Understanding Emotions Across Cultures

Imagine you walk along the streets of New York. Take a look at the people around you. What emotions do you see on their faces? Or is everyone so busy that all the facial expressions look neutral to you? What if you imagine yourself on the streets of Rome? Do you notice more expressions on people's faces?


Happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear, and anger are universal emotions. That means every person can understand and show these emotions no matter their cultural background. Despite different cultures, for example in Japan and the USA, universal emotions are also experienced in similar situations.

However, the way emotions are displayed varies a lot from culture to culture, as culture shapes how we express emotion; environment and social situations and context influence our emotions. As a traveler or expat, you may find yourself in a country where emotions are displayed differently. Even if you understood what facial expression is displayed, you may not be able to interpret where the emotion originated due to deeply rooted cultural norms .

When we are born, we learn that there are only good or uncomfortable emotions. As we communicate with others, we develop a skillset to categorize and experience these emotions according to cultural norms.


Culture influences a lot how we interpret emotions, especially when it comes to more complex emotions such as shame, guilt, or pride. In Western countries, for example, shame is often perceived as a negative emotion, whereas in many Asian countries it is perceived as an emotion that shows humility and your place in the world. Understanding that will make it a lot easier to settle into a new country.


Interestingly, disgust only has one facial expression, which is recognized all over the world. Moreover, there are up to 17 different facial expressions for joy! That is quite remarkable.


Although people have a knack for understanding universal emotions, we pay attention to different things when communicating with people from different cultures. A study by Ting-Toomey (1999) showed that up to 65% of our communication is nonverbal.


In other words, 65% of all our communication is left to an interpretation learned in our own culture. This is one of the biggest challenges when communicating with people from different cultural backgrounds.


When you are living in a foreign country, pay attention to how people express their emotions. Are they showing both happiness and sadness or are they trying to cover up their anger behind a smile?


When you know how that culture displays feelings, you can adjust your own behavior accordingly. This will enhance communication with the locals since people usually prefer to work with others who share similar attitudes.



What emotions have you misunderstood?



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