Cultural differences in emotional expressions

cultural differences in emotional expression

Reviewing Darwin’s studies of universal expressions

Emotional events and themes

There are a number of ways in which cultures do differ in their emotional expressions. One important way is through what I’ve coined as display rules, which specify who can show which emotion to whom and when. Cultures differ also in some of the specific events which are likely to call forth an emotion. For example, some foods are considered a delicacy in one culture but evoke feelings of disgust in another culture, not to mention that there are differences found even within a specific culture.

Although the specific event varies (e.g., the type of food), the general theme (e.g., ingesting something repulsive as a cause for disgust, or ingesting something attractive as a cause as of enjoyment) remains a universal experience. I think this is a good model for all the emotions. The specific event which makes me angry may be different from what makes someone from another culture angry, but the theme will be the same. Anger can be brought forth by something that is provocative, insulting, or frustrating, to name just a few of the anger themes. Although, what you may find provocative, insulting or frustrating may not be the same across or within cultures.

The language of emotion

Another way that emotions can differ across cultures is through our use of language to understand and express our emotions. Languages differ in the words they have for emotions, not only in terms of the number of words for each emotion, but the extent to which a word gives subtle nuances or combines emotions or tells us what caused the emotion. The Germans have the evocative word schadenfreude for that distinctive pleasure when you learn of a misfortune which has befallen an enemy. English speakers have no single word for that feeling, although we do feel the emotion. Not having a word for an emotional state may well influence emotional experience. Without being able to name feelings, it may be harder to distinguish them, think about them, and so on.

An extreme example of how lack of emotion words can change emotional experience was reported by the American psychiatrist and anthropologist Robert Levy. He said that the Tahitians had no word or concept for sadness in their culture. They acted in a sad way (exhibiting loss of appetite, inactivity and sad expressions) when rejected by a lover, but not only could they not name the feelings but they did not relate their experiences to the rejection. Instead, they explained their feelings as being due to sickness.

Cultural influence of emotional experience

If true, this is a dramatic example of how cultural differences influence emotional experience. Even though the expressions are universal (present when the emotion of sadness is felt), it seems that culture determines whether the person even relates the feelings to the event. Less dramatically perhaps, the other differences between cultures and within any culture which I have outlined (our words for emotions, and what is learned about an event which calls forth an emotion, in display rules, and attitudes about emotions) all these shape our emotional experience. Our evolution gives us these universal expressions, which tells others some important information about what we’re experiencing. However, what that expression is telling us may not be the same in every culture.

Emotions and social behavior

Universals and facial expressions of emotion can serve as a model for understanding other aspects of social behavior. In part our social behavior is constructed by experience, in part it is constructed as a result of our evolution as a species. What has been adaptive to us in our lives is malleable, and may vary from one family setting to another, among different social classes and ethnic groups within a culture and across cultures. What has been adaptive to our species, to our history on this planet, may not always be adaptive to our current life experience. How much we are influenced by individual experience and how much by our evolutionary history varies, depending upon what aspect of our behavior we are considering. It is never a question only of nature or only of nurture. We are bio-social creatures, our minds are embodied, reflecting our lives and the lives of our ancestors. Darwin led the way not only in the biological sciences but in the social sciences as well.

Emotional expressions and gestures

The distinction between emotional expressions and gestures has been incorporated in current work on nonverbal communication. While gestures can refer to nearly anything (thoughts, plans, actions, wishes, fantasies, and so forth) the expressions pertain simply to the emotions. Expressions typically involve the face and the voice and, to a much lesser extent, body movement or posture. Darwin focused most on facial expressions, although he gave some attention to other expressions. Gestures typically are shown in hand movements, although a few involve facial movement. Darwin recognized that gestures are not universal, but are socially learned conventions, varying as language does from one locale to another. 

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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