Basic Emotions and Cultural Differences

Despite the universal nature of many expressions, it is pretty clear that cultural differences exist, but why?

It certainly would be simplistic to think that all emotional expressions are the exact same around the world, despite the existence of basic emotional expressions across cultures. In fact, a major 2015 study sought to trace the development of different expressions based on historical and cultural trends. This study found that historical migration patterns were powerful explanatory factors for cultural attitudes to emotional expressions.

We have previously written on the evolutionary basis of basic emotions as theorized by Charles Darwin, himself. Our fundamental way of interacting with the world helped to develop certain connections between expression and emotion, such as the narrowing of eyes when perceiving something disgusting.

This has led a team of scholars, including Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto, to track the historical migration patterns in different cultures as explanations for differing emotional expressions.

Essentially, they categorized numerous nations based on the extent to which the current population of each country descends from either a variety or a small number of “source countries.”

They found that diverse source populations, which they termed “historical heterogeneity,” accounted for variations in norms of emotional expressivity. For instance, historically diverse nations like Canada saw more varied expressions and an increased reliance on nonverbal behavior to convey individual differences.

On the other hand, more homogenous nations, like Pakistan or Austria, observed more predefined practices for guiding emotional expectations. Based on these norms, rules of etiquette and language use allowed for more predictable emotional expressions.

The study authors also sought to more specifically trace back the development of the use of smiles. While a smile of joy is one of the basic emotions, the particular expression of the smile is employed in diverse ways, such as to provide an emotional reward, maintain social bonds, or negotiate status.

After studying the use of smiles in homogenous nations, such as Japan, they concluded that smiling was rarely used to negotiate status given fixed hierarchies in those nations. Instead, it often pointed out transgressions or designated efforts to maintain existing statuses.

In contrast, heterogenous nations saw less predictable social hierarchies and structures, so smiles were often used to clarify positive intentions, such as the desire to share resources.

This all underscores what we told you last week about how better reading people can help facilitate cross-cultural communication. The study authors emphasized the importance of this research in promoting human interaction given the vast cross-cultural contact we experience in a globalized society.

While it can be overwhelming to try to keep both the universality of expressions and the different circumstances in which these emotions are applied straight, Humintell is here to help. Try checking out some past blogs for more information! Or even sign up for our cross-cultural training program!

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