A World Of Emotions
From a sense of humor to a sense of happiness and from“high-arousal” words to “untranslatables,” culture dictates how we speak about and experience the universe, far more than we realize.
By Marianna Pogosyan Ph.D. published August 20, 2020 - last reviewed on September 7, 2020
In Armenia, joy is loud and colorful. From my childhood, I remember my grandmother when she was happy. Whenever joy lingered for too long—on holy days and birthdays—her fingers pinched me, knocked on wood, and clasped in wishful prayer. As I grew older, I recognized grandma’s trepidation toward joy. She welcomed joy with open arms, blessed it for its offerings, and then hurried to send it on its way before other emotions—sorrow or despair—would get jealous and pay her a visit, too. In other places, like North America, the joy I witnessed was less ambivalent, more enthusiastic, more carefree. In Western Europe, barring football matches and Oktoberfest, joy was more level-headed. In Japan, one could catch joy’s glimpse while feasting on homemade onigiris under blooming cherry blossoms.
The world, however, has fallen to its knees with a pandemic that halted life across cities and nations, both foreign and near. A mosaic of images depicting cross-cultural emotions in action has emerged—fearsome masks, panicked hospital workers, spirited balcony arias, grateful applause. And with it all has come loss, shock, disobedience, compliance, compassion, and more. We might have to wait for the fireworks of joy for a while, but hope is still there. You can see it in the way we reach out to one another for comfort and strength even from behind shut doors. This virus, whether it has ravaged our bodies or spared us, has galvanized a collective cry of emotions. It’s not the first or last time when emotions would take center stage in human affairs.
Our Emotional Worlds
Scientific inquiry has gained impressive insights into the workings of our emotional worlds. Some researchers propose that emotions have left an evolutionary signature on humankind’s neurobiology. Others claim that, far from being universal, emotions are cultural constructs whose meanings we learn from social interaction. In fact, according to cultural psychologist Batja Mesquita at the University of Leuven in Belgium, almost everything about emotions is cultural—what we think of them, when we have them, how we regulate them.
Culture will even help us determine whether an emotion is deemed worthwhile or abhorrent. Take shame, for example. Often, shame can feel like a storm that wreaks havoc on our self-esteem; shame unleashes its disgrace onto our bodies and etches destruction in our memory banks. Think of a cringeworthy episode from your childhood where you felt shame. Even if you can’t recall what you were shamed for, chances are that you can remember the weight of your head hanging low, face flushing with heat, and the need to run away.
Unlike many Western cultures where shame maintains its largely negative reputation, elsewhere in the world, the picture of shame is often tinged with modesty and embarrassment. Shame, in these cultures, can indicate propriety. In China, for instance, teachers might use shame to motivate students, while parents might shame their kids in front of others to teach them to behave properly—rather than to abjectly humiliate them, note researchers Ying Wong of National Chengchi University and Jeanne Tsai of Stanford University.
In fact, Chinese children learn the word for shame earlier than American or British children. As a result of the different values assigned to shame across cultures, Mesquita notes that this emotion will bear different consequences for relationships: Instead of withdrawing, people might reach out to repair their bonds. “You can’t say there was shame first, and then culture influenced it,” Mesquita says. “Rather, the whole phenomenon of the emotion is different across cultures.”
What Are Your Ideal Emotions?
We learn to value the emotions that are continuously endorsed by our cultures. Assuming that most people would prefer to feel good rather than bad in their day-to-day lives, would you wish your flavor of good to be high arousal, like excitement and elation? Or would your ideal emotions be low arousal: peaceful and calm? Your preference may be influenced by your culture. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that European-Americans value high-arousal positive emotions significantly more than the Hong Kong Chinese, whose ideal emotions fall more within low-arousal positive states.
The feelings that you wish to feel will in turn influence various aspects of your life. For example, the way you regulate your emotions, what you pay attention to, which consumer products you use. They will even play a role in your perception of other people. According to research published in the journal Emotion, we are more likely to choose physicians whose face displays expressions that match how we ideally want to feel. Indeed, if you are someone who values feeling peaceful more than feeling elated, you would likely find it unsettling if your GP kept dazzling you with her broad Julia Roberts smile as she dressed her fingers in rubber gloves.
Before you can determine whether there is a match between you and your physician, you must be able to read facial expressions, and our face-reading skills are most useful. However, not all is straightforward when it comes to reading emotions, especially across cultures. Despite similar neural architecture responsible for emotional expression, humans have culture-specific styles of nonverbal communication that tell us when and how to display our emotions. We learn these rules during childhood. Or, when traversing cultural borders.
Whether they prescribe concealing negative emotions to maintain group harmony, as in Japan, or encourage unreserved declarations of inner states, as in the United States, these rules bear crucial insights into every culture. The lesson: Not all is as it appears. Depending on the cultural context, a quiet smile might be hiding turmoil, and an exuberant laugh might be masquerading only lukewarm interest.
Putting Emotions Into Words
When unpacking the complexity of our emotional worlds, clues can also be found in language. A recent study, published in Science, examined 24 emotion words from 2,474 languages. The results pointed to both biological and cultural processes that influence the way we think about and experience emotions. Speakers in almost all languages have pleasant versus unpleasant emotions as well as feelings that are high or low in physiological arousal. But when it comes to specific emotions, their meaning is not always the same around the world.
For example, while the concept of love is more related to happiness in Indo-European languages, it is associated more with pity in Austronesian languages. And while anxiety is more related to fear in Tai-Kadai languages, it is more often paired with grief in Austroasiatic languages.
And then there are the untranslatables, words without direct equivalents in other languages. Psychologist Tim Lomas has catalogued hundreds of these words from around the world in his online glossary called "The Positive Lexicography Project." The Japanese koi no yokan, the feeling of standing on the verge of falling in love, will remain my favorite even if the day comes when I forget my favorite Japanese pop star’s name. These words can be invaluable to cultural explorers, since they can reveal and embody cultural ways of thinking and feeling. But they can also help those exploring their own emotional worlds, says Lomas, by giving voice to our internal experiences that otherwise would remain unnamed and unnoticed.
Importantly, amid the endless differences in our languages, these untranslatables highlight the common humanity of our emotional worlds in a poignant way. After all, even if we might not have an exact equivalent of the Tagalog word gigil in our native tongues, we know exactly how it feels to have the urge to hug someone tightly because we love them so much; and chances are, we have experienced the feeling engendered by a solitary walk through autumn woods, even without ever having heard of the German word Waldeinsamkeit.
The Different Shades of Happiness
A few months after my family’s move to Japan in the early 1990s, I developed a new routine. I would hurry home from school on my bike, kick off my shoes, throw down my school bag, dash to our living room, and turn on the TV. And there he was, smoldering across the screen, the handsome actor-singer-dancer–star whose name I had yet to learn how to read or write. In those introductory months, I had seen, heard, eaten, and felt many things for the first time. It was a lot of change for any 14-year-old. But I was sure about two things: I hated the red bean ice-cream our kind neighbors kept offering us, and I was in love with Kimutaku.
My one-way affair was good news for my language skills. Unlike my less star-struck parents, my Japanese vocabulary was growing at soap opera– worthy rates. I had most of the essentials covered to follow the thrilling story lines of my weekly dates: “I love you,” “What’s wrong?” “How could you do this?” Week after week, scene after scene, I sneaked into Japanese hearts. I saw them in their kitchens and their bedrooms. I bore witness to their relationships. I eavesdropped on their internal monologues.
Despite everything I was observing and absorbing, one big mystery remained: their emotional worlds. There was a lot I didn’t recognize. Their joy was more reserved. Their grief was less dramatic. Their anger was less fiery. There was more silence, more nodding, less eye contact, less disputing. There was plenty of the familiar, too—after all, emotions are a defining characteristic of the human race. But it was the differences that caught my eye and set my heart aflutter. And it was the differences that made me marvel at culture’s reign over our ways.
Back in our Tokyo living room, as I swooned over Kimutaku’s velvety voice, I desperately wanted to understand the world behind his smiles and laughs—the quiet and the exuberant ones. Or, even better, I wished to speak enough Japanese to join his adoring fans in rejoicing at his jokes. But humor is perhaps the last piece of the puzzle that any culture surrenders to newcomers. And, judging from my parents’ often failed attempts at translating funny stories, it is difficult to grasp.
If humor is a capricious ingredient of any culture’s repertoire, what about happiness? What would it take to unravel the secrets of the Japanese flavor of happiness? After all, happiness is among the most universal of emotions, with plenty of points of convergence across the world. For instance, research spanning four decades, 182 countries, and 97 studies, has shown that out of the seven discrete emotions—anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise—happiness is the most accurately recognized expression across cultures. Similar circumstances around the world appear to make us happy, including situations and events that are pleasant, conducive to our goals, needs, and desires. Most of us express our joy in similar ways, with smiles and laughter.
But there are also myriad ways in which humans across time and space have thought about happiness. In ancient China and Greece, happiness was considered a divine gift that had to do with luck and fortune. In the U.S., happiness is an inalienable human right. A study published in the journal Emotion showed that, when asked to describe features of happiness, Americans alluded to positive experiences and personal achievements, while the Japanese cited social harmony. In still other cultures, people can be averse or fearful of happiness, based on their conviction that misfortune often lurks behind joy.
Are You Depressed Or Just Tired?
If happiness has its flavors around the world, so does suffering. In her cross-cultural research on depression, psychologist Yulia Chentsova-Dutton of Georgetown University likens depression’s symptoms to the starry sky—there’s a universal experience of suffering, the same black vastness above our heads dotted with bright and dim lights. However, when we look at the night sky, as with the expression of depression around the world, we might notice some stars and miss others, depending on where we are.
Consider the actual symptoms of depression. In the U.S. and other Western cultures, there is a primary emphasis on the psychological symptoms of depression—one might feel a continuous low mood or have thoughts of hopelessness. In other cultures, such as in China, depression is more likely to be experienced and expressed as bodily symptoms, such as feeling tired or not sleeping well. Furthermore, as Chentsova-Dutton notes, the meaning people assign to suffering might vary considerably across cultures. For example, in Buddhism, suffering is seen as a normal part of life. In Eastern European Orthodox Christianity and traditional Catholicism, suffering can be considered a sin (when it is excessive and hindering) or as a means to highlight one’s virtuousness and to get closer to God. In other cultures, such as in India and Ecuador, suffering can be an indication that people are experiencing a breach in their relationships.
A Happy Health Outcome
Culture can influence not only the pathway between emotions and mental health, but also our physical health. A recent study published in the journal Emotion, conducted by an international team of researchers, shows that well-documented adverse health effects of negative emotions—inflammation, weakened immune response, and increased risk for heart disease—may not be universal. Instead, they may be moderated by culture. And this may, in part, be due to our understanding of emotions.
Western cultures, such as that of the U.S., foster an independent sense of self. Here, emotions are viewed as being closely tied to one’s inner attributes and responsibility. The more positive emotions we can experience, the better our well-being. Hence, according to the researchers of the Emotion study, negative emotions may often be considered as unwanted and to be avoided as they would hinder well-being. Moreover, negative emotions may be construed as harmful because they might reflect a threat to the self and one’s ability to cope with the demands of one's environment. As the researchers note, this sense of perceived threat may, in turn, contribute to the activation of a stress response, and eventually, undermine one’s health.
Conversely, Asian folk theories about emotions tend to be ingrained in Buddhist and Confucian traditions. These prescribe views that are more balanced, allowing both positive and negative emotions to coexist. As the East Asian saying goes, fortune and misfortune are like the twisted strands of a rope; rather than being mutually exclusive, positive and negative emotions are considered interconnected and recurrent. Thus, according to the researchers, this understanding of negative emotions as relatively benign or fleeting components of normal life may make their daily experience less stressful, in turn buffering against some of their ill-effects on physical health.
It would take many seasons of my rushing home on my bike from school to watch a handsome actor turn into my Japanese sensei. And it would take many hours of poring over textbooks, filling pages with painstaking letters from different alphabets, many failed jokes and true friendships, many joys and a few heartbreaks, to finally catch a glimpse into the emotional worlds of those I encountered in the many places I have lived.
The journey across cultures is an extraordinary one. Everything is different in all four corners of the earth. Yet, remarkably the same.
Like those travelers before and after me: We arrive. We unpack our bags. We observe how others work and how they live, how they talk, and how they feel. We detect the nuances. We highlight the differences. We experience the unease. We make the mistakes. We marvel and memorize and fall in love, until one day, the foreign morphs into the familiar and their ways become our own. It’s a lot of change for anyone at any age. But I'm sure about two things so far: Our cultures, diverse and magnificent, color the way we experience the world and shed light on the wonder that is to be human. And after all these years, I’d still love to watch Kimutaku on my screen. Preferably, with a bowl of red bean ice cream in my hand.
Hard-to-translate words are gifts of insight into what it means to be human.
- Tsavd tanem (Armenian) phrase — “Let me take away your pain”; used in various ways to position the speaker as interested in/caring about the other
- Ubuntu (Zulu) n. — Being kind to others on account of one’s common humanity
- Gezellig (Dutch) adj. — Cozy, warm, intimate, enjoyable; often a shared experience (with close others)
- Hee xin (Chinese Mandarin) adj. — black heart, meaning “heartless”
- A chuisle (Irish Gaelic) n. — “My pulse”; my beloved, my darling, someone who is so close and loved they are like your pulse
- Fernweh (German) n. — “Far/distant (Fern) pain/woe (Weh)”; the call of faraway places; homesickness for the unknown
- Agápē (Greek) n. — Selfless, unconditional, devotional love
- Gemas (Indonesian) n. — A feeling of love or affection; the urge to squeeze someone, because they are so cute
- Sólarfrí (Icelandic) n. — “Sun holiday”; when workers are granted unexpected time off to enjoy a particularly sunny or warm day
- Saper vivere (Italian) n. — The ability to handle people and situations with charm, diplomacy, and verve
- Mono no aware (Japanese) n. — The pathos of understanding the transiency of the world and its beauty
- Cafuné (Portuguese) n. — The act or gesture of tenderly running one’s fingers through a loved one’s hair
- Hygge (Norwegian) n. — A deep sense of place, warmth, friendship, and contentment. As an adjective (hyggelig): enjoyable, warm, friendly, pleasant
- Maitrī/mettā (Sanskrit/Pali) n. — Loving-kindness; benevolence; "may you be happy"
- Coup de foudre (French) n. — “A lightning bolt”; sudden and powerful love at first sight
- Pochemuchka (Russian) n. — Someone (often a child) who asks a lot of questions
- Arbejdsglæde (Danish) n. — “Work gladness, joy”; pleasure or satisfaction derived from work
- L’esprit de l’escalier (French) phrase — “Staircase wit”; a witty and, or, incisive rejoinder that comes to mind just after an interaction
- Fjaka (Croatian) n. — Relaxation of body and mind; sleepiness, drowsiness; the “sweetness of doing nothing”
- Kreng-jai (Thai) n. — “Deferential heart”; respect and consideration for others’ feelings ahead of one’s own; the wish to not trouble someone by burdening them
- Eucatastrophe (English) n. — A sudden, favorable resolution of events; a happy ending (coined by J. R. R. Tolkien).
Additional Source: Tim Lomas
Emojis From East to West
In Asian cultures, the eyes express emotions, while the mouth does the job in Western cultures.
Source: Marianna Pogosyan
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