Posted by: mariabro | December 24, 2012

Windows to the Soul

I once went to a seminar about cross-cultural issues at my children’s school when we lived in Japan.  One of the more interesting things I learned was about the difference in communication styles, and I don’t mean a language gap.  I’m referring to the sunglasses versus facemask dilemma.


North Americans often sport large sunglasses when they are out, whether to ward off the bright sun or to look like a celebrity hiding from the paparazzi.  It is considered chic.

Japanese often sport facemasks when they are out, whether to ward off germs or to protect others from their germs.  It is considered polite.


What I didn’t realize is that Japanese find the sunglasses distracting and somewhat rude.  They think it hides the eyes and therefore reduces one’s ability to communicate.  On the other hand, many North Americans have difficulty holding a conversation with someone wearing a facemask.  The inability to see the mouth is distracting and considered somewhat rude.

I began to see how my habit of wearing large sunglasses in the schoolyard could be misinterpreted as not wanting to engage with my fellow parents.  Meanwhile their attempts to hold a conversation with me while wearing facemasks felt equally as confusing.

As I studied this phenomenon in more detail I noticed other things to support this theory.

I found a similar issue with texting and emoticons.  While North American emoticons focus on the mouth, the ubiquitous smiley face for example, :), Japanese ones focus on the eyes, using the pointy brackets.

Emoticons are a pictorial representation of a facial expression using punctuation marks, numbers and letters.  They are usually written to express a person’s feelings or mood.  The word Emoticon comes from the combination of the words emotion and icon according to Wikipedia.

Japanese emoticons are known as kaomoji, a combination of the Japanese word for face “kao” and for emoticon “emoji”.  Here are some examples.

ヽ(*⌒∇⌒*)ノ、 ( ^_^)/

I have to admit I received many texts from my Japanese friends that I had a hard time understanding.

In an article on, Japanese scholar Masaki Yuki says in Japan, people tend to look to the eyes for emotional cues, whereas Americans tend to look to the mouth.  He believes this could be because the Japanese, when in the presence of others, try to suppress their emotions more than Americans do.

“After seeing the difference between American and Japanese emoticons, it dawned on me that the faces looked exactly like typical American and Japanese smiles”.

Understanding the nuances of non-verbal communication is difficult in the best of times but adding in cultural differences makes it that much more complicated.  Just something to keep in mind the next time you head out wearing your shades/facemask and texting smiley faces to your friends.

Rakuten Ichiba Japan is the largest shopping site in Japan, with thousands of merchants and millions of products.

The Donna Karan Company



  1. brilliant! it all makes sense now. thanks Maria!

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