Emotions and Culture

The essence of human beings is to feel; that differentiates us from non-living creatures. However, a man in India going through a go for an interview or save a dying friend dilemma will feel different emotions as opposed to an American man. Nevertheless, why is that so?

Cultural Perspectives on the Psychology of Emotions

Social researchers generally fell into either of two camps, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. According to the universalist camp, notwithstanding differences in national conventions and traditions, all people share similar basic emotions. These universalists held that since emotions developed in reaction to the surroundings that our ancestors encountered in the beginning, they are universal and exist in all societies. People frequently use terms like "organic," "naturally," "biological," and "intuitive" to characterize their emotions, which lends credence to the idea that emotions are innate and shared by all people. Conversely, the social constructivist school of thought asserted that despite sharing a common evolutionary past, various human societies had independently evolved to suit their unique contexts.

The enormous variety of human settings also means that emotions vary among cultures. Lutz, for illustration, claimed that many Western theories of emotion include the assumption that they are "unique experiences located within individuals." However, inhabitants of the small island of Ifaluk, which is close to Micronesia, see emotions as "transactions between individuals." Social constructivists say that people are frequently ignorant of how their cultural beliefs are influenced by their culture since cultural concepts and practices are pervasive. Emotions appear spontaneous, organic, biological, and innate while still predominantly molded by culture.

One of the earliest scientific inquiries into the universalist-social constructivist controversy was carried out in the 1970s by Paul Ekman. He created the Face Action Coding System and Wallace Friesen to track people's facial muscle activity. Ekman and Friesen used FACS to examine people's facial gestures and identify particular facial muscle configurations linked to various emotions, including joy, rage, melancholy, terror, and contempt. Ekman and Friesen then took photographs of individuals posing with various emotions. Ekman and Friesen enlisted the aid of colleagues from various universities around the globe to show these pictures to people from wildly different cultural backgrounds, give them a catalog of sentiment words that had been translated into the appropriate languages, and ask them to connect the expressions in the pictures with the words that described them.

Participants "identified" the emotive expressions across cultures, correctly matching each image with the "proper" emotion phrase more often than not. Ekman concluded that there are emotional facial expressions that are rarely understood as a result. However, they also discovered that recognition accuracy varied widely among cultures.

For example, only 69% of individuals from Sumatra identified a smile as "happy," compared to 95% of participants from the United States. Likewise, whereas just 60% of Japanese participants connected wrinkles on the nose with "disgust," 86% of U.S. respondents did. Ekman and colleagues saw this discrepancy as illustrating cultural differences in "display rules," or guidelines for what emotions are permissible to portray in a specific circumstance. Since this first investigation, Matsumoto and his collaborators have shown significant cultural variances in display norms. Biting one's tongue clearly illustrates these variations, which denotes humiliation in India but not in the United States.

Similarities and Differences Between Asian and American Emotional Expression

According to scholars, the prevalent paradigm of the self in North American settings is an autonomous concept. Being a person entails standing out from others and acting appropriately. However, the prevailing image of the self is interrelated in East Asian cultures, where being a person entails being substantially linked to others and receptive to situational needs. For instance, in a well-known experiment, Japanese and American students took the Twenty Statements Test, which required them to finish the sentence stem "I am ___" twenty times. In contrast to Japanese participants, U.S. respondents were more inclined to finish the shaft with psychological traits (e.g., pleasant, cheery). In contrast, Japanese participants were more inclined to complete the blank concerning societal roles and duties (e.g., son, laborer).

Physiological Responses to Emotional Events

Different concepts for engaging with others come from these various self-models. People are taught to articulate themselves and exert influence over others through an independent self-model (i.e., alter their surroundings to be in harmony with their ideologies and passions). On the other hand, an interconnected model of self instructs people to repress their beliefs and desires in favor of adjusting to those of others (i.e., fit in with their context).

Studies of emotional response frequently concentrate on three elements: physiology (such as how quickly one's cardiac cycles), individual opinion (such as acute happiness or sadness), and expressive facial behavior (e.g., smiling or frowning). Even though there have not been many studies assessing these characteristics of emotional response at once, those tend to find more parallels than variations in physiological responses across cultures. That is, irrespective of culture, individuals express themselves physically or physiologically in comparable ways.

Pleasant feelings events are characterized by variations in facial expressions, which are compatible with the results of cross-cultural research of display norms and are based on models of self-description. People often communicate their emotions to affect others within North American settings that value individual autonomy. In contrast, people prefer to restrain and repress their emotions in East Asian cultures that value interdependence to fit in.

Emotional Expression

If expressing oneself is the normative standard in North American situations, then concealing emotions (not expressing how one experiences) should have adverse effects. The essential premise of hydraulic conceptions of emotion is that psychological function is impaired by emotional repression and suppression. Much empirical research demonstrates that repressing emotions in North American cultures can negatively affect psychological well-being. However, according to one study, cultural differences can affect how well-being is suppressed. It is true that among European Americans, suppressing one's emotions is linked to higher rates of depression and worse rates of life satisfaction.


Most academics today concur that there are many facets to emotions and other associated states and that there are cultural parallels and variances for each facet. Researchers are thus trying to pinpoint the precise parallels and variances of internal states throughout cultures rather than categorizing emotions as either ubiquitous or locally produced. These efforts provide fresh perspectives on how culture affects emotion.

Since emotions appear and realize so instinctive to us, it is not easy to comprehend that the manner we encounter them and the bits we crave are not simply genetically coded into us. However, there are several instances where culture, both knowingly and unconsciously, impacts people's emotional life, as the current study has demonstrated (and as continued studies will thoroughly investigate).

Updated on: 03-Feb-2023


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