How Different Cultures Express Emotions? Developing Intercultural Communication Skills

Imagine working in the reception lobby, and the wifi stops working. Would you openly show your anger? How would you encourage your child to go swimming in the ocean? How would you react when realizing you have made a mistake with your client?

In individual cultures, such as the USA, Germany, and Finland, people are encouraged to show emotions. Many times people even try to influence the emotions of others. Especially the feelings of joy and happiness are openly displayed. However, you may be misunderstood in other parts of the world where emotions are displayed in a manner. Read my previous blog post about emotion here.

Expressing positive emotions varies from country to country, even when you compare two individualist countries. During the same life event, another person may show tears of joy, while the other may show a shy smile.

When thinking about stereotypes of Finland, Finns are definitely considered very neutral with their facial expressions, and even before Covid19, we kept our distances from other people.

Bolivia and El Salvador are the most emotional countries in the world!

My Mexican husband feels that Finns are sometimes even too neutral when expressing positive emotions, which I can completely agree with. It is not uncommon that when you meet your family after a long time, instead of giving a hug, you just go directly inside and start chatting over a cup of coffee.

Expressing emotions in collectivist cultures

In Asian collectivist cultures, people try to avoid showing strong emotions, especially negative ones. The focus is on nurturing positive moods and feelings to keep the community dynamic harmonious. People may even try to hide their unpleasant emotions by masking them behind smiles or other positive gestures.

Therefore, if you are living in Asia, you may find it challenging knowing whether the person genuinely agrees with you or not, especially since their communication style is more high-context than in most Western countries.

Hand gestures in different cultures.
How much do you use your hand gestures and body language to express emotions

What about Latin America? In Latin America, Mediterranean countries, and many other collectivist cultures, emotions are expressed with the whole body. Have you ever watched a Columbian soap opera? During one episode you can see the whole range of emotions. Although soap operas are more dramatic than everyday life, in many Latin countries, emotions are felt and expressed more vividly than in other parts of the world.

Gallup's research found out that Bolivia and El Salvador are the most emotional countries in the world! The study measured how many of the 148 countries experienced five positives and five unpleasant feelings the day before. In Bolivia and El Salvador, 59% of the respondents went through all ten emotions! Russia, Lithuania, and Bangladesh, on the other hand, made it to the bottom of the list.

The next time you discuss with a person coming from a different culture, focus on how they show their feelings. For example, if you communicate with someone from Latin America, you should try to use gestures more and show emotions yourself. If you find this strange, you can take advantage of humor and explain your more neutral behavior in words.

Which way of expressing emotion is the most comfortable for you?