the importance of a smile in the United States especially at a time when we need to be helping each other. It seems ironic that we have to cover the part of the mouth that helps us determine whether or not somebody is trustworthy, whether or not we can connect with them.

So I think the important thing right now — I think a lot of people you can hear here are trying to express their emotions through their eyes. But we know from research that, at least again in the United States, that it’s really hard to detect other people’s happiness covering their mouth.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Jeanne Tsai: But I think what we need to do is just assume that, even if we can’t see people’s mouths under their masks, that they are trustworthy and friendly and worth helping even if we can’t see their smile.

Matt Abrahams: I think that’s good advice. As masks stay with us longer, we’re going to definitely have to find ways to trust people in that way. And I think we see similar things on webinars and video calls where, for whatever reason, we can’t see the person’s face. We just hear their voice. We have the same challenges.

I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody who joins me. Are you up for answering these questions, Jeanne?

Jeanne Tsai: Yes. Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: All right. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five-to-seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Jeanne Tsai: I think it’s to connect with your audience. I mean, it’s so cliché, but it’s just so true. Whether it’s giving a big talk, you have to know who you’re talking to. Or even if it’s just one on one, I think it’s so important to think about who you’re communicating with, what you know about them and maybe what you don’t know about them.

I think the most effective communicators are ones who’ve really taken the time to think about, you know, who they’re communicating with —

Matt Abrahams: You know, across many of these conversations I’ve had, that seems to be a consistent idea, which is know your audience. What I like that you added to that is to really think about what you don’t know about your audience.

And then, that’s where a lot of what you’ve discussed comes in. And think about what influences your perceptions of the audience that you might not think of that you take for granted such as your culture. So you mentioned the best communicators do this. So question number two is, who is a communicator that you admire, and why?

Jeanne Tsai: Well, I think I’m like a lot of people. I just think Michelle Obama is just an amazing communicator. And of course, she just recently gave a talk at the DNC. And I just think she’s so effective in emotionally connecting with her audience.

You can see — you know, whenever she’s speaking, she’s anticipating how the audience might feel or speaking to the feelings of the people who she’s talking with. Whether it’s in a speech or it’s in her book, Becoming, you feel like she’s speaking to you.

I think that’s because, in her writing and in her speech writing, she and her team of people are thinking about the messages that she wants to convey and to whom she’s conveying them. So I would say Michelle Obama is one communicator who I admire because of her ability to connect with others.

Matt Abrahams: I could not agree more. She is an excellent communicator. And I think you’ve diagnosed it quite well. She plays with and manages emotion well. And she really comes off as authentic and open. And those are critical parts to really engaging with an audience. So the final question — what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Jeanne Tsai: Well, there are a lot of them. I look forward to listening to more of your podcasts so that I can learn about all the different ingredients. But —

Matt Abrahams: [laughs] The list keeps growing.

Jeanne Tsai: [laughs] Yeah. But the three of them that I think of we’re mentioned already before. I think it is to know who you’re communicating with but to realize that you don’t know everything about your audience.

I think, oftentimes, you know, when you’re giving, let’s say — when I’m giving a big talk and I’m looking for a certain kind of reaction and I don’t get it, I have to even remind myself even though I study these things that my audience might be actually expressing a lot of interest and excitement.

And yet, I don’t know it because maybe they value a different kind of state than I do. So I think it’s to know who you’re speaking to and to anticipate what they might be interested in and, at the same time, to be really open to them and realize that you might not know everything about them. I think that counts as one ingredient.

The second one is to be clear about what your message is, to think about the limited attention spans of everyone, all of us and so to really think carefully about what are the three things you want your audience, you know, to take home with them.

And then, the third — I guess I already mentioned it in the context of the first one — is to really pay attention to people’s responses because I think that the best communication regardless of the venue is a conversation.

And the conversation is interactive. And it’s more fun when you think of it that way. I hate giving a talk to an audience where there’s no back and forth. That’s always my favorite part of the talk is hearing about what the audience is thinking about the information that I’m presenting and learning from them.

So those are my three ingredients: knowing your audience but knowing what you don’t know; being clear about your message; but then also really paying attention and really inviting responses from your audience because good communication is a conversation.

Matt Abrahams: And what a conversation we have had. Thank you so much, Jeanne. It has been great to reconnect.

Jeanne Tsai: So much fun, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: And while you can’t see it, you have to know that I’m smiling ear to ear.

Jeanne Tsai: I know it. I know it. I can hear it. [laughter]

Matt Abrahams: Your insights into how culture and emotion affect our communication are very helpful. I wish you all the best. Thank you.

Jeanne Tsai: Thank you so much, Matt, for inviting me. This has been so much fun.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for listening to “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More