How Do You Smile In Spanish?

We can all agree that high school, for the most part, blows. It was the people you could relate to that helped each of us make it through high school with little casualty. I tried really hard to relate to everyone, and I mean EVERYONE. I really wanted to be friends with everyone and be the person that they were able to relate to. I used to walk down the history wing every day and admire the beautiful poster that hung outside my favorite teacher’s room that read:

“Everyone smiles in the same language.”

I loved that poster. I was “that girl” that was hopelessly idealistic. Now I hate to give up some of my idealism but we are now finding studies that suggest otherwise. Not necessarily that smiles mean differently across languages, but that other facial expressions including anger, fear, and disgust may be portrayed differently among other cultures. From what I can tell, I can still believe that a smile is universal.

According to an article by Michael Price of, he suggests that scientists have been trying to crack this code for centuries, however an assumed and practiced methodology thought it put a stop to this ongoing search. Psychologist Paul Ekman was the man to supposedley put an end to the search. He concluded that across the board, that all cultures felt and expressed emotions in virtually the same way.

It wasn’t until 50 years later that scientists began pulling together information for a new hypothesis. The new hypothesis set culture as its independent variable in this observational study.  The dependent variable was the association of each facial expression to an emotion. As scientists began to pick apart old findings it was easy to rule of reverse causation as the association most definitely did not decide their culture or beliefs.

The study follows a group of 72 villagers of different areas of Papua New Guinea. It is quite possible that the sample size of this study is too small. Additionally, these villagers are aged 9-15, therefore, it could be the product of simply age, a third variable.

The studies found that most evidently the faces of anger and fear that we are familiar with resonate very differently with the adolescents of Papua New Guinea. The researchers strongly suggest that it isn’t the reaction to the emotion that is the dependent variable, it is the recognition of the facial expression that is associated with that specific feeling.


Psychologist Alan Fridlund of UC Santa Barbara suggests some bias in this study. He believed that the overwhelming amount of negative emotions may have been a third variable that caused the Guineans to appear to recognize the photos differently. If the group had seen several positive emotions, they quite possibly could have had conflicting views of each of those emotions as well.

Overall, this study does not give us a straight answer to whether or not emotions are universal. Its obvious what the study wishes to lean towards, but overall we can conclude that there are too many third variables to know exactly whether or not we associate emotions exactly as our neighbor.

5 thoughts on “How Do You Smile In Spanish?

  1. Yixiao Jiang

    This is really a cool topic. I have never thought about how the smiling face related to different groups of people. It is true that it is really difficult to justify which kind of emotion is related to each facial expression. Just like it is really difficult to connect words to emotion through internet. The article provides me lots of information. Here is a video talked about how emotion differ across culture if you are interested

  2. Meredith Herndon

    Hey Hannah! I think this post is very interesting because it is a concept that I have never heard of before; The idea that different cultures can portray emotions differently. I looked into it a little more and found this study that compared blind people and seeing people and found that both used the same facial expressions in the same instances even though the blind people never have seen the reaction to learn it. This makes me wonder that the findings in your study have to do with the language barrier. For example, if you look up “mad” translated into Spanish, words like enojado, loco, and furioso will all come up, and while each word has a similar base meaning, they each have different uses. I think it would be interesting to see if the difference was found because the different words were not direct translations and therefore would be portrayed differently due to slightly different meanings since the expression for frustration would be different than that of irritation.

  3. Sean Kyle Reilly

    Hey Hannah!

    I enjoy smiling, and I also enjoyed reading your post. However, I think a bit more information would benefit you in the long run, as opposed to just relying on one citation for all of your information. If it is an issue of not being able to find any information on the subject, perhaps the topic would need to be twisted in a different direction, or even into an entirely new topic. Either way, there are hundreds of different cultures around the planet, and plenty of time left to try and explore the ones that interest you, or even all of them!

  4. cmt5658

    This topic is really cool, because it is something I never considered before. I guess I always assumed emotions looked the same on anyones face. However, this reminded me of learning about different cultures how sometimes expressions are interpreted differently. For example, in some cultures it may be seen as disrespectful to smile to an official or adult. In terms of your post, while the concept is really interesting, I think you could have done a better job of explaining the study because from just reading this one post I was still slightly confused. However, I did some of my own research and found this article on ( The article focuses on the same study as you wrote about, but at least for me made it easier to understand, for example pointing out exact expressions relating to each emotion.

  5. Raegan S Pechar

    This is such an interesting concept, as I was also under the previous consensus that our facial expressions, particularly smiling, were universal. I like how you pointed out the various other potential third variables. I like the study, but I think it was too broad to come to an actual conclusion. I also feel as though it is really difficult to judge emotion, specifically just based off of a single photo. I think a lot of other factors play into emotions, like body language, voice, etc. I think they children may have been more effective at responding to the emotions, if they had demonstrated them live, rather than through photos.

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