Cultural Emotion Expressions

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Emotions are defined as an "internal phenomena that can, but do not always, make themselves observable through expression and behavior".[1] There has been a large amount of research in psychology studying cultural emotional expressions. Culture impacts how and when an individual may feel or express an emotion. Contemporary literature has traced the influence of culture on a variety of aspects of emotion, from emotional values to emotion regulation. Indeed, culture may be best understood as a channel through which emotions are molded and subsequently expressed. Indeed, this had been most extensively discussed in psychology by examining individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

Individualistic vs. Collectivistic Cultures[edit]


The individualistic vs. collectivistic cultural paradigm has been widely used in the study of emotion psychology. Collectivistic cultures are said to promote the interdependence of individuals and the notion of social harmony. Indeed, Niedenthal suggests that: "The needs, wishes, and desires of the collectives in which individuals find themselves are emphasized, and the notion of individuality is minimized or even absent from the cultural model".[1] Individualistic cultures, however, promote individual autonomy and independence. Individual needs, wishes, and desires are emphasized and the possibility of personal attainment is encouraged. Collectivistic cultures include those of Asia and Latin America, whilst individualistic cultures include those of North America and Western Europe. North America, specifically, is seen to be the prototype of an individualistic culture.[1]

Research has shown that the collectivism vs. individualism paradigm informs cultural emotional expression. An influential paper by Markus & Kitayama, on the influence of culture on emotion, established that in more collectivistic cultures, emotions were conceived as relational to the group.[2] Thus, in collectivistic cultures, emotions are believed to occur between people, rather than within an individual.[2] When Japanese school students were asked about their emotions, they usually stated than an emotion comes from their outside social surroundings.[3] When asked about where the emotions they feel originate from, Japanese school students never referred to themselves first.[3] This suggests that Japanese people believe emotions exist within the environment, between individuals, in line with collectivistic values.[3] Individualistic cultures, however, conceive emotions as independent internal experiences, occurring within an individual. When American school students were asked about their emotions, they usually stated that they experienced emotions within themselves.[3] This suggests that Americans consider emotions as personal, experienced internally and independently. Markus & Kitayama purport that emotions like friendliness and shame - which promote interconnectedness - are predominant in Asian culture. Conversely, European-American cultures were shown to be predominated by individualistic emotions, such as pride or anger.[2]

Emotion Suppression[edit]

Collectivistic cultures are believed to be less likely to express emotions, in fear of upsetting social harmony. Miyahara, referencing a study conducted on Japanese interpersonal communication, purports that the Japanese "are low in self disclosure, both verbally and non-verbally....Most of these attributes are ascribed to the Japanese people's collectivistic orientations".[4] The study conducted showed that Japanese individuals have a relatively low expression of emotion. Niedenthal further suggests that: "Emotional moderation in general might be expected to be observed in collectivist cultures more than in individualistic cultures, since strong emotions and emotional expression could disrupt intra-group relations and smooth social functioning".[1]

Individualistic cultures are seen to express emotions more freely than collectivistic cultures. In a study comparing relationships among American and Japanese individuals, it was found that: "People in individualistic cultures are motivated to achieve closer relationships with a selected few, and are willing to clearly express negative emotions towards others".[5] Indeed, people living in individualistic cultures express even the negative emotions towards others. Research by Butler et al., found that the impact of emotion suppression is culturally moderated. Whilst the suppression of emotion by those with European Americans values led to non-responsiveness and hostility, individuals with bicultural Asian-American values were perceived as less hostile and more engaged when they practiced emotion suppression.[6] Thus, individuals with Asian-American values were more skilled in emotional suppression than individuals with European-American values. The research posits a possible explanation for why Asian-American individuals are better at suppression: Asian-Americans may engage in habitual suppression more often as negative emotions are seen to cause social disharmony and thus contradict cultural values.[6]

Culture and Emotion Socialization[edit]

Research undertaken in the socialization of children cross-culturally has shown how early cultural influences start to affect emotions. Studies have shown the importance of socializing children in order to imbue them with emotional competence.[7] Research by Friedlmeier et al., suggests children must be socialized in order to meet the emotional values and standards of their culture.[7] For instance, in dealing with negative emotions, American parents were more likely to encourage emotion expression in children, thus promoting autonomy and individualistic competence.[7] East Asian parents, however, attempted to minimize the experience of the negative emotion, by either distracting their child or trying to make their child suppress the emotion. This promotes relational competence and upholds the value of group harmony.[7] Children are thus socialized to regulate emotions in line with cultural values.

Further research has assessed the use of storybooks as a tool with which children can be socialized to the emotional values of their culture.[8] Taiwanese values promote ideal affect as a calm happiness, where American ideal affect is excited happiness.[8] Indeed, it was found that American preschoolers preferred excited smiles and perceived them as happier than Taiwanese children did, and these values were seen to be mirrored in storybook pictures.[8] Importantly, it was shown that across cultures, exposure to story books altered children’s preferences. Thus, a child exposed to an exciting (versus calm) book, would alter their preference for excited (versus calm) activity.[8] Interestingly, this shows that children are largely malleable in their emotions, and suggests that it takes a period of time for cultural values to become ingrained.

Another study has shown that American culture values high arousal positive states such as excitement, over low arousal positive states such as calmness.[9] However, in Chinese culture low arousal positive states are preferable to high arousal positive states. The researchers provide a framework to explain this, suggesting that high arousal positive states are needed in order to influence someone else, where low arousal positive states are useful for adjusting to someone else.[9] This explanation is in line with the collectivism-individualism dichotomy: American values promote individual autonomy and personal achievement, where Asian values promote relational harmony. Emotion expression is consequently seen to be influenced largely by the culture in which a person has been socialized.

Further Research[edit]

Studies have shown that western and eastern cultures have distinct differences in emotional expressions with respect to hemi-facial asymmetry; eastern population showed bias to the right hemi-facial for positive emotions, while the western group showed left hemi-facial bias to both negative and positive emotions.[10]

Recently, the valence and arousal of the twelve most popular emotion keywords expressed on the micro-blogging site Twitter were measured using Latent Semantic Clustering in three geographical regions: Europe, Asia and North America. It was demonstrated that the valence and arousal levels of the same emotion keywords differ significantly with respect to these geographical regions — Europeans are, or at least present themselves as more positive and aroused, North Americans are more negative and Asians appear to be more positive but less aroused when compared to global valence and arousal levels of the same emotion keywords.[11] This shows that emotional differences between western and eastern cultures can, to some extent, be inferred through their language style.

Other Cultures[edit]

Although the Eastern vs. Western paradigm is frequently studied, psychological and sociological work has researched emotion expression in other cultures.

Culture of Honor[edit]

Nisbett & Cohen's 1996 study Culture of Honor, examines the violent honor culture in the Southern states of the USA. The study attempts to address why the southern USA is more violent, with a higher homicide rate, than its northern counterpart. It is suggested that the higher rate of violence is due to the presence of a ‘culture of honor’ in the southern USA.[12] A series of experiments was designed to determine whether southerners got angrier than northerners when they were insulted. In one example, a participant was bumped into and insulted, and their subsequent facial expressions coded. Southerners showed significantly more anger expressions.[12] Furthermore, researchers measured cortisol levels, which increase with stress and arousal, and testosterone levels, which increase when primed for aggression. In insulted southerners, cortisol and testosterone levels rose by 79% and 12% respectively, which was far more than in insulted northerners.[12] With their research, Nisbett & Cohen show that southern anger is expressed in a culturally specific manner.

History of Emotions[edit]

Scholars working on the history of emotions have provided some useful terms for discussing cultural emotion expression. Concerned with distinguishing a society’s emotional values and emotional expressions from an individual’s actual emotional experience, William Reddy has coined the term emotive. In his book, The Making of Romantic Love, Reddy uses cultural counterpoints to give credence to his argument that romantic love is a 12th century European construct, built in a response to the parochial view that sexual desire was immoral. Reddy suggests that the opposition of sexual ardor and true love was not present in either Heain Japan or the Indian kingdoms of Bengal and Orissa.[13] Indeed, these cultures did not share the view of sexual desire as a form of appetite, which Reddy suggests was widely disseminated by the Church. Sexuality and spiritually were not conceived in a way which separated lust from love: indeed, sex was often used as a medium of spiritual worship, emulating the divine love between Krishna and Rada.[13] Sexual desire and love were inextricable from one another. Reddy therefore argues that the emotion of romantic love was created in Europe in the 12th century, and was not present in other cultures at the time.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Niedenthal, Paula M., Silvia Krauth-Gruber, Francois Ric. (2006) Psychology of Emotion Interpersonal, Experimental, and Cognitive Approaches (pp. 5, 305-342) New York, NY: Psychology Press
  2. ^ a b c Markus, H., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.
  3. ^ a b c d Uchida, Y., Townsend, S. S. M., Markus, H. R., & Bergsieker, H. B. (2009).Emotions as within or between people? Cultural variation in lay theories of emotion expression and inference. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1427–1439
  4. ^ • Miyahara, Akira. Toward Theorizing Japanese Communication Competence from a Non-Western Perspective. American Communication Journal. Volume 3, Issue 3.
  5. ^ Takahashi, Keiko Naomi Ohara, Toni C. Antonucci, Hiroko Akiyama . Commonalities and differences in close relationships among the Americans and Japanese: A comparison by the individualism/collectivism concept. International Journal of Behavioral Development, Volume 26, Number 5 (September 1, 2002), pp. 453–465
  6. ^ a b Butler, E. A., Lee, T. L., and Gross, J. J. (2007). Emotion regulation and culture: Are the social consequences of emotion suppression culture-specific? Emotion, 7: 30–48.
  7. ^ a b c d Friedlmeier, W., Corapci, F., & Cole, P. M. (2011). Socialization of emotions in cross-cultural perspective. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5, 410–427.
  8. ^ a b c d Tsai J.L., Louie J.Y., Chen E.E., Uchida Y. (2007). Learning what feelings to desire: Socialization of ideal affect through children's storybooks. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 17–30.
  9. ^ a b Tsai J.L., Miao F.F., Seppala E., Fung H.H., Yeung D.Y. (2007). Influence and adjustment goals: Sources of cultural differences in ideal affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1102–1117
  10. ^ Mandal M. K., Harizuka S., Bhushan B., & Mishra R.C. (2001). Cultural variation in hemi-facial asymmetry of emotion expressions. British Journal of Social Psychology 40, 385–398.
  11. ^ Bann, E. Y., Bryson, J. J. (2013). Measuring Cultural Relativity of Emotional Valence and Arousal using Semantic Clustering and Twitter. In Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 1809-1814
  12. ^ a b c Nisbett, R.E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview Press
  13. ^ a b c Reddy, W.(2006),‘The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900–1200’