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How does culture impact on the expression of emotion?

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How does culture impact on the expression of emotion? "Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary" - Mark Twain. Mark Twain's famous words quoted above suggest that human emotions are expressed involuntarily, and that their expression is a universally inherent part of human nature. Whilst some psychologists maintain this, others propose that culture produces variations in the ways in which emotions are expressed throughout the world and that the "involuntary" nature of emotion is subject to cultural influence. The definition given by Answers.com, which states that emotion is "a mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort, and is often accompanied by physiological changes", supports Twain's theory that humans cannot choose whether or not to express a particular emotion. However, this is not to say that culture is unable to influence these involuntary actions. It is this concept wherein lies the quandary for many psychologists. Hereafter I aim to outline the evidence provided by psychological studies for the expression of emotion in terms of universality and cultural impact, and to ultimately determine how culture impacts on the ways in which emotions are expressed. The universal nature of the expression of emotion The idea that humans throughout the world express their emotions in the same way has a biological basis. ...read more.


393). Although much of the evidence in support of universality has a biological basis, the study of language also provides elements of cross-cultural similarity with regards to the expression of emotion. For example, a study by a Chinese psychologist who did a comparison of novels both from China and the West identified parallels in the ways in which emotions were portrayed in fiction from both regions. For example, many physiological reactions to emotion such as flushing, trembling and goose pimples were evident in both Chinese and Western writing (Ibid, pp. 392). The impact of culture on the expression of emotion Despite the fact that many psychologists have shown that ways of expressing emotions are universal in nature, many believe that the expression of emotion is dependent on an individual's culture. Studies have shows that a set of cultural display rules exist which state how emotions should be expressed in particular social situations and which behaviours are appropriate when expressing an emotion (Ibid, pp. 392). Cultural display rules are not universal and vary cross-culturally. For example, in some cultures, behaviour deemed acceptable following the loss of a close friend or relative is that of openly crying as a sign of mourning, whereas in others, singing and dancing is the norm (Ibid, pp. ...read more.


For instance, English speakers use categories such as sad, angry, disgusted and happy to describe how they are feeling. Malay speakers, on the other hand, use categories of sedih, marah, jijik and gembira, which do not match English categories (Ibid, pp. 24). In fact, the closest word in Malay, marah, to the English word angry, is not associated with violence and aggression; but more feelings of resent and upset, which is related to Malay attitudes towards emotional expression of violence and aggression (Ibid, pp. 240). In this way, lexicon is able to provide "clues to the emotional universe of a culture" (Ibid, pp. 34). Conclusions Although the evidence provided by Darwin to suggest that facial expressions are universal and that humans are born with the capacity to express the same set of emotions in the same ways, I believe that universality ends with facial expression alone, and that even though facial expressions are largely universal, our culture affects all other aspects of emotion expression. Culture exerts its influence in three main ways; by providing a set of cultural display rules, which determine the appropriateness of displaying certain emotions in different social situations, by shaping the norms in both individualistic and collectivist cultures, and through language. In this way, the universality of emotion provides culture with a base, from which the moulding and shaping can start (Matsumoto & Juang, 2004, pp. 230), changing the ways in which humans both express and perceive emotions. ...read more.

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