This week’s readings take an interesting look at cultural differences in the experience and expression of emotion, as well as the role of emotion in social relationships.
Potter, S. (1988). The cultural construction of emotion in rural Chinese social life. Ethos, 16, 181–208.
Potter’s article spotlights a fundamental difference between Americans and Chinese in the way that individual emotional experiences are both valued and used to guide action. Specifically, Potter focuses on the impact of experienced and expressed emotions on social structure. The article begins by pointing out that in the context of American culture, the “form and meaning” of social relationships are directly determined by the emotional experience of the individual, such that the experience of emotions both validate and maintain social structure and guides social action. For example, a “loveless” marriage is a legitimate reason for divorce, or anger at an institution is a valid reason to organize and press for change. Potter also points out that the important role emotions play in these social relationships puts an emphasis on continual emotional validation, such that the individual must reaffirm their emotional position through repeated emotional expression (i.e. parents hugging their children; spouses saying “I love you”), and without these repeated emotional displays the relationship may come into question or be considered devoid of meaning.
By contrast, Potter suggests individual emotional experience in rural Chinese life is viewed as irrelevant to the maintenance of social order or social action, maybe even to some extent threatening. In rural Chinese life, the social order exists and remains intact regardless of the inner experience of the individual. This is a major distinction between the ways in which emotions guide experience in American versus Chinese culture. As Potter states, “To root all meaningful social experience in the self is, from one point of view, an affirmation of the self and the importance of the individual. From another point of view, it puts an intolerable burden on individual experience.” In China, social structure is viewed as continuous, carried down across generations, such that the transgressions of an ancestor can have implications on the status of an individual generations later, without reference to that individual’s current experience. Further, because individual emotional experience is irrelevant to the social order, an emotion is never viewed as a legitimate rationale for social action – emotional expression has no formal consequences. Therefore, emotions are expressed more freely, without regards to how the expressed emotion might affect social standing. Potter gives the example of a villager ranting in rage at an officer, without concern of retribution by the officer for this display. This is very different from our own cultural context, where shouting at an officer can land you in jail. The fundamental difference is that in one context the display of anger is not viewed as potentially changing the situation, and therefore is not viewed by the authority figure as threatening, whereas in the other context it is intended to produce some wanted result, which may be in conflict with the officer’s goal and requires the officer’s response.
Potter describes an interesting developmental implication of this alternate view of the role of individual emotional experience in social structure. In America, emotional displays of children are responded to immediately and therefore produce results for the child, whether they be positive or negative. Further, the response to children’s emotional displays are judgment-laden, such that expressions of frustration or temper elicit negative reactions from caregivers, and pleasant expressions elicit positive reactions. The child therefore learns two important lessons – first, that expressed emotions can guide actions of others and produce wanted or unwanted consequences; and second, that some emotions are inherently “bad” while others are inherently “good.” By contrast, because individual emotions are viewed as irrelevant to social structures in rural Chinese life, emotional displays by children are largely ignored, and are neither encouraged nor suppressed. Thus, the Chinese child learns a) emotional displays do not produce results from others, and b) emotions are neither good nor bad. It is this developmental perspective, I think, that the difference between our own view of individual emotion and the views of rural Chinese can be best understood.
In reading this article, I found it very difficult to disentangle individual emotional experience from interactions with the outside world, and found myself often questioning, “yes, but is it true that the internal emotions of the Chinese individual do not guide interactions at all??” Looking at it from this developmental perspective, however, Potter’s argument is easier to understand. It is likely the case that internal emotional experiences do indeed color individual experience in similar ways across cultures, but seeing the different results that emotional expressions produce between the two cultures offers a greater understanding of the different ways emotions might be used to interact with the social world and motivate behavior. If we view emotional experience as existing as a sort of feedback loop, then it is easy to see how different the perspective on emotion between the two cultures might be. This is interesting clinically as well. One of the more recent trends in the treatment of emotional disorders borrows directly from eastern (particularly Buddhist) tradition that encourages taking a non-judgmental stance towards emotional experiences. Potter’s article I think in some ways highlights one mechanism by which taking this non-judgmental, accepting stance might be particularly difficult for Westerners to adopt. An accepting stance towards emotional experiences requires to some extent loosing the connection between internal emotional experiences and their potential consequences, something that, following Potter’s arguments, might be particularly challenging for American’s to accomplish, and is something to bear in mind clinically.
Tsai, JL, Knutson, B., & Fung, HH (2006). Cultural variation in affect valuation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 288-307.
Tsai et al. present an interesting new theory of emotion that attempts to close the gap between what ethnographers and scientists have found in studying differences in emotion experience across cultures. The article begins by pointing out that while ethnographers by-and-large have reported wide variation in emotions across cultures, scientists have reported many similarities. They propose a new theory to account for this discrepancy – “affect valuation theory.” This theory posits that two forms of affect exist, “ideal affect,” or the affect individuals would like to experience or value highly, and “actual affect,” the affect people actually experience. They further suggest that ideal affect is more related to cultural factors, while actual affect is related to temperamental factors. They set out to study these hypotheses in two separate studies, and chose to explore these differences between two cultures who differ along the lines of individualism versus collectivism.
Study 1 was conducted in an undergraduate sample of European Americans (EA) and Asian Americans (AA). They posited that the EA group would value high arousal positive states (HAP), as these states are congruent with individualists need to act upon the environment to achieve individual goals. By contrast, they posited the AA group would value low-arousal positive states (LAP), congruent to a collectivist viewpoint with the goal of adjusting to the environment. Study 1 set out to demonstrate that 1) ideal affect differs from actual affect, and 2) culture influences pure ideal affect more than pure actual affect. Results a two-factor model of ideal and actual affect provided a better fit than a one factor model. Further, EA participants valued HAP more than AA participants. However, this study was unable to conclusively demonstrate the hypothesis that the difference between ideal and actual affect was mediated by individualism-collectivism and not by temperamental factors. Therefore, a second study was conducted to directly address this hypothesis. The sample in Study 2 included EA, Chinese-Americans (CA), and Chinese from Hong Kong. Results from this study lent further support to the two-factor model of affect. Results also showed that the EA group valued HAP more than both the CA and CH group, and that the CA and CH group valued LAP more. One further analysis was conducted to investigate the relationship between discrepancies in actual and ideal affect and depression. The discrepancy between actual and ideal HAP was significantly associated with depression in both EA and CA groups, but not CH groups. By contrast, the discrepancy between actual and ideal LAP was significantly associated with depression in the CA and CH groups, but not the EA groups. Finally, affective traits were found to be more strongly associated with actual affect than ideal affect. These findings lend support to the suggestion that discrepancies exist between how people feel and how they want to feel, and how they want to feel is influenced by cultural factors.
These studies, while focusing on cultural differences, also seem to have some clinical significance. For example, people with anxiety and mood disorders may report valuing positive emotions highly, in line with the American view that positive emotions are good and negative emotions are bad. However, clinical experience indicates that for many suffering mood and anxiety disorders, the actual experience of positive affect is experienced as aversive, often provoking further anxiety. Viewing this through an “ideal” versus “actual” affect distinction might be helpful in understanding this clinical discrepancy, and helps to highlight one potential reason for the low mood resulting from this discrepancy.
Wilkins, R., & Gareirs, E. (2006). Emotion expression and the locution “I love you”: A cross cultural study. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 30, 51-75.
In this study, the locution “I love you” was investigated along the following domains: a) when does it occur, b) with whom, c) in what language (native or non-native), d) about which topics, e)as part of what interactional sequences, and f) with what consequences. The study was conducted using an online survey enrolling undergraduates from a communications course. Results showed the locution was used most with lovers, followed by parents and grandparents and respective children and grandchildren. The expression was used rarely with siblings or cousins, and most often never with neighbors and coworkers. Males used it less frequently than females. Domestic students used it more frequently overall than international students, and were more likely to use it with parents and children. Non-verbal usage was more common with spouses. Non-native English speakers used the locution more often in English than in their native language. Further exploration was conducted using a qualitative questionnaire. Through this questionnaire, cultural differences emerged, that were by and large similar to the differences highlighted in the Potter article. Specifically, differences appeared to emerge based upon the consequences or the relationship between using the locution and maintaining social order, such that in cultures in which the expression of individual emotion has a direct bearing on relationships the expression was used more frequently than in cultures where expression has little or no bearing on the relationship. Cultures also differed on the weight of the phrase itself, with some cultures reserving it to only the most paramount circumstances, thereby preserving its special meaning, and others using it across multiple contexts of varying importance.
Because of the small sample size, it is hard to draw any specific conclusions about this study. Nevertheless, it lends further support to the idea that variations in emotion expression may be intricately woven within the specific social implications of that expression within the specific cultural context. At a much broader level, it speaks to the important interaction between affect, the cognitive interpretation of affect, and the consequences of that interpretation on behavior.