emotions culture diversity

Does culture influence emotions? Many cross-cultural researchers all over the world have been trying to give an answer to this question. We learn how to express emotions by watching people from our culture(s). But other people may experience and show emotions in a slightly different way we are unaware of. Hence, when we interact with new cultures, we might not always read their emotions correctly. Let’s see how this is possible and what can we do about it.

Are emotions universal?

According to some researchers, there are 7 universal emotions we can recognize across the world:

  • happiness
  • sadness
  • anger
  • surprise
  • contempt
  • fright
  • disgust.

Even people who are born blind express them in the same way, even if they never observed them in other people.

Feeling similar emotions doesn’t mean we all express them identically. Actually, later neuropsychological research challenged the idea of universal facial emotion signals.

Emotions are increasingly seen as constructions in the moment, rather than pre-established entities. Contexts and cultures understand emotional concepts differently. In fact, researchers like Batja Mesquita say there isn’t an emotion separated from culture.


sufi dancers collective

Individualism, collectivism, and emotions

The social behavior of people interacting with each other is a mutually organized, skilled performance. Therefore, communication patterns and social rules of society are usually taken for granted by its members.

People tend to be unaware of the culture, or even the very existence of its rules unless someone breaks them. It arises when the cultural performance breaks down or cannot be started in the first place. This is why culture shock is so common: we express attitudes, feelings, and emotions differently.

For instance, Japanese culture discourages the use of negative facial expressions, making them relatively inscrutable to those who perform a direct communication style. Japanese people will express these emotions while alone but not in front of others.

Filipinos may smile and laugh when they are very angry, which could give outsiders a completely false impression of the impact they are making.

Individualistic cultures, like Germany, the USA, or Northern Italy, will usually express anger or disagreement more openly. Collectivistic cultures, like Japan or China, where social harmony is more important than the individual gain, will probably express it in a more indirect way. They may go to a third party who will have the mission to mediate the conflict that is not openly expressed.

Also, seeing emotion as positive or negative is the result of culture. For example, people in many Western countries may think shame is a bad emotion.

It is considered good in other cultures, though, being part of the same category as modesty and embarrassment.

black and white wall art

Emotions and language

Language influences the way we perceive emotions too. Researchers have found that lexical equal doesn’t necessarily mean linguistic equal. For instance, the meaning of an American and a Japanese word for “anger”, will not be identical. This happens because the emotion words across the globe may describe similar but not identical emotions.

If a language has a name for an emotion, people will be able to express and share it. This is why “untranslatable” words projects are so popular lately. Knowing that some other culture has a word for what they experience makes people feel seen and understood.

One of these projects is “The positive lexicography” by Tim Lomas. He has been studying words related to well-being from across the world’s languages. Learning these words and identifying the emotions related to them can give people a richer life.

globe statue inside building

Untranslatable emotions and experiences

Firstly, let’s see some “untranslatable emotions and situations many of us have experienced without knowing there was a name for them in other languages:

  • Tarab (طرب) – musically-induced ecstasy or enchantment (Arabic);
  • Desbundar – to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun (Portuguese);
  • Gigil – the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished (Tagalog);
  • Iktsuarpok – the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived (Inuit);
  • Natsukashii  – a nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer (Japanese);
  • Wú xin (無心) – “no heart-mind”, a mind not attached to stimuli, nor fixed or occupied by thought or emotion (Chinese);
  • Pihentagyú – “with a relaxed brain”, it describes quick-witted people who can come up with sophisticated jokes or solutions (Hungarian);
  • Orenda – the power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces such as fate (Huron);
  • Eigentlichkeit – “being one’s own”; often rendered as ‘authenticity’ (German);
  • Erschlossenheit – “world disclosure”; the process by which things become intelligible and meaningfully relevant to human beings (German);
  • Geworfenheit – “thrownness”; existence as characterized by the condition of being thrown into contexts that are not of one’s choosing (German);
  • Bytie (бытие) – Being, authentic, spiritual existence (Russian);
  • Odkoukat – To learn by watching (Czech);
  • Débrouillard – Resourceful, skilled at adapting to any situation; a resourceful person who can act independently or cope with any development (French), etc.

You can find the whole research here.

Why identifying emotions is important?

As Lisa Feldman Barrett‘s research shows, the ability to identify and label emotions determines how well we cope with life.

If you are able to name the emotion, like sadness or anger, you can decide how to live and overcome it. Emotion vocabulary is a database that allows choosing more coping strategies.

Thus people who are able to identify and name their emotions can more easily recover from stress. Above all, they are less likely to use food, alcohol, or other substances as a coping strategy.

A richer vocabulary means more awareness and a better inner life. It works even for children. In fact Marc Brackett at Yale University has found that teaching children emotional vocabulary improved their grades and behavior.

black electrical tower

Emotions and technology

In the past emotions used to be separated from the rational mind. Now researchers know there is no purely rational mind, emotions play a very important part even in the decisions we label as rational.

This is why there are apps, Artificial Intelligence algorithms, and sensors that try to learn how and what do we feel.

An app to track your emotions

How many emotions are there in the world? So far about 34,000 according to Alan Watkins. He and his team of coaches developed an app that helps people identify their emotions. They called it “The Universe of Emotions”.

What is this app? It is a diary that makes you aware of your emotions. Therefore, it enhances emotional intelligence. Right now the app offers a universe of more than 2000 emotions, located on “planets” with satellites. This makes it easier to identify similar emotions with precision.

Firstly, you can see the balance of “positive” and “negative” emotions and discover which ones do you experience more. In addition, each emotion has a definition you can check if you are not sure what it exactly means.

An app that knows how you feel from a look into your face

Rana el Calioby, a computer scientist born in Egypt, created Affectiva. It is a deep learning app that can tell how you feel from a look into your face. So far, it can identify 12 billion emotion data points, being the largest emotion database in the world.

El Calioby and her team collected it from 2.9 million face videos. So far people from 75 countries around the world have agreed to share their emotions. Therefore the app is growing every day and is now used to make businesses understand what their customers feel when they can’t or won’t say it themselves.

Watches that can tell how stressed you are

Last but not least, some watches that can tell your levels of stress. In fact, from the 2013 MIT research to recent Garmin watches, there are several wearables that can measure your levels of excitement or stress.

They can help people with anxiety disorders and may eventually diagnose pain.

As you see, emotions are culturally determined and very important for our quality of life. In conclusion, pay attention to them, deconstruct them, use them as an important signal system, and don’t let them overwhelm you.


If you want to learn more about emotions and culture:

Batja Mesquita and Nico H. Frijda “Culture and emotion” in “Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology”, 1994;

Batja Mesquita, Nathalie Vissers, Jozefien De Leersnyder, “Culture and emotion” in International encyclopedia of social and behavioral sciences 2015;

Tim Lomas, “Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being“;

Tim Lomas, “The Dictionary of Happiness: Words from around the world to help us lead a richer life“.

Universe of emotions app – Google Store/Apple Store

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