We all know culture can influence our relationships, work ethic, wardrobe and even the way we greet others. But can culture influence our emotions? Do people around the world experience emotions similarly? Is experiencing anger in Japan the same as experiencing anger in England, Peru, India or Kenya? “Of course it is,” you might say, “we’re all human beings. We all feel the same things, even if we use different words.” Well, sit tight. It might not be that obvious of an answer, and we’re about to find out why!
Culture or emotion: which came first?
Many of us see emotions as something primal and natural to human beings. We believe emotions are born with us and stay with us, even before culture could ever have any say. But what if emotions can’t be separated from culture?
Dr. Batja Mesquita, a pioneer in cultural psychology, explains:
“In my view and according to my research, there isn’t an emotion separate from culture. When we talk about shame in Japan or in the US, of course there are elements that are similar around the world (for example, the idea that I did something wrong). But then, shame has a different follow-up, a different feel. I think you can’t separate what the emotion means to you from how others respond to it in your culture. This idea that emotions are within you and are insulated from culture is itself a Western cultural idea.”
How did you learn your emotions?
At first sight, this seems like a strange question, but think about it: aren’t emotions a reaction from our bodies and minds to whatever happens externally, usually involving other people? Being born into a certain culture means learning that culture’s words for certain emotions. It also means avoiding the expression of certain emotions because your culture thinks they’re negative and you fear the reaction of those around you. It means learning how and when to express those emotions, and being rewarded or punished for certain emotions. It’s particularly interesting that countries that tend to place more importance in community, family values and honor – such as Japan, India or Russia – also show more complexity in the way they feel compared to countries that tend to be more individualistic.
Can a certain culture be more or less emotional than another?
What countries would you say are the most and the least emotional? Well, you don’t have to think too much: a study has already been done about the topic and concluded that the Philippines, El Salvador, Bahrain and Oman are the most emotional countries! On the other hand, Singapore, Lithuania and Georgia would be the least emotional countries. An average of 60% of Filipinos claimed they felt ten different emotions a lot on a daily basis, including anger, stress, sadness, physical pain and worry, but also feeling well-rested, smiling and laughing a lot, being treated with respect, enjoyment, and learning or doing something interesting. While many believe these results could be related to quality of life and even the country’s GDP, that wouldn’t explain why Singapore is considered less emotional than Venezuela, for instance. Could culture be behind it all?
Why does it matter, anyway?
It’s easy to take matters personally when we feel someone else’s emotions clash against ours. But what happens if we start seeing emotions as products of culture, not something that necessarily labels a given person as good or bad? Especially in countries where several cultures come together to share one space, this kind of awareness is useful because it brings some perspective to the table and helps us stop conflict and misunderstandings before they happen! If you’re planning on working abroad, becoming a digital nomad or moving abroad to blend in with the local community, this is especially important.
Your turn: do emotions depend on culture?
What’s your opinion? Do you think our cultures determine the way we experience and express emotions? What are your experiences dealing with different cultures and observing how people express themselves? Tell us all about it over on our social channels!