How Universal Are Our Emotions?

There’s nothing like migration to reveal how things that seem natural may be artifacts of culture. When I left India for college in England, I was surprised to find that pinching my Adam’s apple didn’t mean, as I had thought it meant everywhere, “on my honor.” I learned to expect only mockery at the side-to-side tilts of the head with which I expressed degrees of agreement or disagreement, and trained myself to keep to the Aristotelian binary of nod and shake.

Around that time, I also learned—from watching the British version of “The Office”—that the word “cringe” could be an adjective, as in the phrase “so cringe.” It turned out that there was a German word for the feeling inspired by David Brent, the cringe-making boss played by Ricky Gervais in the show: Fremdschämen—the embarrassment one feels when other people have, perhaps obliviously, embarrassed themselves. Maybe possessing those words—“cringe,” Fremdschämen—only gave me labels for a feeling I already knew well. Or maybe learning the words and learning to identify the feelings were part of the same process. Maybe it wasn’t merely my vocabulary but also my emotional range that was being stretched in those early months in England.

Many migrants have such a story. In “Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions” (Norton), the Dutch psychologist Batja Mesquita describes her puzzlement, before arriving in the United States, at the use of the English word “distress.” Was it “closer to the Dutch angst (‘anxious/afraid’),” she wondered, “or closer to the Dutch verdriet/wanhoop (‘sadness/despair’)?” It took her time to feel at home with the word: “I now no longer draw a blank when the word is used. I know both when distress is felt, and what the experience of distress can feel like. Distress has become an ‘emotion’ to me.”

For Mesquita, this is an instance of a larger, overlooked reality: emotions aren’t simply natural upwellings from our psyche—they’re constructions we inherit from our communities. She urges us to move beyond the work of earlier researchers who sought to identify a small set of “hard-wired” emotions, which were universal and presumably evolutionarily adaptive. (The usual candidates: anger, fear, disgust, surprise, happiness, sadness.) Mesquita herself once accepted that, as she writes, “people’s emotional lives are different, but emotions themselves are the same.” Her research initially looked for the differences elsewhere: in the language of emotion, in the forms and the intensity of its expression, in its social meaning.

Over time, though, her conviction began to weaken. “What would it mean that emotions are the same?” she asks. Working with Turkish and Surinamese immigrants to the Netherlands, and later being an immigrant herself, in the United States, she came to believe that the idea of a culturally invariant core of basic emotions was more of an ideology than a scientific truth. For one thing, Mesquita notes, “not all languages have a word for ‘emotion’ itself.”

What about words for particular feelings? “If we were to find words for anger, fear, sadness, and happiness everywhere,” she writes, “this could be a sign that language ‘cuts nature at its joints.’ ” That last phrase, much beloved of philosophers, echoes a line in Plato’s Phaedrus. It captures the hope that our human concepts correspond to something “out there,” natural kinds that exist independently of whatever we happen to think or say about them. The biologist Ernst Mayr thought that species concepts in biology were joint-carving in this way. He was impressed by the fact that “the Stone Age natives in the mountains of New Guinea recognize as species exactly the same entities of nature as a western scientist.” Are “anger” and “fear” like Mayr’s examples of chickadees and robins?

Here, Mesquita—joining her sometime co-author Lisa Feldman Barrett and other contemporary constructionists—enlists linguistic data to undermine the universalist view of emotions. Japanese, Mesquita points out, has one word, haji, to mean both “shame” and “embarrassment”; in fact, many languages (including my own first language, Tamil) make no such distinction. The Bedouins’ word hasham covers not only shame and embarrassment but also shyness and respectability. The Ilongot of the Philippines have a word, bētang, that touches on all those, plus on awe and obedience.

It gets worse. According to Mesquita, “There is no good translation for self-esteem in Chinese.” Native speakers of Luganda, in East Africa, she tells us, “use the same word, okusunguwala, for ‘anger’ and ‘sadness.’ ” Japanese people, she says, are shocked to learn that English has no word that’s equivalent to amae: “a complete dependence on the nurturant indulgence of their caregiver.” When the Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi told a colleague about this inexplicable lacuna, the colleague exclaimed, “Why, even a puppy does it.” Mesquita concludes that “languages organize the domain very differently, and make both different kinds as well as different numbers of distinctions.”

In Mesquita’s book, Westerners have succumbed to a mode of thinking sufficiently widespread to be the subject of a Pixar film. In “Inside Out,” a little girl, Riley, is shown as having a mind populated by five emotions—Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger—each assigned an avatar. Anger is, of course, red. A heated conversation between Riley and her parents is represented as similar red figures being activated in each of them. “Inside Out” captures, with some visual flair, what Mesquita calls the MINE model of emotion, a model in which emotions are “Mental, INside the person, and Essentialist”—that is, always having the same properties.

In a passage where she sets out her working methods, she tells us about some empirical results that had puzzled her. Asked to list “emotion words,” her respondents from Turkish and Surinamese families were especially inclined to list words that referred to behaviors. And so words for “laughing” appeared more often than “joy,” and “crying” more often than “sadness.” Some thought terms for “yelling” and “helping” were emotion words. What all this established, for Mesquita, is that “cultural differences go beyond semantics”; that emotions lived “ ‘between’ people rather than ‘within.’ ”

Mesquita wants us to consider this alternative model. Instead of treating emotions as mental and “inner,” perhaps we should conceive of them “as acts happening between people: acts that are being adjusted to the situation at hand,” rather than “as mental states within an individual.” Instead of seeing emotions as bequeathed by biology, we might see them as learned: “instilled in us by our parents and other cultural agents,” or “conditioned by recurrent experiences within our cultures.” In this model of emotions, they are “OUtside the person, Relational, and Situated”—OURS.

For Mesquita, the MINE model of emotion goes naturally with the individualist orientation of the West, while the “globally more common” OURS model belongs to the collectivist approach of non-Western, non-industrialized societies. As you might expect, the contrast is very much to the West’s disfavor. Japanese athletes interviewed after competing “reported many more emotions in the context of relationships,” compared with American athletes. Western societies, by placing emotions on the inside rather than on the outside, have made it difficult to understand, let alone sympathize with, other ways of having, or “doing,” emotion.

One reason people resist the notion that emotions might be different in different cultures, Mesquita acknowledges, is a desire for inclusivity: the worry is that “to say that people from other groups or cultures have different emotions is equivalent to denying their humanity.” On the contrary, she argues: it’s the insistence on cultural invariance that has the tendency to exclude. The MINE model, by obscuring non-Western ways of talking about and conceiving of emotions, ends up implying that what non-Western people have must really be something other than emotion. And so the inclusivists, she contends, end up treating those who are different as effectively nonhuman. Only by accepting that emotions are culturally specific, she thinks, can we truly understand the people with whom we share this planet. Accordingly, she offers a prescription: “Do not assume that a person who does not behave the way you expect is suppressing their authentic, real emotion. Ask.”

The critical tendency that Mesquita’s book represents has cast a long shadow over the intellectual culture of the West in the past century. Where we naïvely supposed there to be human universals, the critics—anthropologists, philosophers, and now, it seems, psychologists—urge us to see diversity, relativity, “incommensurable paradigms,” and “radical alterity.” Translation between the emotional lexicons of different languages, which we’d thought was an everyday activity, comes to seem an impossible endeavor. Not even our deepest feelings turn out to be free of the shaping hand of language and convention.

Mesquita’s psychological research, like the earlier work in anthropology and sociolinguistics she draws on, is clearly intended to overturn orthodox theories of emotion, both academic theories and the “folk theory” that’s implicit in the way we talk about our emotions. And there is something confused in those theories. It’s just that constructionists like Mesquita, captive to their own theory, may be offering the wrong diagnosis—and the wrong course of treatment.

Start with her parade of sociolinguistic examples. Mesquita’s interpretation of them courts what in similar connections has been termed the “lexical fallacy.” What are we supposed to take away from the fact that another language doesn’t have different words for shame and embarrassment? That its speakers have no way of knowing which situations call for which emotions? Does my embarrassment at an undone zipper turn into shame when I am around other Tamil speakers? Is my shame at forgetting my mother’s birthday modulated into embarrassment? Do all my English friends, for that matter, have a firm grasp on the distinction? (Try to make it yourself.)

English has a single word for homesickness. So does German (Heimweh). But French doesn’t. Does that make the pain a French emigrant feels at an underbaked croissant any less acute than the pain of an Englishman in New York faced with a lukewarm cup of tea?

Mesquita makes much of the claim that Luganda has a single word that refers to anger and sadness. Doesn’t the English term “upset” have the same range? (Luganda speakers dispute her account, and note that the language readily marks the distinction between the two.) The English word “modesty” covers much the same range as the Bedouins’ hasham, and a clever translator can find ways of getting us to see the range of the Ilongot’s bētang, which can be used to connote an “I’m not worthy!” sense of bashfulness or submission. The practice of translation—undertaken daily by millions of migrants talking about their experiences—should leave us with more hope for what we can say with the words we have.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *