Soojin Susan Oh

                                                                                                            SARS – 013

                                                                                                            12 / 15 / 2000

Explanation for the Gender Differences in Expressing Emotions



The expression and interpretation of emotions play an important part in human interactions. The processes involved in the encoding and decoding of emotional expressions have been the subject of numerous studies. Specifically, the face is a very important area and a channel of nonverbal communication that plays a significant role in human emotions. More than any other body part, the face instantaneously communicates, readily reveals, and exhibits the emotional states. The face is a rich source of information for human behavior. Facial displays not only indicate emotion, but also regulate interpersonal behavior and signal communicative intent. The main parts of the face that are involved in the nonverbal communication are as follows:

1)     Lip movements

2)     Lifting / shrinking the cheeks

3)     Eye brows & their movements

4)     Eyelids and their movements


One could view and focus on these different areas of the face and come to conclusions in regard to some emotions. Thus, the ultimate aim of linking an area of the face with specified emotion or emotions is to aid communication, which in turn modifies the words spoken. They often permit the depiction of meaning that may be difficult or impossible to convey in words. Facial areas may differ in terms of their relative involvements of affect-specific components and non-affective movements. Particularly, positively affective situations are most easily judged from the raising brows and cheeks whereas sadness is best judged from the eyes and eyelids area. 

Gender Differences in Face & Emotion:

            A major item of expression via face is the expression of emotions. Facial expressions of emotions are very specific in a sense that there are specific conventions for their interpretation. There is not a significant gender difference when identifying the underlying neurophysical processes of emotions. Emotions are believed to be the work of three inner-related components: neural activity, striate muscle or facial-postural activity, and subjective experience. The feedback provided by the facial muscle contractions reveals the immediate experience of emotion. The subjective experience leads on to complex patterns in the neural mechanisms that arouse the diffused hypothalamic cortical system while the sensory motor area in the cortex is excited through specific tactile facial receptors.

            However, modern psychological researches indicate that men and women possess different skills related to the sending and receiving of emotion. In general, women are more emotionally expressive (Miller, 1976), whereas men conceal or control their emotional displays (Buck, Miller, & Caul, 1974). In addition to their encoding ability, women tend to express emotion through facial expression and interpersonal communication, whereas men generally express emotion through actions such as engaging in aggressive, dangerous, or distracting behavior.

For smiling in social interaction, Hall (1984) concluded that, in the 15 studies for which the effect size could be calculated, the average point-biserial correlation, r, between sex and amount of smiling was .30. Over 90% of the studies showed more females than males smiling, and over 50% found this difference to be statistically significant. It was also found that the smiling difference was greatly reduced in less social situations for females. Furthermore, research has uncovered fairly reliable sex differences in the experience and expression of sadness. Substantial evidence shows that women are more likely to be sad and engage in more interpersonal communication about their problems. From these gathered information and previous studies, many questions are left unanswered. Do women encode their emotions better in all situations? Are women facially more expressive? If so, is this an inherent tendency? or a product of socialization and cultural expectations?



            Previous research on nonverbal communication has demonstrated that females, in general, are more emotionally expressive than males (Buck, Savin, Miller, & Caul, 1972). An alternative way of interpreting the above finding is that females are not simply more facially reactive but rather more emotionally reactive in general. If this is the case, then this reactivity should be reflected by the experiences of emotionally charged situations. The purpose of my experiment is to demonstrate that when exposed to emotion-provoking situation, females would be more facially reactive. Furthermore, the basis of their facial reactivity may be due to the combination of the emotion-charged situation itself and the gender role expectations.



In order to carry out the testing, three conditions had to be created to produce different emotions in the subjects. Each card read a sentence conveying a situation in which a specific emotion is to be produced.

(1)   My dog died today.  

(2)   I am SO~~~~ happy today~!!!!

(3)   I am a student.

These three sentences were pre-written on separate cards for the subject to see before reading it out loud. The first sentence conveys a negative emotion: sadness, trauma, broken-heartedness, and emotional pain. The second sentence suggests a sense of joy, happiness, delight, and pleasure. Finally, the third sentence expresses a neutral state. The experiment was conducted at University of Pennsylvania. As the students randomly walked by the lobby of Gregory House, the locust walk, the lecture rooms, and the dining halls, 100 subjects (50 male, 50 female) were asked to read each of the three sentences given. These three cards were presented to a student separately as they were asked to imagine the situation given by the sentence, pretend experiencing the appropriate emotions in the context of each sentence, and say the sentence as if they are talking to their friend at that very moment.

As each subject read the sentences out loud, the subject’s facial expressions, particularly the movement of eyebrows, lips, and eyes were observed. When subjects were reading the first sentence revealing the negative-emotional state, eyebrows relaxing or lowering toward the center, slightly lowered lips (drooping), and the eyes were observed. When the subjects were reading the second sentence conveying the positive-emotional state, high eyebrows, the movement of cheek and lips (smiling), and the eyes were observed. With regard to the third sentence carrying the neutral tone, the eyebrows, the movement of cheeks and lips, and the eyes were observed to see if any facial expression could still be detected.





The following charts and graph show the data obtained:



<Chart 1.1> Observed Changes in Facial Expressions of Male and Female Subjects (“My dog died today.”)


MALE                                                                                    FEMALE

Eyebrows               lips         eyes                                        Eyebrows               lips                         eyes

1.             Y                             Y             Y                          1.               Y                             Y            

2.             Y                                             Y                           2.               Y                             Y                             Y

3.             Y                                                                           3.               Y                             Y                             Y

4.             Y                                                                           4.               Y                             Y                            

5.             Y                                             Y                             5.                                             Y                                            

6.                                                                                             6.             Y                             Y                             Y

7.                                                                                             7.             Y                                                             Y

8.                                                             Y                             8.             Y                             Y                             

9.                                                                                             9.                                                                             Y

10.                                           Y                                             10.           Y                             Y                             Y

11.                                                                                           11.           Y                             Y

12.                                           Y                                             12.                                           Y

13.                                                                                           13.           Y                             Y                             Y

14.                                                                                           14.           Y                             Y                             Y

15.                                                           Y                             15.           Y                             Y

16.                                                           Y                             16.           Y                                                             Y

17.           Y                             Y             Y                             17.           Y                             Y                            

18.                                                           Y                             18.           Y                                                             Y

19.                                                                                           19.                                           Y                             Y

20.           Y                                             Y                             20.                                           Y                             Y

21.                                                           Y                             21.           Y                             Y                             Y

22.                                           Y             Y                             22.           Y                                                             Y

23.                                                           Y                             23.           Y                             Y                             Y

24.                                           Y             Y                             24.           Y                             Y                             Y

25.                                                                                           25.           Y                             Y                             Y

26.                                                                                           26.                                           Y                             Y

27.           Y                                                                             27.                                                                           Y

28.           Y                                             Y                             28.                                           Y                             Y

29.                                           Y                                             29.           Y                             Y                             Y

30.                                                           Y                             30.           Y                             Y                             Y

31.           Y                             Y                                             31.           Y                             Y                            

32.           Y                                             Y                             32.                                           Y                             Y

33.                                           Y                                             33.                                                                           Y

34.                                                                                           34.           Y                                                             Y

35.           Y                                                                             35.           Y                             Y                             Y

36.                                                           Y                             36.                                           Y                             Y

37.           Y                             Y             Y                             37.                                           Y

38.           Y                                             Y                             38.                                           Y                             Y

39.                                                                                           39.           Y                                                             Y

40.           Y                                                                             40.                                           Y                             Y

41.                                           Y                                             41.                                           Y                             Y

42.                                           Y                                             42.           Y                                                             Y

43.                                                           Y                             43.           Y                             Y                             Y

44.           Y                             Y                                             44.           Y                             Y                             Y

45.                                                           Y                             45.                                           Y                             Y

46.                                           Y             Y                             46.                                           Y                             Y

47.                                           Y                                             47.           Y                             Y                             Y

48.                                           Y                                             48.                                           Y                             Y

49.           Y                             Y             Y                             49.           Y                             Y                             Y

50.                                                                                           50.                                           Y                             Y




<Chart 1.2> Observed Changes in Facial Expressions of Male and Female Subjects (I am SO Happy today!)

MALE                                                                    FEMALE                                                                                      Eyebrows         cheek & lips         Eyes                       Eyebrows             cheek & lips                Eyes

1.             Y                             Y                                             1.             Y                             Y                             Y

2.                                             Y                                             2.             Y                             Y

3.             Y                             Y                                             3.             Y                             Y                             Y

4.             Y                                                                             4.             Y                             Y

5.             Y                                                                             5.             Y                             Y

6.                                             Y                                             6.             Y                             Y                             Y

7.                                                                                             7.             Y                             Y                             Y

8.                                             Y                                             8.             Y                             Y                             Y

9.                                             Y                                             9.             Y                             Y

10.           Y                                                                             10.           Y                             Y

11.                                                                                           11.           Y                             Y

12.                                           Y                                             12.           Y                             Y

13.                                           Y                                             13.           Y                             Y                             Y

14.                                           Y                                             14.           Y                             Y

15.                                           Y                             Y             15.           Y                             Y

16.                                                                           Y             16.           Y                             Y

17.           Y                                                             Y             17.                                           Y                             Y

18.           Y                                                             Y             18.           Y                                                             Y

19.                                           Y                             Y             19.           Y                             Y

20.           Y                             Y                                             20.           Y                             Y                             Y

21.                                           Y                                             21.           Y                             Y

22.                                           Y                                             22.                                           Y

23.                                                                                           23.                                           Y                             Y

24.           Y                                                                             24.          

25.                                                                                           25.

26.                                                                                           26.                                           Y

27.           Y                             Y                                             27.           Y                             Y                             Y

28.           Y                                                                             28.           Y                             Y                             Y

29.                                                                                           29.           Y                             Y                            

30.                                           Y                             Y             30.           Y                             Y

31.                                           Y                                             31.           Y                             Y                             Y

32.                                                                                           32.                                           Y                             Y

33.                                                                                           33.                                           Y                            

34.           Y                             Y                                             34.                                           Y                             Y

35.           Y                                                                             35.           Y                                                             Y

36.           Y                             Y                                             36.           Y                             Y                             Y

37.                                                                           Y             37.           Y                             Y                             Y

38.           Y                                                                             38.           Y                             Y

39.                                           Y                                             39.

40.                                                                                           40.

41.                                                                                           41.           Y                             Y

42.           Y                                                                             42.           Y                             Y                             Y

43.                                                                           Y             43.           Y                             Y                             Y

44.                                                                                           44.                                           Y                             Y

45.                                           Y                                             45.                                           Y                             Y

46.           Y                                                                             46.           Y                             Y                             Y

47.                                                                                           47.           Y                             Y

48.                                                                                           48.                                           Y                             Y

49.                                                                                           49.           Y                             Y                             Y

50.                                                                                           50.                                           Y                             Y




<Chart 1.3> Observed Changes in Facial Expressions of Male and Female Subjects (I am a student.)


MALE                                                                    FEMALE

Eyebrows               cheek/lips             eyes                        Eyebrows               cheek/lips             eyes

1.                                                                                         1. Y                             Y            

2.                                                                                             2.                                             Y

3.                                                                             Y             3.             Y                             Y                             Y

4.                                                                                             4.                                             Y            

5.                                                                                             5.             Y                             Y

6.                                                                                             6.             Y

7.                                                                                             7.

8.                                                                                             8.

9.             Y                             Y                                             9.             Y

10.           Y                                                                             10.           Y                             Y

11.                                                                                           11.                                           Y

12.                                           Y                             Y             12.

13.                                                                                           13.                                           Y                             Y

14.                                                                                           14.

15.           Y                                                                             15.           Y

16.                                                                                           16.                                           Y                             Y

17.                                                                                           17.           Y

18.                                                                                           18.                                           Y

19.                                                                                           19.                                           Y                             Y

20.                                           Y                                             20.                                           Y

21.                                                                                           21.           Y                             Y

22.                                                                                           22.                                                                           Y

23.                                                                                           23.           Y

24.                                                                           Y             24.

25.                                                                                           25.           Y

26.                                                                                           26.

27.                                                                                           27.

28.                                                                                           28.

29.                                                                                           29.

30.                                                                                           30.           Y                             Y                             Y

31.                                                                                           31.

32                                            Y                             Y             32.

33.                                                                                           33.

34.                                                                                           34.

35.                                                                                           35.           Y

36.                                                                                           36.                                           Y                             Y

37.                                                                                           37.

38.                                                                                           38.

39.                                                                                           39.           Y                             Y                             Y

40.           Y                             Y                                             40.                                           Y                             Y

41.           Y                                                                             41.           Y                             Y

42.                                           Y                             Y             42.                                           Y                             Y

43.                                           Y                             Y             43.

44.                                                                                           44.           Y

45.                                                                                           45.                                           Y

46.                                                                                           46.                                           Y

47.                                                                                           47.                                           Y

48.                                                                                           48.           Y                             Y

49.           Y                             Y                                             49.                                           Y                             Y

50.                                                                                           50.           Y                             Y                             Y














            According to the gathered data, the female subjects frequently displayed more types of facial reactions compared to the male subjects and encoded the emotional components of the first two sentences more effectively as well. For the first sentence, the most dramatic gender difference can be found in the movement of lips (17 vs. 40). For the second sentence, female subjects raised their eyebrows and moved the cheeks and lips to smile twice as many times as the male subjects did. However, the most significant difference can be found in the movement of eyes (17 vs. 35 and 21 vs. 44). Female subjects moved their eyes to show bigger smile or an expression of joy and happiness three times as much as the male subjects did (8 vs. 26). Therefore, the frequency of females’ facial expressions dramatically dominates over that of males’ facial expressions. Now, to answer the second raised questions, the third graph can be incorporated in this analysis to be compared to the first two. Interestingly, the female subjects still revealed more facial reactions to the neutral third sentence than the male subjects did. According to the graph, the female subjects raised their eyebrows and moved up their cheeks and lips to smile nearly three times as much as the male subjects did (6 vs. 18 and 8 vs. 25). Moreover, the female subjects also moved their eyes to smile twice as much as the male subjects did. These experiment findings reveals a significant basis for the fact that women, in general, smile more even when the situation does not call for it. In addition, these results prove that women’s motives in smiling are not perceptively tuned to situational demands (sentences) as men’s are. Moreover, women’s smile may not be entirely consistent with messages conveyed in the verbal or voice-tone channels.



Based on the comparisons from the data and chart, it is justified to conclude that sex differences for smiling and expressing sadness are relatively large. It is obvious that males and females differed in facial reactivity in the present experiment. Additionally, this experiment revealed that nonverbal communication, specifically, facial reactions such as eyebrow movement and expressions, supports the verbal message (sentences) individuals attempt to communicate. When “My dog died today” sentence was being read by the female subjects, most women made a droopy face or gloomy look to indicate the pain they are feeling inside. However, for the male subjects, many of their faces were expressionless, displaying more resentment and anguish than sadness or pain. Hence, it is possible that males either are poor emotion encoders or have difficulty displaying their emotions externally. Finally, this experiment specifically demonstrated that females are more facially expressive than males in emotion-provoking situations. However, this result of gender differences on facial expressiveness can also be explained in other plausible ways. For instance, there could be genetic dissimilarities or that males and females socially and cognitively learned to express emotions differently. However, how this difference should be interpreted is not obvious. For instance, there could be genetic dissimilarities such as different mediation by the central nervous system or peripheral dissimilarities resulting in different facial reactivity (Schwartz et al., 1980). Another explanation could be that males and females have learned to express emotions differently (Brody & Hall, 1993). Furthermore, a third factor may be that females have a more sensitive perceptual ability and therefore react more intensely.

Nonverbal Behavior:

            It has been estimated that anywhere between 50 to 80 percent of the meanings in a conversation is communicated nonverbally. The same words can take on quite different meanings depending on one's facial expression, gestures, voice tone, and inflection. For example, depending on the nonverbal cues, the three words "I love you" could mean sarcasm, indifference (suggesting that the speaker said them only to try to placate the other), disbelief (I love you?), true devotion, or a variety of things in between. Furthermore, the research findings indicate that women are more skilled at interpreting nonverbal behavior. Conflict theorists explain this as a protective measure. They note that those who are less powerful (women and minorities) have a greater need to know what the more powerful people with whom they interact are really thinking and planning. Hall also notes that almost universally, women are expected to be and appear to be pleasant (Hall, p.66). Hence, women might smile as an active strategy of appeasement or for purely habitual reasons by internalizing the norms, which they perceive to apply to their own sex. But women also use somewhat different kinds of nonverbal behavior, and they use both differences in communicating and interpreting nonverbal behavior to enhance their ability to form and maintain intimate relationships. From an early age, females are superior in communicating nonverbal emotional messages. In fact, boys seem to get poorer at sending nonverbal emotional messages as they get older. Overall, then, women's nonverbal behavior suggests that they are warm, friendly, and attentive to others. Men's nonverbal behavior suggests that they have high status and are important and somewhat distant.



The use of face is constrained and facilitated by socialization processes in every society. The individuals also bring to bear upon the processes of communication their own personal characteristics and styles. In addition, facial expressions for a specific content could vary not only from age to age of an individual’s life but also across different cultural settings.

Overall, my experiment showed that facial expressions of emotions convey not only information about emotional states of people, but also about their interpersonal intentions. This finding was especially true for females, who were, in fact, more facially reactive in situations where the expression of positive and negative emotions was called for. Secondly, the females also seemed to display more facial reactions than males due to social stereotypes even when the encoding of emotion was not necessary. This second finding seems especially more significant, because females seemed to be more facially expressive (i.e. – smiling) even when the third sentence they read had no related emotions. Hence, women might be emotionally reactive in general, to emphasize the intensity of emotions they are feeling and to interpersonally communicate themselves to others. Or women might perceive the social expectations placed upon them as the norm and behave accordingly. As Hall suggests, smiling may reflect (1) Habit acquired by observation or reinforcement, (2) Warmth, friendliness, or pleasure, (3) Appeasement, or (4) Social unease or nervousness (Hall, 1979).  Comparing the nonsocial with the social data in Hall’s article also leads to the conclusion that the sex difference is a social phenomenon that develops sometime between early childhood and adulthood. “Thus, women may show more smiling not for any immediate or conscious purpose, such as to display deference, but rather because of a lifetime of subtle pressure to internalize cultural expectations” (Hall, pp. 71). Hence, it could be concluded that this result would strongly indicate that the different norms to which men and women subscribe are “norms of expressiveness” rather than “norm of pleasantness” (Hall, pp.72).  

Furthermore, this experiment should also take into consideration that the decoder’s bias may have played a role in interpreting emotional reactivity on the faces of male and female subjects, because emotions are more easily judged from women’s than from men’s faces, as Noller suggests. The opinions concerning what men and women can or should express emotionally can modify the interpretations of their actual expressions. This bias, which can be produced by stereotypes concerning the expression of emotions, lead to different perceptions of men’s and women’s emotional facial expression when in fact they are both displaying exactly the same emotion. Further studies can show that sexual stereotypes concerning emotional manifestation can play a role during the decoding of emotional facial expressions even when the encoding differences are controlled. These results can lead us to modify our view of sex differences in emotions by removing at least some of the responsibility for observed bias from the encoder and attributing it to the decoder. This suggests that the recognition of emotional facial expressions is yet another field where stereotypes concerning group membership can have an influence. It is therefore possible that yet unidentified emotional stereotypes can modify the perception and interpretation of visual and contextual information linked to the facial expression of emotions. It would be interesting to be able to identify these stereotypes and to see whether these differences generalize to male encoders.


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2) Canary, Daniel J. & Dindia, Kathryn (1998).  Sex Differences and Similarities in Communication  Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.


3) Eakins, B. & Eakins, G.  "Silent sounds and secret messages”, Sex Differences in Human Communication.  Palo Alto:  Houghton Mifflin Co., (pp.147-179).


4) Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V.  (1969)  Nonverbal Leakage & Cues to Deception.  Psychiatry, 32, pp. 88-106.


5) Hall, J. (1979).  Gender, Gender Roles, & Nonverbal Communication Skills. Ch. 5 (pp. 58-72)


6) Harper, Robert G., & Matarazzo, Joseph D., & Wiens, Arthur N. (1978).  Nonverbal Communication: The State of the Art. (pp. 1-15, 77-112, 181-189)  Newyork: John Wiley & Sons.


7) Noller, Patricia (1984).  Nonverbal Communication and Marital Interaction.  Oxford: Pergamon Press, (Ch. 8).


8)Zuckerman, M. & Lipets, M., Koivumaki, J. & Rosenthal, R.  (1975).  “Encoding & Decoding Nonverbal Cues of Emotion”; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 32, pp. 1068-71.