Have you ever had times when you meant to provide others with constructive criticism but ended up hurting their feelings, or other times when your heart sank after hearing others’ well-intentioned remarks? As a Chinese student wading through the American waters of unfamiliar emotions and sensitivities, this happens all too often in my daily life. When I was grading a student’s writing as a teaching assistant, I thought something they had written was boring and left a comment that conveyed my thoughts about the quality of their work clearly. Later, the student complained to the instructor that I was being too harsh in my feedback. For me, honest, negative comments were a way of helping them to acknowledge the shortcomings in their knowledge and I assumed that they would naturally interpret my comment in a positive light. But based on my experience, in American culture, it is more important to spare the feelings of the student than to reveal the true feelings of the instructor.
On the other hand, a compliment in the context of American culture may cause negative emotions through the lens of a different culture. Once, I invited a group of American friends over for dinner, and at the end of the dinner they thanked me for a lovely meal. Although in my mind I understood it as a display of gratitude, I was still stunned because in Chinese culture thanking doesn’t happen in a close relationship. The fact that they expressed thankfulness in an explicit way signaled to me that our friendship was not deep enough to be exempt from the pleasantries. This simple well-intentioned gesture on their end was overinterpreted as an implicit sign of emotional estrangement owing to our difference in cultures.
My personal experiences convey that cultural differences lie not only in different histories and languages, but also in how people react to things and feel emotions. In fact, contrary to the popular belief that everyone around the world all share a basic set of emotions that makes us human, a recent study (Joshua et al., 2019) found that there is almost no emotion-related word that has one-to-one corresponding translations across 2500 world languages studied. Some of the emotion-related words perceived as having distinct meanings in English are grouped in various ways in other cultures. For example, “anger” was thought to be the same as “envy” in some cultures, and no different than “hate” in others. Moreover, to the extent that the social environments differ across cultures, people in different cultures tend to use certain emotion-related words in different situations they find themselves in, giving the words practically different meanings.
More interestingly, further emotion research suggests that there could be fundamentally different ways of thinking about how emotions are induced and processed. In an emotion study on Japanese people, respondents were confused about questions such as “How intense is your emotion?” and “To what extent did the emotion change your beliefs?” so the researcher had to rephrase the questions as “How important was the situation for you?” and “Did your feelings change after the situation?” According to a study at the University of Amsterdam (Mesquita & Frijda, 1992), their lack of familiarity with emotion as the subjects of the questions led the researchers to question the Western assumptions that emotions are mental states triggered by certain external events in a fixed way. People often take for granted that particular events are inherently associated with certain emotions. For example, getting married is supposed to be joyful while losing loved ones is supposed to be sorrowful.
Although this is true to some extent, people tend to neglect or sometimes deny the effects that our behaviors and thoughts can have on our emotional states. Instead, we tend to suppress and bury our deep negative emotions to compose ourselves. As more and more stressful events occur over time, it’s believed that our negative feelings tend to build up and aggravate us. As an analogy, our negative emotions are seen as gas trapped in a bottle. If we keep filling the bottle up, at some point the bottle will explode, which is also the reason why “venting” our emotions is believed in Western cultures to be an effective way to prevent emotional burnout.
Alternatively, emotions can be thought of as malleable in that our thoughts and emotions about the social situations can easily change what we feel inside. For instance, one day you encountered a racist remark, and you went into a rage room to unleash your anger. Right after you lashed out by breaking things in the room, you might feel relieved, but the deep sense of injustice evoked by the racist remark is not gone and may have even been amplified by the violent behavioral outlet. If you choose in your behavior not to act on the anger, and think to yourself that the racist aggressor is actually quite pitiful given the biased worldview they grew up with, then after some time you will start to feel calm. After all, emotion is, in large part, a reflection of what you think about the world and how you respond to the world.
In many Asian cultures where conforming to social norms is prioritized over achieving the full potential of oneself, it is common that parents raise their children to feel proud of things that are socially appropriate while feeling shameful for acts that break the social norms. Importantly, many of the personal acts against the social norms happen to be those that promote individuality. This contrasts with American culture, where parents want children to be self-confident by affirming the positive emotions they experience when showcasing their unique talents (Mesquita, 2001). For example, in Asian classrooms, students are often taught to hold off on critical ideas about what has been taught for private discussion with the teacher, lest the teacher be embarrassed by his/her loss of authority. On the other hand, in Western schools, students are encouraged to express critical ideas in class so that other students and teachers can all gain new knowledge or perspective from discussion. The difference in Asian vs. American parenting styles mirrors the two alternative mechanisms of emotional processing. It also explains why the original research questions presented to Japanese respondents led to confusion. Japanese, like most other Asians, tend to see emotions as a dynamic part of social interaction that is constantly adjusted or regulated to the situation. So, if you don’t define emotion as some stable thing that is inside you, how can you describe the properties and intensity of that thing?
At the end of the day, we are all human beings who have things that are important in our social lives and relationships. What those things are and which emotions factor into those relationships are very different. I think that understanding how people’s emotions tie to the social context, to what they think of the social events, and to what they value in the social relationships. Just assuming that your own emotions are universal and default misses out on the specific humanity of people from other cultural backgrounds. When we interact with people from different cultural backgrounds, it is important to keep in mind that different cultures perceive and process emotions in vastly different ways, and it won’t hurt to ask others what they feel about certain things rather than relying on our own cultural assumptions.
Emotion Semantics Show Both Cultural Variation and Universal Structure, by Joshua Conrad Jackson et al., Science, 2019.
Emotions in Collectivist and Individualist Contexts, by Batia Mesquita, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001.
Cultural Variations in Emotions: A Review, by Batia Mesquita and Nico Frijda, Psychological Bulletin, 1992.