Disa A. Sauter, Frank Eisner, Paul Ekman, and Sophie K. Scott. Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations. PNAS 2010 107:2408-2412; published online before print January 25, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.0908239106
Emotional signals are crucial for sharing important information, with conspecifics, for example, to warn humans of danger. Humans use a range of different cues to communicate to others how they feel, including facial, vocal, and gestural signals. We examined the recognition of nonverbal emotional vocalizations, such as screams and laughs, across two dramatically different cultural groups. Western participants were compared to individuals from remote, culturally isolated Namibian villages. Vocalizations communicating the so-called “basic emotions” (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise) were bidirectionally recognized. In contrast, a set of additional emotions was only recognized within, but not across, cultural boundaries. Our findings indicate that a number of primarily negative emotions have vocalizations that can be recognized across cultures, while most positive emotions are communicated with culture-specific signals.
Vaguely interesting! I'm not sure I'm 100% on board with their methods, but the idea is definitely intriguing.
Recently, I was talking to a friend, who told the story of how a new teacher from the states tried to correct an elder's pronunciation. I said to my friend that I would have gone "That's nice" if it were me; my friend replied that the elder went "Mmm" and walked away (It was described as "Very Yup'ik" ;) ). And since we all know annecdotes are the best data (I say, tongue in cheek), I'd use this to suggest that there are also culture specific disapproval signals.