How different cultures express emotions differently

Cross-cultural research on emotion expression

4 min read

American visitors often remark that people in Eastern Europe don't smile, leading them to deduce that everyone is miserable. But is this an accurate assessment? Or do these cultures simply have different norms of emotional display? A Russian proverb suggests that laughing without a good reason indicates foolishness, implying that one should smile only when genuinely meant. Smiling at strangers without reason? That often feels insincere. In many cultures, expressing negative emotions like anger, discontent, or fear is deemed impolite. This article delves into these cultural nuances of emotional expression.

Let’s start with the Russians. Sheldon and colleagues (2017) analyzed Russian and American samples regarding emotional suppression and well-being. Interestingly, both groups reported similar well-being levels. Russians, however, tended to suppress positive emotions, especially towards strangers, more than Americans did. This highlights the distinction between feeling an emotion and expressing it. While it's challenging to accurately assess feelings across cultures due to varying definitions of emotions, it's simpler to observe cultural norms regarding emotional displays.

Renowned psychologist David Matsumoto demonstrated that Asian-Americans tend to suppress negative emotions more than European-Americans. With an international team, he studied emotional display norms in 23 countries. A key finding was that collectivist cultures, which prioritize group needs over individual ones, often enforce stricter emotional control. Conversely, individualistic cultures like the US and UK emphasize personal expression, allowing for broader emotional display.

Furthermore, individualistic cultures encourage showing positive emotions to strangers. It's logical: in societies where personal achievements are valued, interactions with strangers are frequent, so being amiable is beneficial. The more hierarchical a society, the stricter its emotional suppression norms, aiming to maintain societal order.

Now, many psychologists argue that suppressing emotions harms wellbeing. Numerous studies, primarily from the US, Canada, and Western Europe, confirm this. However, these findings aren't universal. Recall the Russian study indicating they suppress happiness in public? This doesn't mean they are unhappy. Although Americans who suppressed emotions reported lower wellbeing, Russians showed no such correlation. Similar patterns emerged when comparing European-Americans with Hong-Kong Chinese or Koreans.

Addressing concerns about these studies' designs, an experiment by Murata and colleagues involved showing European Americans and Asians unsettling photos, asking them to suppress reactions. While European Americans continued emotional processing despite suppressing their external reactions, Asian participants genuinely reduced their emotional processing. Hence, depending on our cultural background, emotion regulation strategies yield different results.

Psychological research often presents complexities, especially when considering the experiences of Asian-descendants residing outside Asia. Acculturation levels play a role, as ethnicity is not just genetic but also encompasses cultural thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors. Some studies found weaker links between emotion suppression and adverse outcomes in Asian Americans compared to European Americans. Yet, others found no significant cultural differences.

An intriguing concept is the "interdependent self-construal", representing our perception of being interconnected with others. Prevalent in collectivist cultures like East Asia, which also value emotion suppression, Kraus & Kitayama (2019) found that Asian Americans with this self-view tended to suppress emotions more than those leaning towards an individualistic perspective.

In conclusion, cultural differences in psychological functioning are intricate, making broad generalizations perilous. We should critically assess psychological advice, like "smile more". Knowing where a study was conducted, its participants, and its applicability to other cultures is crucial. These insights not only impact personal well-being but also influence conflict resolution in personal and professional arenas. An open discussion of conflicts, for instance, might be appreciated in some cultures but deemed rude in others. These cultural dynamics indeed warrant deeper exploration, perhaps in a future article on culture and conflict management.


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