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The Significance of Tone of Voice for Japanese

Akihiro Tanaka
Assistant Professor, Waseda University Institute for Advanced Study

Japanese Communication

Is the person in front of me right now angry or happy? This may sound like an obvious question, but in fact it is not always as easy to judge as it may seem. It is very likely that the smiling face of an innocent child really does show that they are happy, but your subordinate at work who approaches you with a smile may actually be feeling very angry.

Japan has long been regarded as a society where people read the atmosphere. As social animals, we humans live together for better or worse by reading the atmosphere as well as each other's feelings, to a greater or lesser extent, in order to maintain good relations with each other. The act of guessing how another person is feeling is one part of reading the atmosphere.

How then, do we read people and understand how they are feeling? One source of information for doing so is language. However, most of us have had the experience of someone responding to an email by saying, "fine, understood," which causes you to wonder whether the person was really happy with the arrangement or not. In face-to-face communication, one can use information from various aspects of non-verbal communication, such as the expression on the person's face, the tone of their voice, and so on, but with email, where it is very difficult to put across non-verbal communication information, misunderstandings can easily arise.

An effective source of information in reading how someone is feeling is their facial expression. Of course, people can put on a bold face to cover up their true emotions, so we cannot always rely on facial expressions. Most people reading this article, however, have also seen firsthand that it is harder to control one's facial expressions to hide emotions than it is to control one's language.

What makes this all the more difficult is that the meanings of facial expressions in a given situation depend on the culture. The common expressions, "laugh with your face and cry in your heart, and apologize with a smile, are very well known to Japanese people, but to many people from other countries, they would seem peculiar and difficult to understand. These kinds of differences in expressing emotions and reading expressions can create cultural barriers and can often lead to obstacles in the path of cross-cultural communication that are a greater impediment even than language barriers. This is a serious issue, which can cause great misunderstandings with people from other countries in situations such as international negotiations.

Japanese People are Sensitive to Tone of Voice

Surprisingly, in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, research on how people read the emotions of others has focused almost exclusively on facial expressions, and many puzzles still remain regarding the cultural differences that exist in the human capacity to judge the emotions of others based upon information from multiple sensory organs about the other person's face and voice, etc., as people do every day in ordinary situations.

Therefore, the author decided to address this issue in collaboration with Professor Beatrice de Gelder from Tilburg University, Holland, and in the following I would like to present the results of our Joint Japanese-Dutch International Research. In our research, we conducted a cross-cultural examination of how people judge the emotions of others by looking at how they connect the information they have obtained by reading the other person's face and the information they have obtained by reading the other person's voice, by using Japanese and Dutch students as the target of our research. In the experiments, we made videos in which the subjects' vocal and facial expressions were congruent and videos in which they were incongruent, and then had the participants watch both videos (see Figure 1). We then asked the participants to focus only on either the face or the voice and determine the emotion of the person in the video. The results of the experiment showed that, compared to Dutch people, when Japanese people were asked to focus only on the face, they still remained strongly influenced by the tone of voice, which they were supposed to ignore. In contrast, when they were asked to focus on the voice, they were less strongly influenced than the Dutch people were by the facial expressions, which they were supposed to ignore (see Figure 2). In other words, this research showed that when Japanese people judge the emotions of others, they have a strong tendency to automatically pay attention to the tone of voice.

Figure 1: An example of a video that was shown to participants in our research experiment. We created an edited video of a person who was saying words with neutral meaning but saying them either happily or angrily, and we set conditions where the facial expression and voice were congruent (for example, both the face and voice expressed happiness) or incongruent (for example, the face looked happy but the voice sounded angry). The participants were asked to focus on either the voice or face according to the conditions involved, and while ignoring the other aspect, to determine the emotion of the person in the video. We adjusted the level of difficulty to make it the same for judging both the voice and the face by adding noise to the faces, etc.

Figure 2: If one compares how strongly Japanese and Dutch students are influenced automatically by information they are supposed to be ignoring when judging the emotion of another person, when focusing on facial expression, Japanese people were more influenced by the voice which they were supposed to be ignoring (21.0%) than Dutch people (12.3%) were. In contrast, when focusing on the tone of voice, Japanese people were hardly influenced at all by the facial expression which they were supposed to be ignoring (2.6%), as compared to Dutch people (10.0%).

These results show that culture influences the mechanism in the brain that combines information received from different sensory organs, such as in the case of things that have been seen and heard. This means that even the wiring of the brain differs according to cultural differences. In all probability, in the process of adapting to their cultural and linguistic environment in Japan, Japanese people optimize their response to give the most appropriate level of weight to things that they have seen and heard for that environment. So what aspects of culture and language, then, are linked to a tendency to give emphasis to voice? This is something that should become clear with further research.

Emotional Communication among Different Cultures

From the results of the research described above, one can partly explain quite satisfactorily why misunderstandings regarding emotions can occur between different cultures. If the speaker is a Japanese person, and the listener is a non-Japanese person, then the level of reliance of the two parties on facial expression and tone of voice respectively is likely to be different. If the speaker is smiling but their voice contains anger, when the listener relies on the facial expression of the speaker to determine their emotion, they may not notice the anger, and mistake the speaker's smile as signifying satisfaction. In such a case, any conversation that follows will not proceed smoothly. In this way, intercultural misunderstandings may in part be caused by the method of expressing emotion as well as the method of reading another person's emotions being different according to the culture of the speaker and listener.

In situations where the other person may not readily display their real emotions, such as in negotiations for business and the like, the ability to read the emotions of the other party could be extremely useful. Based on the results of the above research, it can be said that if the other party is Japanese, there is a higher probability that you will be able to judge their true emotion by focusing on their voice. In this experiment too, for both Japanese and Dutch participants, when they focused on the other person's face they were more likely to read the emotion by their facial expression, and when they focused on the other person's voice, they were more likely to read the emotion by their voice. This means that depending on whether one focuses on the face or the voice, the emotion that can be read may be different.

It is often said that Japanese people do not express their emotions much. But is that really true? If this is a discourse that has been created based upon the impressions of Europeans and Americans when looking at Japanese people, then it is only a matter of cultural relativity. It may well be that this is only an impression that is given since Japanese people tend to express their emotions less when compared to the standards of facial expressions and gestures displayed by Europeans and Americans, but in fact Japanese people may be expressing their emotions through their voices, and therefore expressing their emotions by a different means. Moreover, in conversations between Japanese people is it not fair to say that a highly developed mastery of reading the atmosphere is being used to the full and slight changes in tone of voice are conveying emotion and being used to read the emotions of the other person?

Toward Technologies that Break Cultural Barriers

In recent years, dramatic leaps have been made in terms of improvements in speech recognition language translation technology by computers, and it is likely that language barriers will rapidly come to be eliminated in going forward. But what about cultural barriers, in terms of emotions, and the like? We often misinterpret the emotions of even our close friends and family. When it comes to translating and properly understanding the emotions of foreigners, then it seems like the walls between cultures will still be in existence long into the future. But the author intends to develop the research described above in a step-by-step manner, in order to lead to an engineering application for emotion translation technology which combines emotions expressed through both facial and verbal expressions. This would be a new communications technology to "translate" the emotions expressed by a speaker from a different culture. With the assistance of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications' Strategic Information and Communications R&D Promotion Programme (SCOPE), I would like to go on to perform basic research into this going forward.

Note 1: This research has been made possible thanks to support from a Post-Doctoral fellowship for Research Abroad from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (2008-2009), and a Grant in Aid for Scientific Research from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (19001004 ), and the European Commission (COBOL FP6-NEST-043403).

Press Release (Association for Psychological Science):


Akihiro Tanaka
Assistant Professor, Waseda University Institute for Advanced Study

The author was born in Tokyo in 1975. He graduated from Saitama Prefectural Kawagoe High School and then graduated from a special course in Psychology from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I at Waseda University. He completed the PhD course at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, and holds a PhD in psychology. He served as a Researcher at the National Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Disabilities, a Researcher at the Research Institute of Electrical Communication Tohoku University, Research Associate at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, a Visiting Researcher at Tilburg University, Holland (on a Post-Doctoral fellowship for Research Abroad from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science), and more, before attaining his current position as Assistant Professor at the Waseda University Institute for Advanced Study. His areas of specialization are psychology and cognitive science. His main published works include "Workshop on Cognitive Psychology (Ninchi shinrigaku waakshoppu)," (Co-authored; Waseda University Press), etc.