In Episode 5 of New Lines’ “Wider Angle” podcast, the guest is Batja Mesquita. One of the world’s top social psychologists joined Riada Asimovic Akyol for a conversation about the different ways that people from different cultures express their emotions.
Mesquita explains how throughout 30 years of her career as an emotion researcher, she has come to realize the importance of social context for emotions and that “emotions may live ‘between’ people rather than ‘within.’” To better steer such variations in emotions across cultures, ethnic and racial groups, genders, socioeconomic groups or even family members with different experiences, Mesquita suggests a perspective of emotions that emphasizes the roles of social conditions and contexts, relationships and norms in acting between people.
There are communities in which some emotions are seen as virtues, while different socializing emotions prevail in other societies. Practically speaking, Mesquita says, in most cultures, for example, other people can certainly get irritated or angry. But, depending on “interpersonal configurations that we respond to,” different people’s responses might not be the same. In child-rearing for example, Mesquita elaborates on how parents from different cultures teach different values for praise or shame, anger, fear or calm. “We have very little reason, scientifically and in other ways, to assume that emotions are exactly the same or that we are talking about things that are unchangeable,” contends Mesquita. She asserts in the podcast that “even though we have similar bodies and our societies are similar in some ways, we still have very different emotional lives and differences in what is emotionally important to us.”
Mesquita speaks with scholarly authority about various aspects of this subject. She clarifies that learning new ways “to do emotion” in different cultures is possible but that it takes time and participation in social life. Research from Belgium and the United States on the phenomenon of “emotional acculturation,” comparing the emotions of bicultural individuals or immigrant groups with those of the majority respondents in various situations, showed that it takes three generations on average for minority groups to adjust their emotional patterns to those of the majority, “if that is a goal.” In those cases, Mesquita thinks those individuals can still have “two emotional cultures.” The research on this subject of cultural “code switching” and emotions is ongoing.
Mesquita argues that saying emotions are not universal is not tantamount to denying that people have feelings. In the podcast, she elaborates: “To the contrary, I would say, all people have feelings about the things that are important to them, in a way that is respected and that gains them position in their cultures and that they’ve learned in their cultures.”
Listen to or watch the conversation to understand the wider angle of how emotions depend on social context and why grappling with differences in emotions allows people to forge better connections in multicultural environments. It is available wherever you get your podcasts, and you can watch the conversation on New Lines magazine’s YouTube channel here.
Batja Mesquita is the author of “Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions.” “Wider Angle” is produced and hosted by Riada Asimovic Akyol.