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How Emotions Differ Across Cultures

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  • 0:07 Emotions Are Worldwide
  • 0:54 Experience and Interpretation
  • 2:49 Expression
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rob Wengrzyn
Every country and culture expresses emotions in different ways. This is a constantly growing issue for international organizations. In this lesson, we will describe some of these differences.

Emotions Are Worldwide

Every person on the planet feels emotions. You see, emotions are feelings or thoughts that arise spontaneously instead of conscious thought. When we look at this from a global perspective, the difference is in how we interpret the expression of emotions when they originate in other cultures. While this might not seem like a large issue (one would think that if a person is happy in China, they will show it the same way as Americans do), the fact is different cultures interpret, express and experience emotions differently.

From a global perspective of organizational behavior, it is important we understand how to read these differences and understand the nuances that could be present. It is almost impossible to build an international team of workers, and have that team be successful, if they cannot always pick up on or understand the emotions of their team members.

Experience and Interpretation

How a person from Brazil experiences emotions will influence how a person from Taiwan interprets the Brazilian person's feelings. That interpretation comes from visual cues that the Brazilian person might send out (facial expressions, body language, etc.) that others pick up and then interpret. Now, it might not seem like there is a huge gap between what a person in one country feels and how another interprets that feeling, but the fact is, there is a difference.

In a study, researchers decided to show a group of individuals from different countries pictures of people that exhibited different emotions. Emotions such as being happy or sad or worried or surprised were shown to people from America, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Japan. It was surprising to find that for the most part, the individuals from these countries correctly guessed the emotion that was being exhibited, but there were a substantial percentage of individuals who guessed wrong.

For example, 32% of Argentineans guessed incorrectly when fear was being displayed. 37% of the Japanese participants guessed incorrectly when anger was being displayed. This simple experiment proves that, while we can think emotions and the interpretation of those emotions are universal, the fact is, they are not. Individuals from other countries can misinterpret the emotion being experienced, which would lead them to potentially interacting with a person in the wrong way. Based on just this study, if an American person was angry, and a Japanese person did not interpret that anger through the emotions being displayed, it could make for a challenging confrontation.

One other aspect of this study that is interesting is the American participants had the highest percentage of correct answers. However, since the study was assembled and conducted by Americans, that led to a debate that if individuals from a different country assembled the pictures (as they related to how that country displayed emotions), the answers might have been different for the Americans as well as the rest of the participants.

Expression

Expression of emotion, similar to the research discussed earlier, is different from country to country. For example, in some countries, when a person passes away, it is common for individuals to attend a funeral and show grief. However, in other countries, it is expected that a person will be dispassionate and not show grief. In this cultural setting, the emotion (or the lack of it) is how that culture expresses emotion when a person passes away.

In Tahiti, if you are trying to tell a Tahitian that you are sad and ask a translator to translate that into Tahitian, they will not be able to do so, as there is no word for sadness in the Tahitian language. This absence of a word reflects that Tahitians do not typically express sadness. It's difficult for someone in the United States to comprehend not expressing sadness at one point or another, but the absence of the word in Tahitian symbolizes that emotion is not expressed in that culture.

The absence of words, and thus the absence of emotional expression of those words, is found in many other cultures. In Japan, there is a word for someone who is worthy of praise overcoming a challenge. In the U.S., there is no such single word for that. Another example is that Eskimos and the Chinese do not have a word in their culture for anxiety. Thus, it would be a challenge for Eskimos or the Chinese to express anxiety or interpret it in others.

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