As you might expect, we can generally recognize other people’s emotions, even if they come from a different culture. We can usually recognize their facial expressions, and even their tone of voice when speaking a foreign language (Scherer et al, 2001). Even so, emotions appear to vary from culture to culture. It seems that our emotions really might have their origins in culture.

It seems like we know how other people feel, but there is a lot of variety across cultures. Photo.

There seem to be differences in the way people experience positive emotions such as joy and negative emotions such as anger. These differences are often reflected in language. The language of Tahiti, for example, has 46 different words for anger but no word for sadness (Russell, 1991). In some African languages, the same word can be used to mean both sad and angry. In some Russian dialects, the same expression can be used to indicate sympathy or love.

There is cultural variation with regard to emotion and the vocabulary to express it. Paul Gauguin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo

 Also, even though we seem to use the same kinds of facial expression, people are not always able to recognize these in other cultures. In one study, although about 80% of American and Europeans were able to recognize facial expressions in photographs, only 65% of Japanese and 50% of Africans could do so.

Westerners have always considered the Japanese to be “inscrutable.” Western people think that Japanese people do not show their emotions. Is that true? Photo.

Maybe foreigners find it difficult to tell how Japanese people feel. Shiraev & Levy (2004) suggest that “ask any person who grew up in Japan, and he will tell you that people in this country, from the beginning of their lives, learn how to restrain their emotions in public. It is considered a sign of weakness if an individual cannot control anxiety, fear, joy, sadness — any form of affection — and allow others to see it (page 166).” What do you think of that?

Russell, J. A.(1991). Culture and the categorization of emotions, Psychological       Bulletin , 110, 426-450.
Scherer, K., Banse, R., & Wallbott, H. (2001). Emotion Inferences from Vocal Expression Correlate Across Languages and Cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32, 76-92.
Shiraev, E. & Levy, D. (2004). Cross-Cultural Psychology. Pearson.

Featured image: By Sharaku ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons