Emotions as Cultural Phenomena

by Mihaela Manolache

People across the globe experience a large spectrum of emotions when setting foot in a new culture. From architecture, language, and emotional expressions of the inhabitants, the environment seems to determine a certain cultural pattern. From joy and happiness to hate and fear, this cultural pattern is a mix between biological information and socio-cultural influence. The tight relationship between society and the way emotions are expressed creates emotional differences that most of us experience when we visit other countries. In a simplest way, this is what one might call a “cultural barrier”. While in the Western world high levels of emotional arousal are appreciated, in the collectivist culture of the East, people prefer low arousal levels of emotions. The echoes of the implication of cross-cultural differences touch a deep level of the society and social norms that are shaped after these patterns. 


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Basic emotions such as anger, pleasure or fear are part of humanity’s early beginning. The primitive aspects of primary emotions are strongly connected to survival instinct. From a biological point of view, emotions are born in the brain when we are experiencing indedited situations, and depending if it’s positive or negative, the brain is releasing serotonin, cortisol, or adrenaline. High affective arousal of emotions is considered an active or engagement state, energizing the body and even preparing it for action in case of need. By contrast, low arousal levels prepare the individual for rest and relaxation. Affective states such as boredom or dullness are considered valence emotions that do not trigger the nervous system. Complex emotions can be educated by society. Cultural frames can develop or constrain emotions in a given context. Cross-cultural differences in arousal levels have been identified and people tend to behave according to the official ideal standards. 

Emotional archetypes in a cultural context

In psychology culture is defined as a sum of elements that establish perceiving, believing, evaluating, communicating, and acting among people who share common factors such as geographical location or history. These elements form ulterior standards which are respected by society and learned by future generations. Children learn how to react to certain situations, how to behave in a particular context, and according to the norms, later at maturity, they receive confirmation from the social environment if their education is successful or not. 

Sociology defines two main types of cultures: individualist and collectivist. Both address the cultural background of a person, which will act according to the principles of each type.  Individualist type refers to independent individuals who built a life separate from other people. In the individualist culture, the most important aspect is the uniqueness of each person. At the other end, there is the collectivist culture which is connected and interdependent on other people. What counts in the last type is to achieve overall harmony and the fact that people do not try to influence others but change themselves to fit the group. A good example is the Japanese society. It seems that contemporary Japanese culture keeps a lot from its historical past. In Asian medicine, humans are expected to experience only seven emotions which are joy, anger, sadness, pleasure, love, greed, and hatred. What goes beyond these emotions is considered an excess and people in Japan believe this can be harmful and lead to several diseases. The statement is confirmed for both positive and negative emotions. 

kathakali theater
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Kathakali performer. Kathakali is the ancient classical dance form of Kerala.

Emotions as cultural phenomena mean that each of us learns emotions in a cultural way, in our own environment. Both cultural archetypes are proven and accepted by public opinion. Children learn step-by-step how to regulate behavioral reactions. Socio-emotional background can provide guidance in terms of how to express happiness, sadness, or anger, a standard inoculated involuntarily by the family, educational, and work systems. And the cultural background can enhance or constrain behavior patterns. 

In 2016 a study revealed how emotion is culturally conditioned across cultures within the same continent, Germany and Greece. The authors emphasized that strong emotions such as anger and sadness are more likely to violate the norm in both cultures. However, the study showed that German people reacted more intensely to anger and learned the norm better, while Greek people were better at using sadness as a sign of norm violation.  

An emotion like shame determines a behavior that can fit or not the cultural norms. In the Western world, shame is considered a negative and destructive emotion. When people experience shame, they tend to withdraw somewhere and limit communication. By contrast, Asian cultures consider shame a positive emotion and is associated with modesty, meaning that the individual knows his own limitations.

Although one can definitely affirm that emotions are universal, emotions are also strongly related to cultural differences and this can also mean evaluating the emotion differently, having a different follow-up, and even changing its meaning, as seen in the examples above. Yet, the number of studies regarding socio-emotional functioning in different regions of the world is still small and further research is needed. 

Chinese opera
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Traditional Chinese Opera actors perform Farewell My Concubine at the National Theatre Concert Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.

What seems to be an important acquisition for people that have experienced several emotional expressions during their life is their capacity to choose. Of course, emotions are created by people among people and having lived shame for instance, in different cultures, has the advantage of offering options. Options to not to transform shame into anger (especially valid for western culture which encourages individual ambition) and to take distance from ambition or independence and accept it. More than that, such acceptance can lead to value changes and personal goals regarding what kind of persons we wish to be.

Romantic Era

Art, regardless if it’s visual art, music, literature, or theater, is dependent on emotion. Not only during its creation but also afterward, when the author wishes to transmit emotional states through his work. The audience gets the messages layer by layer, as they discover the creation. Through artistic mediums that are widely accessible, society can shape the cultural pattern of its people. Art can serve as a tool for society to introduce emotional standards, behavior norms, political ideas, or values of any kind. From individuals, art can reach like no other medium to the masses and stimulate them in a certain direction. In history, there was a time when emotion was the fundamental stone of creation and set the trend in the artistic world. 

Caspar David Friedrich
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Two Men Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich via MetMuseum

Romanticism is the most famous artistic movement that acclaimed emotions as the base of art,  life, or everything else. Liberation of feelings and freedom of artists were highly claimed, considering that “the artist’s feeling is his law”(Caspar David Friedrich). The true work of art is the one that comes from the imagination of the artist, unspoiled by academic rules of painting. The creator imagined as a genius can produce his work from nothingness. In reality, most Romantic works must be closely related with their creators and their personal experiences and emotions.

The movement originated in Europe and touched its peak between 1800 and 1850. The romantics touched a level of exaggeration which seemed to deify the characters, their emotions and their sensibility. Romantic art glorifies individualism and emotions; idealizes nature and the historical past. Emotions for them were truly a source of aesthetic experience, emphasizing sensations such as love, death, honor, duty, fear, terror, or awe, including the sublime and the beauty of nature. As the roots of Romanticism were close to the birth of the French revolution, many romantics were politically and culturally active. As a consequence, they attributed high values to individual critical thinking against the authorities (being it political or artistic) and promoted “heroic” individual achievements to improve the quality of society. 

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Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix via Smarthistory

In literature, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne placed at the core of their Romantic creations human psychology. Together with important motifs from German Romanticism such as traveling, nature, and mythology, the Romantic movement promoted children’s literature by making it accessible in many ways from books to street theater, becoming especially important in the movement’s intention to raise social standards. As in the case of English Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Walter Scott, the language is highly emotional, the scenes are highly descriptive with complicated decorum, underlying social rules, and moral values.

Works of art have the capacity to transpose us into real and fictional situations. We can feel joy, pity, or sadness standing in front of a painting or sculpture. Visual experiences can trigger emotional arousal and open our senses, our motivation, our perspectives. We can devour pages of a book while adrenaline is going up as we are excited by the content. We seem to identify ourselves with the characters in the book and start living their lives. Art is an important means for society to express its beliefs and send messages. All messages transmitted inside a definite society through school, family, friends and unknown people shape our emotional behavior in everyday life. The result cannot be categorized as good or bad, but just different. Diversity is the best word to describe this world, a world that welcomes the beauty of being different.  

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