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Emotional Display Rules in Psychology

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  • 0:00 What are Emotional…
  • 1:23 Examples of Emotional…
  • 2:22 Cultural and Gender…
  • 3:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of emotional display rules in psychology. You will be given some examples to clarify this concept, and you will also learn about gender and cultural differences in emotional display rules.

What Are Emotional Display Rules?

When the minister tripped and fell as he was approaching the podium at the funeral, a majority of attendees thought it was pretty funny. But given the somber situation, and the fact that the minister was probably humiliated, nobody laughed. This is an example of emotional display rules in play.

Emotional display rules in psychology are cultural rules and etiquette for how, when, and where to express, or not express, certain emotions. Failing to follow emotional rules can lead others to possibly judge or be concerned for you. Following emotional rules can be a little exhausting, and it sometimes feels like work.

For example, many feel like they need to express extreme happiness on their wedding day to demonstrate to everyone that they are thrilled with their decision to commit to their significant other. Or they feel like they should cry to show sensitivity and emotional connection when their soon-to-be husband or wife reads their heartwarming vows. They feel that if they don't display these expected emotions, others will judge them for being doubtful or inauthentic. Or worse, that others will be concerned for the health of the relationship or future of the marriage. This may be a reason married couples are often emotionally exhausted at the end of their wedding day and ready for that honeymoon.

Examples of Emotional Display Rules

Let's look at some more examples of emotional display rules.

Example 1

Angela is very bored and tired during her colleague's PowerPoint presentation, but she doesn't dare yawn or glance at her watch to display these emotions.

Emotional display rules tell us that we should not express discontent or boredom when someone is teaching, lecturing, or dispelling information because it would be rude and may hurt his feelings. After all, we would feel hurt if people did that to us, wouldn't we?

Example 2

If a patient tells them symptoms that they guess may be cancer, a doctor typically won't express concern or worry so as to not worry the patient. If an adult patient is serious when he admits to his psychiatrist that he cries if he cannot sleep with his childhood teddy bear, the psychiatrist better not dare laugh!

You probably get the general idea. People have all sorts of emotional display rules that they must adhere to if they don't want to suffer negative consequences.

Cultural and Gender Differences

It turns out that although facial expressions are pretty universal across the world, emotional display rules, in terms of how much emotion you should express, tend to vary greatly across cultures.

An article published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Sciences in 2009 reported that Japanese people were much more reserved when it came to expression of strong emotions, such as anger, contempt, and distaste, compared to their American counterparts. Interestingly enough, Japanese people were also more reserved about expression of happy emotions, such as joy and excitement, when compared to their Canadian counterparts.

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