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How to Understand Emotions in Different Cultures for Digital Nomads- PART 1

Understanding emotions across cultures

Imagine you walk along the streets of New York. Take a look at the people around you. What emotions do you see on their faces? Or is everyone so busy that all the facial expressions look neutral to you? What if you imagine yourself on the streets of Rome? Do you notice more expressions on people’s faces?

Happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear, and anger are universal emotions. That means every person can understand and show these emotions no matter their cultural background. Despite different cultures, for example, universal emotions are also experienced in similar situations in Japan and the USA.

However, the way emotions are displayed varies a lot from culture to culture, as culture shapes how we express emotion; environment and social situations and context influence our feelings. As a nomad, you may find yourself living in a country where emotions are displayed differently. Even if you understood what facial expressions are demonstrated, you might not be able to interpret where the feeling originated due to deeply rooted cultural norms.

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When we are born, we learn that there are only good or uncomfortable emotions. As we communicate with others, we develop a skillset to categorize and experience these emotions according to cultural norms.

Cultural influences

Culture influences a lot how we interpret emotions, especially when it comes to more complex emotions such as shame, guilt, or pride. In Western countries, for example, shame is often perceived as a negative emotion. In contrast, in many Asian countries, it is perceived as an emotion that shows humility and your place in the world. Understanding that will make it a lot easier to settle into a new country.

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Interestingly, disgust only has one facial expression, which is recognized all over the world. Moreover, there are up to 17 different facial expressions for joy! That is quite remarkable.

Although people have a knack for understanding universal emotions, we pay attention to different things when communicating with people from different cultures. A study by Ting-Toomey (1999) showed that up to 65% of our communication is nonverbal.

In other words, 65% of all our communication is left to an interpretation learned in our own culture. This is one of the biggest challenges when communicating with people from different cultural backgrounds.

What To Do When You Are Living in a Foreign Country

When you are living in a foreign country, pay attention to how people express their emotions. Are they showing both happiness and sadness or are they trying to cover up their anger behind a smile? When you know how that culture displays feelings, you can adjust your own behaviour accordingly. This will enhance communication with the locals since people usually prefer to work with others who share similar attitudes.

Tanja Saarinen | Numinos Coaching

Photo by Anita Löfberg

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