Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Cultural differences in emotions

I am an Australian person of Chinese/Taiwanese ancestry living in Belgium. When I saw the French film, “Qu'est-ce qu'on a fait au Bon Dieu?” I was surprised to learn that the French perceive the Chinese as hiding their emotions. This is because I had always thought that Chinese levels of expressiveness were normal, and that it is Westerners who exaggerate their emotions.

Research suggests that differences in the emotional expressivity of Westerners and East Asians may be due to the fact that western culture is more individualistic, whereas East Asian culture is more collectivist. People in individualistic cultures tend to define themselves in terms of their internal attributes such as goals, attitudes, and preferences, aspects that differentiate them from others. Such cultures promote the idea that people are independent, which encourages them to express themselves and to influence others (i.e., change their environment to be compatible with their own beliefs and desires). In contrast, those in collectivist cultures tend to define themselves in terms of their relationships and group memberships. Such cultures endorse the idea that people are interdependent, making them motivated to fit in with their group and maintain social harmony. As such, a collectivist culture teaches people to suppress their own beliefs and desires in order to adjust to others (i.e., change their own beliefs and desires to conform to their environment).

Because people in collectivist cultures are concerned with social harmony, they are less likely to express negative emotions in the presence of others. For example, in a study by Ekman (1972) American and Japanese participants were made to watch films of bodily mutilation in front of an experimenter, the Americans opening showed their distress, whereas the Japanese participants smiled. However, contrary to idea that Japanese people are simply more psychopathic, the Japanese participants exhibited similar levels of distress as the American participants when the experimenter left the room, suggesting that they had been smiling to mask their negative emotions. This is consistent with descriptions from Chinese novels of characters smiling to hide their distress, anger, or embarrassment.

Displays of strong positive emotions are also avoided by people in collectivist cultures, as this doing so helps to maintain social harmony by minimising potential negative feelings from others, such as insecurity and envy. Exhibiting high-arousal positive emotions (such as excitement and enthusiasm) is more favoured in North American than of East Asian cultures, and is consistent with the individualistic value of wanting to influence others. By contrast, because people from collectivist cultures aim to adjust to others, they are more likely to withhold action and attend to others, both of which involve low arousal states. This contrast in emotional arousal is illustrated in a scene from the sitcom “Fresh off the Boat”, which depicts the experiences of a Taiwanese family in the US. Upon visiting a hypermarket bearing the slogan “Food for all!!!”, the Taiwanese mother wonders aloud “What is this grocery store so excited about?”

Even bestselling children’s storybooks in the US contain more exciting and less calm content (in terms of smiles and activities) than their counterparts in Taiwan. In a fascinating study by Tsai and colleagues (2007), preschoolers from European American, Asian American, and Taiwanese Chinese backgrounds are randomly assigned to read either the stories with exciting content or stories with calm content. Regardless of their cultural background, the children who read the stories with exciting content were more likely to value excitement, whereas those who read the stories with calm content were more likely to value calm states. This suggests that there is a strong social component to people’s (or at least children’s) ideal affective states.

These differing values and ideals mean that happiness in these cultures is based on different dimensions. For example, while European Americans and Hong Kong Chinese both base their life satisfaction on their self-esteem and relationship harmony, European Americans base it more on self-esteem than relationship harmony, whereas Hong Kong Chinese based it equally on both. Having two equally important bases of life satisfaction rather than one that is more dominant may serve as a buffer against mood disorders. Indeed, collectivist societies tend to have lower levels of reported depression and anxiety than individualistic societies, although it may also be that depression is more widely identified in individualistic societies.

However, despite their lower rates of mood disorders, people in collectivist countries are genetically more predisposed to depression and anxiety. That is, they are more likely to carry the short allele version of the serotonin transporter gene that is associated with depression. Because people in collectivist cultures are less likely to exhibit depression even though they are genetically more vulnerable to it, Chiao and Blizinsky (2009) suggest that collectivism may have developed as a way to protect against depression and anxiety in these societies. As such, it is ironic that the emotional style developed by collectivist cultures to maintain social harmony is interpreted by individualistic cultures as a form of social distance.


Chiao, J. Y., & Blizinsky, K. D. (2010). Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 277(1681), 529-537.

Ekman, P. (1972). Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. In]. Cole (Ed.), Nebraska symposium of motivation, 197 ! (Vol. 19) (pp. 207-283). Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Press.

Kwan, Bond, & Singelis, 1997. Kwan, V., Bond, M., & Singelis, T. (1997). Pancultural explanations for life satisfaction: adding relationship harmony to self-esteem.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(5), 1038-1051.

Matsumoto, D. (1991). Cultural influences on facial expressions of emotion. Southern Journal of Communication, 56(2), 128-137.

Oishi, Diener, Lucas, & Suh, 1999. Oishi, S., Diener, E. F., Lucas, R. E., & Suh, E. M. (1999). Cross-cultural variations in predictors of life satisfaction: Perspectives from needs and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(8), 980-990.

Tsai, J. L., Louie, J., Chen, E. E., & Uchida, Y. (2007). Learning what feelings to desire: Socialization of ideal affect through children’s storybooks. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 17 - 30.