Universal Emotions

What are the universal emotions? How do we know these emotions are universal? What utility does universality hold for human communication?

Universal Emotions

            Universal emotions can be defined as basic facial characteristics are predominantly used by a large group of people consisting of communities. These emotions are largely dependent on the cultural practices of a given society and they are borrowed or inherited from one generation to the other. Thus it is prudent to note that universal emotions could be influenced by genetics or by the environment. According to Paul Ekman who is a renowned psychologist and a pioneer researcher on facial expressions and emotions, communities around the world use at least tens of thousands of facial expressions (Alice, 2014). Out of these ten thousand emotions, Ekman did a seminal research which identified that there are only six universal emotions while the rest are discrete. The six universal emotions include; sadness, disgust, anger, surprise, fear and happiness. The emotions are correlated to the movement of the sphincter muscles which leads to the dropping of the jaws to form facials.

            Driven by the need to find evidence that emotions are universal, Ekman travelled to Papua in New Guinea in the year 1968 (Freitas-Magalhães, 2009). His aim was to conduct a research on the universality of facial expressions and emotions. The first research was on a secluded tribe called Fore where he found out that in spite of their seclusion and lack of exposure or interaction with the outside cultures, their facial expressions were consistent and identical to those of the photos taken from other cultures. It became evident that the six emotions are widely acceptable and applicable across different cultures in the world. From the research, it is also appreciated that there are universal sets of facial expressions that are used by both the people in the Eastern and Western worlds. In order to know that emotions are universal, it is logical to make observation of people from different cultures across the world. Scientists specify that everybody around the world shares a genetic makeup which makes the physical characteristics of human beings to be similar. In addition to the universal emotions, people share other attributes such as the ability to communicate thoughts and feelings to other people which augments towards the realization that emotions accompany changes in the facial expressions, posture, language and sounds which defines the reaction of people to different stimuli.

            The third question seeks to identify the fundamental utilities that facilitate human communication. Facial expressions and emotions represent a pertinent aspect of communication among human beings which is generally classified as non-verbal communication. The other components encompassed in non-verbal communication include eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, tonal variations and posture. The importance of these non-verbal cues is that they help foster communication and self-expression. The utilities held under universal communications include; emphasis, accenting, contradiction, substitution and complementing. Emphasis refers to the process of stressing a message to reinforce the meaning (Adair, 2013; Nauert, 2010). Accenting refers to the act of underlining a verbal message by use of non-verbal cues, complementing means repeating a verbal message by use of non-verbal communication, contradicting means using non-verbal cues that do not march with the verbal cues while substitution refers to the practice of using non-verbal cues instead of verbal cues.

The interaction of utilities are synonymous with good public speakers because the non-verbal cues make the communication process to be more practical and at times entertaining. In the event that a person has a good mastery of the universal emotions, then that person can be able to command a big audience, advance in public speaking or be charismatic (Nuske, Vivanti & Dissanayake, 2013). These are the basic upon which human communication and interactions are grounded.


Adair, J. (2013). John Adair’s 100 greatest ideas for brilliant communication. Wiley’s and Sons, United States.

Alice, P. (2014). Emotions may not be so universal after all. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Freitas-Magalhães, A. (2009). The Ekman Code or in Praise of the Science of the Human Face. In A. Freitas-Magalhães (Ed.), Emotional Expression: The Brain and The Face. Porto: University Fernando Pessoa Press