Purpose This study aims to test service providers’ ability to recognise non-verbal emotions in complaining customers of same and different cultures. Design/methodology/approach In a laboratory study, using a between-subjects experimental design (n = 153), we tested the accuracy of service providers’ perceptions of the emotional expressions of anger, fear, shame and happiness of customers from varying cultural backgrounds. After viewing video vignettes of customers complaining (with the audio removed), participants (in the role of service providers) assessed the emotional state of the customers portrayed in the video. Findings Service providers in culturally mismatched dyads were prone to misreading anger, happiness and shame expressed by dissatisfied customers. Happiness was misread in the displayed emotions of both dyads. Anger was recognisable in the Anglo customers but not Confucian Asian, while Anglo service providers misread both shame and happiness in Confucian Asian customers. Research limitations/implications The study was conducted in the laboratory and was based solely on participant’s perceptions of actors’ non-verbal facial expressions in a single encounter. Practical implications Given the level of ethnic differences in developed nations, a culturally sensitive workplace is needed to foster effective functioning of service employee teams. Ability to understand cultural display rules and to recognise and interpret emotions is an important skill for people working in direct contact with customers. Originality/value This research addresses the lack of empirical evidence for the recognition of customer emotions by service providers and the impact of cross-cultural differences.