It’s not just happiness that’s perceived differently across cultures: facial expressions are too. Recent research questioning the assumption that face processing and facial expression recognition is invariant has found that Western Caucasians and East Asians differ in how they process facial expressions.
It is a widely held belief that many basic visual processes are common to all humans, independent of culture. Face recognition is considered to be one such process, as this basic biological skill is necessary for effective social interactions. Any approach aiming to understand face perception must recognize, however, that only a small part of the visual information available on faces is actually used.
Specifically, Western Caucasians use a triangular focus pattern taking in the majority of the facial features while East Asians concentrate in the centre of the face–particularly around the eyes. From a BBC interview with one of the study’s authors:
“Interestingly, although the eye region is ambiguous, subjects tended to bias their judgements towards less socially-threatening emotions – surprise rather than fear, for example.
“This perhaps highlights cultural differences when it comes to the social acceptability of emotions.”
The BBC article also notes how this could be behind the differences between East and West emoticons (i.e. 🙂 vs. ^_^).