How Culture Shapes Emotions

One of the first impressions we get when we set foot in a new culture is how different things are. We spot the obvious first – the buildings, the language, the food, the air. As we unpack our bags and make new friends, our vision sharpens. We move our gaze away from our physical environment to the people who inhabit it. We notice the fine-grained nuances of their ways – how they cover their mouths when they laugh, how they bow when they say goodbye. We observe how they work and how they live, how they talk and how they feel. It takes many seasons of marveling and memorizing these differences, until one day, the foreign bewitches into the familiar and their ways become our own. 

As a pioneer in cultural psychology, Batja Mesquita has been researching the role of culture in our emotional lives for decades. Her work has shed light not only on the differences of emotional experiences around the world, but also on what happens to our emotions behind-the-scenes, when we find ourselves living our lives far from home.

Here are 6 questions on emotions and culture with Dr. Mesquita.  

What has surprised you most from your research on emotions across cultures?

One thing that has surprised me is how many cultures don’t think about their emotions as something that lives inside of an individual, but more as something between people. In those cultures, emotions are what people do together, with each other. So when I’m angry, that is something that lives between you and me. Thinking about emotions as living between people has consequences on how we regulate emotions and how we recognize emotions in ourselves and others.

Why are emotions cultural phenomena?

Emotions are cultural phenomena because we learn to have them in a cultural way. We don’t really know discrete emotions when we are born; we only distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant. In interacting with others, we learn to categorize and experience emotions in certain ways. People in different cultures acquire different emotions. For example, people in many western contexts may think of shame as a bad emotion. But shame is considered a good emotion in other cultures – it is in one category with modesty and embarrassment and these feelings show that you have propriety, that you know your place in the world. Having an emotion like shame when you don’t behave in ways that fit the cultural norm is considered a good way of doing something about it. In our (western) cultures, shame is often associated with behaviors that are destructive for the relationship: we withdraw in shame, we don’t want to show ourselves. But in other cultures, it’s an emotion that comes with reaching out to others – it repairs relationships. So it’s not just that the same emotion is differently valued: the emotion itself is different. It develops in a different way and has different consequences for relationships and behavior. You can’t say there was shame first, and then culture influenced it. Rather, the whole phenomenon of the emotion is different across cultures. How you experience shame, whether you reach out or withdraw, how it impacts your reputation and your relationships is all culturally specific.

Are emotions experienced similarly around the world?

Your question supposes that there is first the emotion and then culture. In my view and according to my research, there isn’t an emotion separate from culture. Experience is a combination of your previous experiences, expectations, knowledge and what is happening in the moment. 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. And I don’t think it’s right. There are certainly elements in the experience of emotions that are recognized across cultures – either types of situations or types of meanings that are similar in different cultural contexts. But we don’t have evidence that the experience of emotions is insulated from social context or culture, and always feels exactly the same across different situations, or different cultures.

What are some ways that culture influences emotions?

Emotions are responses of the brain and the body. Universally, we have a body that responds to what happens in the context, but that in itself is not an emotion. It’s not that when you lift your skull, you’ll find your real emotions. We also all have a social context that affords certain ways of being a person with others. Universally, emotions emerge from interactions with others, and those interactions always happen within the framework of a culture. But from there on, things are different between cultures. Almost everything about emotions is cultural: what we call them, how we think about them, how we regulate them. We learn about emotions from observation, but also from how others respond to us when we have certain emotions. We learn prescriptive norms that include rules about when to have what emotions. It’s clear from the infant and child literature that we learn a lot about our emotions from our interactions with our caregivers. But social learning continues in adulthood.

What happens to people’s emotions when they move to other cultures?

Everybody who has lived in different cultures has had culture shock. You thought your emotions were just natural responses to your environment and when you are planted in another environment, suddenly, you see that you are completely inadequate by that other culture’s norms. After a while, you slowly come to expect the emotions of the other culture. You become less sure about your emotions being the default. Over time, when people interact with enough people from another culture and get feedback from them, their emotions acculturate. This is a slow process. It takes immigrant minorities more than one generation to adjust to the new culture’s norms. Having experiences with the emotions of other cultures can help you to articulate the nuances of your own emotions. It’s important to be aware that your own emotions are not a natural response – they are cultural, just like everybody else’s emotions. When interacting with people from different cultures, being aware that each person’s emotions somehow refer to their own socialization, and to their own norms and values is helpful in trying to reach each other.

What insights can we gain from understanding others’ emotional lives?

Philosopher Owen Flanagan says that learning about the philosophies of different cultures gives you options. I wouldn’t be as optimistic, in the sense that I think you can’t do emotions by yourself. You do emotions together with other people – emotions are a way of being a person in the social world. But knowing alternative ways of having emotions gives you perspectives on your own emotions. Sometimes, it also provides you with a different understanding of your emotions. For example, shame in itself is not so unbearable that we have to turn it into anger. Shame is unbearable when you have the ambition of being an independent person who needs to feel good about themselves, which is a western cultural norm. When you feel ashamed, you could say, “How important is it that I feel good about myself?” If you take some distance from the very cultural goal of feeling self-esteem or independence, then you can live with your shame. In fact, mindfulness approaches of treating people with deep shame or depression come from changing your values about what kind of person to be. So, understanding how your own emotions are cultured does give you options that you don’t have otherwise.

Many thanks to Batja Mesquita for her time and insights. Dr. Mesquita is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Leuven, Belgium, where she studies the role of culture in emotions, as well as the role of emotions in culture and society. She is the director of the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology in Leuven.

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