Derek Sivers
Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions - by Batja Mesquita

Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions - by Batja Mesquita

ISBN: 1324002441
Date read: 2024-04-05
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Cultural psychology, studying emotions through the lens of culture. Your emotions are created by your culture. You should not be too sure that you share the emotional experiences of individuals from other cultures. Culture and emotion make each other up. Great insights!

my notes

Everybody’s emotions are cultured.
My own emotions are not like those of people from another culture.
I was blindfolded by my own culturally informed ideas of what emotions were.
I believed that, deep down, all people would turn out to have emotions just like mine. I no longer do.

We cannot assume that we know which emotions constitute flourishing in other cultures.
Flourishing in Ghana may be better served by limiting love and establishing boundaries.
Flourishing in Japan may be better served by self-improvement than by happiness.

Culture and emotion make each other up.

A cultural psychologist studies emotions for a living.
Anthropologists set aside their own assumptions - as much as they can - and try to ask and observe.
The problem with empathy is that it assumes that first impressions are true.

You should not be too sure too soon that you share the emotional experiences of individuals from other cultures.
To understand other people’s emotions is not the same as sharing their experiences.
Emotional episodes are tied to a context different from one’s own.

You do not know how another person is feeling, but this is all the more reason to want to find out.

My emotions were not the universal default. They were created by my culture.
They were good currency for interactions in my native context, but they weren’t as useful in these other environments.

Many other cultures talk about emotional events as taking place between people, while de-emphasizing inner feelings.
Emotions are ours much as they are mine.

Deep inside everybody is not like yourself.
Other people are not angry, happy, and scared, just like you.

Americans prioritize the articulation of the unique efforts, talents, and contributions of another person.
Friends contribute to each other’s self-esteem.
In America, you praise and acknowledge each other whenever you can.
Dutch would emphasize the connectedness between people.
Netherlands: no one should feel or act any better than another person.
Dutch connection: share your innermost feelings. Telling close others that you are jealous or angry, or even that you feel hurt by their behaviors, shows you as authentic, human, and willing to make connection. The Dutch virtue of honest authenticity.

Abandon the assumption that my own emotions are the universal default.
It’s a first step to better appreciate how others’ emotions are different.
Mine are no more logical or authentic than the emotions I observe in other cultures.

What it means to “have that emotion” - and whether it meant the same across cultures - was altogether unclear.
Asked to sort emotion words in piles, “rejection” was part of anger in China, but part of sadness in America.
Chinese lacked a separate pile for positive love (positive love was part of happiness).
Chinese had two emotion categories for love on the negative side that the Americans did not: one for shame and one for sad love.

Respondents listed as many “emotions” as they possibly could within fifteen minutes.
Surinamese and Turkish respondents listed “laughing” (lafu/gülmek) more often than “happiness/joy” (breti, presiri/mutluluk)
and “crying” (kre/ağlamak) more often than “sadness” (sari/üzüntü).
Many Turkish respondents came up with “yelling” (bağırmak) and “helping” (yardım) as emotion words.

Emotional behaviors, but not really emotions?
Emotions as phenomena which happen “inside” the person?

My research into cultural differences in emotions show that talking about our emotions as internal experiences is quite exceptional in the world.
People in many cultures talk about emotions as more “public, social, and relational”.
Emotions are often seen as acts in the social and moral world.

Bedouin-style honor is closely tied to “being strong”; therefore, any appearance of weakness is a vulnerability.
Many situations in Bedouin life render one vulnerable, such as the mere encounter of people higher in the hierarchy.
Since men are considered higher up in the hierarchy than women, any time a woman meets a man, her (relative) weakness is highlighted and she becomes vulnerable to humiliation.
Hasham, an all-important emotion, is tied to the Bedouin honor code: it occurs upon “the realization of vulnerability to humiliation”.
Hasham is defined by its function in the social and moral order, not by its subjective feeling.

Japanese participants weren’t able to report the intensity of their emotions: the question did not make sense in Japan.
They were equally puzzled by questions about the consequences of emotions, such as “Did your emotions change your beliefs about the other person?”

The cultural differences go beyond semantics.
The psychology of emotions is a Western science.
It defines emotions as inner states: essences that cause behavior and cognition.

Everything psychological comes with bodily changes.
Experiences, understandings, practices, values and goals may shape the emotions.
Different cultures, and even different family cultures may provide emotions with their meaning.

Communicate with the expectation of finding differences, not only similarities.

Emotional imperialism drives the projection of our own emotions onto those of individuals from other cultures.

It is possible to get familiar with the emotions of people from other cultures.
Cultural differences in emotions have a logic: they become understandable once we know what people in these different contexts care about.

Emotions are as dependent on our culture as our clothes, our language, and foods.

MINE emotions: Mental, INside the person, and Essentialist (the latter meaning that they always have the same properties).
OURS: type of understanding and doing emotions: emotions as OUtside the person, Relational, and Situated (the latter meaning that emotions take different shapes depending on the situation in which they take place).
The OURS model of emotions prevails almost everywhere outside of western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic cultures.
The emotional experience lies in the social world, in the changing of relationships between people, not in the subjective, inner feeling.
Shifts in relative status, honor, or power, or as status, honor, or power negotiations.
They were not private individual feelings, but ways of relating between people.

Did a person who looked disgusted also have the associated autonomic arousal of “disgust,” and did they feel disgusted?
In the United States, the answer to both of these questions had been yes.
Minangkabau individuals in West Sumatra, Indonesia, the answer is no.
An important reason may have been that “the task [was] missing the critical element for emotional experience as defined by [the Minangkabau] culture, namely the meaningful involvement of another person.”

Showed Japanese and American college students pictures of winning athletes - either a Japanese or an American athlete.
The athlete was pictured by themselves or with three teammates.
And when did the students perceive that the athlete felt more emotion?
Japanese students saw “more emotion” when the Japanese athlete was pictured with their teammates.
For American students, it was the other way around.
For Japanese, emotions were OURS for Americans, they were MINE.
To Japanese, the emotion was inferred from all the people in the picture.
The emotion was not just inside the person, but also in the other people in the picture.

Homer described Penelope as tossing and turning, and unable to sleep, rather than by the corresponding mental state.
Homeric Greeks generally preferred to represent emotions in terms of concrete, observable, behaviors, rather than as inner mental states.

American mothers help their children figure out how their emotions relate to what they want or think. They help them to focus on, and articulate, their insides.
Chinese mothers focus on the social consequences of their behavior to point out to their children what is the right and wrong behavior.

On Java, Indonesia, adults use emotion words to describe how children should be acting.
“Shame,” to indicate to a small child that they are expected to show inhibited and polite behavior in the presence of strangers or elders.

Adults encourage children to align their emotional behaviors with the social norms.

The best predictor of physical health in the American American sample were positive feelings.
The best predictor in the Japanese sample were positive behaviors or activities.

Excitement is more valued in American than in East Asian cultural contexts.
The reverse is true for calm emotions.

In the American, the healthiest individuals were the ones who experienced more positive feelings, especially of the excited kind
In Japan, the healthiest individuals were the ones who engaged in positive activities, especially of the calm kind (e.g., taking a bath).

The blank faces: they were working towards a state that they felt to be appropriate - to accept what had happened (tham jai), and to be calm (jai yen).
The Buddhist Thai community thought that talking and thinking about negative feelings would exacerbate them, and this was to be avoided at all cost.
It was important to accept, be calm, and detach, rather than getting the grief out.

Japanese in emotional episodes of anger: they tried to understand the perspective of the other person, and simply adjusted.
They did nothing else, even if they felt strongly.
“Doing nothing” was far more frequent among Japanese respondents in “anger” situations.

Emotional suppression is highest in cultures that are strong on social order, norms and traditions, and power hierarchy.
Emotional suppression is lowest in cultures that prioritize the individual and their feelings.

In many cultures, people consider their emotions to be “negotiated” with the social environment, rather than leading a separate life inside them.
During emotional episodes, individuals from these cultures would start from an expression of no emotion and work towards acceptance, start from doing nothing and try to cultivate empathy, and start from adjustment and accommodation and try to maintain harmony

Chinese service workers seem to cultivate the emotions desired on the job with greater ease than their American counterparts.
Chinese “put on an act in order to deal with customers in an appropriate way”.
For Americans, putting on an act felt like faking that they are in a good mood, but Chinese service workers did not see it as faking at all.
To the Chinese service workers, aligning their emotions with the requirements of the situation is ordinary.
They actually feel what the job required.

Asian American students put a higher value on emotional control than their European American counterparts, agreeing more that “It is wrong for people to always display how they feel.”
In contrast, European American students put a lower value on emotional control, and agreed more than their Asian American peers that “It is better for people to let out pent up emotions.”

In Albania, the relatives of deceased people hire “professional mourners” to wail for (and with) the family, and thus raise the level of grief display to the right cultural standards.

Is it possible that my love for my children flowed so naturally because the feeling rules are crystal clear and uncontestable?
Your child simply needs your love and acceptance.

Emotions that are rewarded will become habitual.
Taiwanese mothers cultivated shame.
She threatened to ostracize him, and put him aside: “We don’t want you; you stand here.”
And she told him to control himself: “Look how ugly your crying will be on tape.”
His sister joined in, calling him “ugly monster” and adding “shame on you.”
The mother assures us that shaming was not intended to harm or ostracize the child, but rather to “transmit the cultural values of discretion shame.
Teaching children how to be part of society, to include them rather than to set them apart.

Parents nudged their children to feel and express the culturally desired emotions at the right time.

We value different socialization goals.
We each induced the emotions that made our children valued members of their respective cultures.
Emotions help us become part of our culture.

It is not the mom rejecting the child, but the child and the mom jointly having to meet external demands.
There is a basic alliance between the child and their parents.

Shame in Taiwan calls for remedying what is wrong, but it does not challenge the bond between a child and their most important caregivers.
Having shame is seen as a virtue: it reveals that you have a sense of social norms, and it will prevent you from violating these norms.
Having shame keeps you attentive to how others see you, but in so doing, keeps you from the misconduct that would have led to social exclusion.
Knowing shame best prepares children to be valued members of their society.

In Japan, a young child is assumed to initially feel amae, which is a complete dependence on the nurturant indulgence of their caregiver,
Mothers show them omoiyari, or empathy, in return. They indulge their child in ways that, to a Western eye, verge on spoiling, giving in to the child’s every wish.
In doing so, they model the very emotion that they ultimately want their child to display: omoiyari. Omoiyari “refers to the ability and willingness to feel what others are feeling, to vicariously experience the pleasure and pain that they are undergoing, and to help them satisfy their wishes.”
The emotion is at the very center of the harmonious relatedness that is culturally valued in Japan.

Modeling and instilling omoiyari is thought of as the only way to prepare a child for their adult role: taking the perspective of others, meeting one’s role expectations, and avoiding causing others any trouble.

Loneliness is a valued emotion in Japan because is “fuels the desire of sociality.”
Loneliness motivates people to seek the company of others, and when relayed to others through amae, provokes the empathetic response of others inviting the person to join the group.

When American preschoolers were asked if they would rather be like a picture of a face with a “big smile,” or like a picture of a face with a “small smile,” almost all of them prefer to have the big smile.
Yet their Taiwanese peers preferred the small smile.
Being calm was a much more favorable feeling.
Calmness is a preferred emotion in a culture that expects you to put the group’s needs above your own.
It allows you to pay attention to what others want, do, or say.
It allows you generally to observe the flow and follow it.
In contrast, excitement is more desirable in a culture that expects you to take control of your environment.
It allows you to act first and influence others.

Baltimore moms considered the ideal child one who was not easily taken advantage of by others, yet knew their place.

Cultural differences in emotions are about the types of relationship changes that are either desirable and moral, or undesirable and despised.

A proud child assumes a strong and independent position in a relationship.
Pride is, therefore, encouraged and “right” in a culture that values relational autonomy.
Pride is wrong in cultures that value harmony: a proud child is neither empathic nor deferent.

Fear is “right” in a society that emphasizes authority as a basis for relationship, but detrimental when love and encouragement is the relational model.

In each culture, certain emotions are right and others are wrong.
Right emotions help to foster relationships that are valued in the culture and wrong emotions support condemned forms of relating.

Anger is motivated by a desire to harm another sentient being.

In Buddhist psychology, anger (that I do not get what I want) is a poison in human nature - as despicable as the illusion that I am entitled to get what I want and that the world ought to give it to me (from which anger springs).

Power or status is associated with anger.
Anger is associated with a higher rank.
Sadness and guilt is associated with a lower rank.

Anger is a power move.
Anger was rewarded in the American context.
Students judged the angry (as compared to sad) politician more competent.
Angry employees were more likely to be promoted.
Who got the better business deal? The angry person who moves to not accept the deal if they do not get what they see as fair.

Anger only works if others yield to your claims.
When anger is contested, you lose control of the direction in which the relationship changes.
Anger may backfire.

America has very different standards for who gets the privilege of expressing anger and defiance, without fear of grave consequence.
Angry white agitators can be labeled good people, patriots and revolutionaries.
Angry black agitators are labeled identity extremists, thugs and violent opportunists.
Anger, when used by women, does not successfully win entitlement.
Anger, when used by black Americans, often has its legitimacy challenged, and is held against them.
Anger is about entitlement, and if others deny you that entitlement, it may turn against you.

Anger is associated with a position of power.
Being angry can be a gamble.
Will others accept your power claim?

Showing anger is a claim for compensation.
The person who is angry expresses their entitlement and conveys their expectation that others will make up for their suffering.

Angry behavior is considered “immature” in Japan.
Anger was essential if they wanted to maintain their honor when insulted, as it calls a halt to the erosion of one’s social position.

People in western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic cultures do not like to imagine being dependent on others’ judgment, least of all being disapproved of.
They want to be feeling good about themselves, independent from others.
Shame was the hardest emotion to talk about for Americans.
Shame means to be criticized and rejected in a culture where you are supposed to feel good about yourself.
Shame is so damning that it comes with strong defenses.

Humiliated fury appears to skip the painful experience of rejection and transforms it into aggression towards others.
Inmates who felt shame about their crime, who reported shame-turned-anger, were more likely to lapse into committing new crimes after they were released.

In Taiwan, showing shame is a virtue rather than a sign of weakness.
When the primary cultural goal is to meet the social expectations for your role, showing an awareness of your violations is appreciated.
Shame tells others that you know your place.
Shame also means that you take others’ perspective in the situation.
Shame indicates that you care about your bond with others.

Emails I receive from my Japanese friends and colleagues start with, “I am sorry to trouble you.”
Apologizing is at the center of shame practices: it is an acknowledgment of burdening the other.

In cultures where your position is less assured, and where social regard is subject to continuous negotiation, shame is the marker of losing ground.
This is the case in honor cultures, when insults threaten the very thing that is important: the positive image that others have of you.
Turkish participants ended the relationship with whomever offended them.
Dutch interviewees were hardly concerned with their social image.

Love is felt for people who offer something we want, need, or like; who are psychologically or physically attractive; and who need, love, or appreciate us back.
Loved ones are special to us, and we are special to them - so special that we spend lots of time with them and share special moments.
Love means giving attention.
Love, especially the reciprocal kind, gives you self-confidence and makes you positive about life; having love makes you more secure and relaxed.
Love fits with a culture emphasizing the autonomy of individuals. It individuates and elevates the loved one.
Love singles out and elevates one particular individual.
The ultimate goal for individuals: to be united in mutual admiration, attraction, or longing.

Love as a private feeling for a unique person, love as a choice to be together, love as a source of self-esteem?
That type of love may be a modern and Western invention.
Indian man said, “My parents know me better than anyone else in the world. So they know what is the best for me. Same for her.”

The “right” emotions in many cultures are about need and the unavoidable connection between people.
Japanese close relationships: You grant your close friends or your romantic partners what they need even if it is unreasonable.
Need and indulgence, rather than idealization or elevation of the partner.
You take care of the people with whom you are interdependent.

Ghanaian participants considered it normal to be cautious, or even suspicious about friends.
Ghanaians declared the person having many friends to be foolish or naïve.
Friendships mean that you offer material and practical support.
Resource poverty:
If friendship is about material support, then a person without friends is stingy and selfish.
Individuals from Ghana were not as much concerned with assuring themselves of company (which they had already) as they were with being exploited.
Closeness may also be limited in order to avoid burdening the other person. They did not want to bother others with their own problems.

Pillars of contemporary American life: success, being in control, and choice.
Happiness is paraphrased as “enthusiastic,” “interested,” “determined,” “excited,” and “inspired.”
An excited (i.e., outgoing, active, energetic, approach-oriented) kind of happiness helps you take control.

Chinese rules: Eat well, exercise daily, get plenty of sleep, and do well in school. Being happy is not important.

In the Daoist tradition, to be flexible enough to adjust to any turn of events.

For misery, happiness is leaning against it. For happiness, misery is hiding in it.

People act according to their societal roles as well as the decisions and desires of others, rather than pursuing their own individual happiness.

Asian Americans appeared to be more motivated to work on a task when they had failed it than when they had done well on it.

Proud and excited happiness does not serve the Japanese goal of maintaining good relationships.

East Asians reported that they would “ideally” like to feel calm, at rest, relaxed, and serene rather than the excited kinds of happiness.
Depression among Hong Kong Chinese meant not being calm enough.
Depression among white Americans meant a lack of excitement.

Connectedness in Latin contexts - within the family and outside - is the whole reason for happiness.
Feeling good is of all times and all places, but happiness is not.
American-style happiness is a contemporary, local emotion.

Happiness is energizing, motivating, and “right” in cultures where individuals are responsible for initiating the right action, choosing direction, and influencing the outcomes of their lives.
It is less important, or even “wrong,” in cultures where individuals are expected to meet their role requirements or to flexibly adjust to the conditions.
In these cultures, being calm, balanced, flexible, and ready for adjustment are more important goals.
In many East Asian contexts, feeling good is being calm, as calm happiness optimally prepares you to adjust to social and situational requirement.

Not all languages have a word for “emotion” itself.
The category is historically new, and geographically unique.
70% of languages having a distinct word corresponding to English bad (as in feeling bad).
30% of languages have a word for love
20% of languages have happy and fear.
15% of languages have anger and proud.

In some languages, emotions are grouped with other sensations such as fatigue or pain, in others they are grouped with behaviors.

In Luganda they use the same word, okusunguwala, for “anger” and “sadness.”
Indonesian Nias expression afökho dödö (literally, “pain-hearted”) refers to a range of emotions, including offended, spite, resentment, envy, malice, and ill will.
The word for “love” in Samoan, alofa, also means sympathy, pity, and liking.
Turkish üzüntü - not only for their own ill fate but also for the ill fate of close others, elements of empathy were mixed in with sadness. Thus üzüntü prompted reaching out and being kind to others, in addition to crying, the inability to do anything, and wanting to be helped.
Japanese word haji refers to both shame or embarrassment.

Bedouins use “hasham” to describe a large range of feelings: shame, embarrassment, shyness, and modesty or respectability.
As an Egyptian Bedouin woman, I would feel uncomfortable encountering a man my own age.
Knowing this to be an instance of hasham directly makes sense of the situation, and tells me what to do: I cast down my eyes, I avoid any contact, and I disappear, if possible.
This is the right response.

Shame in contemporary American society is taboo, as it stands for real and/or imagined rejection by others.
And, if acknowledged as shame, such rejection would end in low self-esteem, shrinking, and withdrawing from contact.
Shame is avoided. Rather than “writing” the episode of shame, people may use the more favorable endings that concepts such as “awkward” or “funny” suggest; neither concept requires any action at all.

Even if there is a good translation of an emotion word in your own language, it does not mean that you share either a history, or the cultural lore of an emotion concept.
We make sense of our emotions differently, we connect them to, and furnish them with different cultural episodes.

What are the emotions if not their stories?
By naming my emotion, I am invoking the cultural episodes that go with that emotion.

Emotional acculturation: learning to do emotions in the new culture’s ways.
Initially, doing emotions in another culture, is dancing the tango when everybody else in the ballroom dances to the music of a waltz.
Even a relatively brief exposure to another culture affects the way we do emotions.
Others may also categorize emotional episodes in the new culture’s way.
Immigrants learn emotions...
...when others create opportunities for them to feel “the right” emotions
...when others eagerly categorize emotional episodes in terms of those “right” emotions
...when others model how to feel the “right” emotions in similar situations.

Turkish words for “resigned” and “embarrassed” were positive.
Belgian Dutch equivalent words were negative.
Turkish word for “jealousy” was relationship-protecting.
Belgian Dutch equivalent was protective of personal goals.

American feelings of excitement and pride:
Whenever I spend a lot of time in Europe, my excitement and pride peter out, and are replaced by feelings more appropriate as well as better attuned to that European context.
Biculturals who often switch between two (or more) cultures are no longer aware that they do.

You make sense of a given situation in a way that fits your culture’s values and relationship goals.
You would be likely to have emotions that are “right” in your culture.

Germans imagine that receiving sympathy focused on negative feelings would be more comforting after a bereavement than receiving sympathy that emphasizes the silver lining.
Americans preferred to receive “sympathy” that focuses attention on positive aspects.