We like to think that all humans are born with the same core emotions: anger, fear, joy, sadness and disgust. But what if that’s not true? This week, psychologist Batja Mesquita offers a different model of emotions — one that can help us to better understand our own feelings and those of the people around us.
For related Hidden Brain journalism, check out our episode on the benefits of mixed emotions.
Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions, by Batja Mesquita, 2022.
Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, by Eva Hoffman, 1989.
Emotion Semantics Show Both Cultural Variation and Universal Structure, by Joshua Conrad Jackson et al., Science, 2019.
Emotions in Collectivist and Individualist Contexts, by Batia Mesquita, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001.
Cultural Variations in Emotions: A Review, by Batja Mesquita and Nico Frijda, Psychological Bulletin, 1992.
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.Shankar Vedantam:This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the 2002 rom-com My Big Fat Greek Wedding, an American woman of Greek ancestry falls in love with a very vanilla American man. Toula and Ian's different backgrounds become apparent on one of their very first dates.Ian:What do you do for Christmas, with your family?Toula:My mom makes roast lamb.Ian:And?Toula:And, I'm Greek, right?Ian:Right.Toula:So, what happens is my dad and my uncles, they fight over who gets to eat the lamb brain, and then my Aunt Voula forks the eyeball and chases me around with it trying to get me to eat it because it's going to make me smart.Shankar Vedantam:Later, Ian invites his girlfriend over to meet his parents.Harriett:Rodney, didn't you once have a Greek receptionist?Rodney:No, Harriett, she was ... Just a minute.Harriett:Oh, no, no, she was Armenian. Is Armenia close to Greece?Toula:Not exactly.Shankar Vedantam:The scene plays out a little differently when Toula introduces Ian to her large and very loud extended family.Toula:Yeah, sorry. Everyone, this is Ian.Speaker 6:Ian! Ian!Speaker 7:Christ has risen for sure if Toula found a husband!Speaker 8:You know, I've got to tell you, I've never seen my sister so happy. If you hurt her, I'll kill you and make it look like an accident.Shankar Vedantam:Because this is Hollywood, Ian and Toula live happily ever after. In real life, navigating relationships of any sort across cultures can be a lot more complicated.Batja Mesquita:Nothing is as good to challenge your own idea that your feelings are natural as moving to another culture.Shankar Vedantam:This week on Hidden Brain, how cultural differences are not just a product of different histories and different languages, but deep psychological divides in how we feel things.Communicating across cultures can be hard. The potential for misunderstanding always looms. Many of us draw hope, however, from the notion that once we get past surface differences, human beings are the same under the skin; that our deepest feelings are universal.But is that really true? Batja Mesquita is a professor of psychology at the University of Leuven in Belgium. She studies the complex and fascinating world of our emotions. Batja Mesquita, welcome to Hidden Brain.Batja Mesquita:Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.Shankar Vedantam:I'd like to start our chat, Batja, with the conventional model of how psychologists have long thought about emotions. What was that model of emotions that you learned when you were first in graduate school?Batja Mesquita:The model that was really popular was that there was a basic set of emotions, for example joy and anger and fear, and that we were all born with it. It was an evolutionary wired ability to have those emotions. And that everybody around the world had them, that really there were these innate basic emotions that everybody had.Shankar Vedantam:So, in one of your earlier studies ... this was at the University of Amsterdam ... you asked people about their emotions and many of your study subjects were from the Dutch majority, but you also had volunteers from two minority groups, and you started to see something odd in the data. Can you describe the goals of the study and what you were seeing?Batja Mesquita:I mean, what we originally wanted to know is what the most prevalent translations were of those universal words, and so we thought we could find those by asking people to list as many emotion words as they want. So, they listed, the Dutch and the Turkish and the Surinamese immigrants, listed those emotions, but we found actually a lot of emotions that at that point I didn't consider emotions at all. We found that, especially the Turkish and the Surinamese group, listed a lot of behaviors, things like crying or laughing or helping or yelling, and we also found that some of the most mentioned emotions in those cultures were not the emotions that we had been taught were universal. Love and hate were very prevalent, but also missing, desire, longing, so we found a completely different set of words that people came up with when we asked them to give examples of emotions.Shankar Vedantam:Now, these answers, especially the answers from the Turkish and Surinamese respondents, they didn't fit this model of emotion that in some ways was undergirding your research. What did you do with this problematic data, Batja?Batja Mesquita:Well, we had lots of explanations, but basically I'm not proud to say that we thought the people couldn't be right. Emotions were defined as inside feelings, and when people reported behaviors, then clearly they didn't know exactly what emotions were. So, I disregarded them. I mean, I counted them, I listed them, I have a nice table in my PhD that lists them, but really I never explored the most frequent emotions in those cultures, and I continued looking at what was the closest translation to anger or to joy.Shankar Vedantam:So, a few years later, Batja, you and a Japanese colleague were conducting a study of emotions in Japanese people, and you asked them to rate the intensity of the emotions they felt. Again, when you had given this task to Dutch respondents, it had been relatively simple and straightforward. How did the Japanese individuals in your study respond?Batja Mesquita:The Japanese ... This was research that I did with my colleague Mayumi Kasawa, who was in Japan, and she said, "They don't understand the question 'How intense is your emotion?'" So, to be honest, I was a little annoyed. I thought, "How can they not understand a question as simple as that?" And so we looked for a different translation, and we ended up with a translation that said, "How important was the situation for you?" and the Japanese were fine with that, but there were also other things that they couldn't answer. We asked, "To what extent did the emotion change your beliefs? For example, your beliefs about yourself or your beliefs about another person, your beliefs about a relationship?" And that too caused problems, so there too we had to replace the feelings, the fact that feelings caused certain things to happen. We replaced that with, "Did your feelings change after this happened," or after the situation.Shankar Vedantam:So, you started to get some firsthand knowledge of these anomalies when you were in your early 30s. You moved to the United States, first to the University of Michigan for postgraduate study, and then to a faculty position at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Now, you spoke fluent English, and you expected a relatively easy transition, but once you settled in the US, you began to have some odd and puzzling encounters, and not all of these involved unpleasantness per se. In one case, a professor praised you in front of the class. What did the professor say about you?Batja Mesquita:This was a seminar on emotions, and at that point I had done a PhD on emotions, and there were all these PhD students who really only started to study emotions, and so I introduced myself and I said, "Well, I'm interested in culture and emotion," and he said, "I just want you to know that she came out with the authoritative review of emotions. She's the world expert on culture and emotions." And I sort of protested and said that 'expert' was a big word, and I felt embarrassed, and I looked at the ground, and it was uncomfortable. It was a very uncomfortable interaction between us, but I just wasn't used to people praising me in that way.Shankar Vedantam:In other words, you wanted, in some ways, them to treat you as if you were no better than anybody else as opposed to someone who was on a pedestal.Batja Mesquita:That's right. And I would say I come from a culture where that is very mucthe norm. I remember that if I asked my mom things like was I pretty, she would say, "Oh, you're just about average." And even if I told people about something that had worked well, about successes, I remember my grandmother saying, commenting that I was tooting my own horn, and that was clearly supposed to be a bad thing. It was not something that was respected or wanted.Shankar Vedantam:On another occasion, some American acquaintances you had met came over for dinner, and at the end of the dinner they thanked you for a lovely meal. What was your reaction to this display of gratitude, Batja?Batja Mesquita:My heart sank. I mean, I thought, "Oh, didn't they like it?" Because I thought that it had been very intimate and cozy, and that we were starting to feel really like friends, and then when they thanked me for the nice dinner, that to me felt distancing because for me thanking doesn't happen in a close relationship. In my culture of origin, the Netherlands, you don't thank people who are very close. I also, I had ... I was married with an American, and he would bring me coffee and I would nod, and he would say, "Well, you can say 'thank you'." And I said, "I say 'thank you' to the neighbor." I didn't say 'thank you' to my own husband bringing me ... you know, obviously doing something nice to me, but thanking to me, gratitude, to me, meant having some distance.So, it sounds small, but it actually played a big role in how I interpreted emotions in the situation. For me, gratitude was an emotion that signaled distance in the first time.Shankar Vedantam:Batja found herself mystified. She thought of herself as an emotionally adept person in the Netherlands. She felt she was a skilled navigator of complex social relationships. The prevailing model of psychology suggested that emotions were the same in different countries, but if that was the case, why did she constantly feel like she was out of step?You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When psychologist Batja Mesquita moved from her native Netherlands to the United States, she suddenly felt she had become emotionally inept. It wasn't that Batja was having trouble translating universal emotions into a new language; the emotions she felt and the emotions her American interlocutors felt seemed different.Batja, I understand that the Dutch are a forthright people, so in regular conversations people contradict each other directly. Can you give me some examples of what such a conversation could look like between two friends in the Netherlands?Batja Mesquita:You tell each other when you disagree. You also tell each other that, "You don't look so good." You tell each other, "I was really disappointed, but I think I misunderstood you." You can be very opinionated. "I don't like this so much. I do like this." And some of it is just by leaving off the praise.I also remember telling my master students in North Carolina that I thought something they had written was boring, and they went ... For my farewell speeches, one of the students said, "She would be the only professor who would write in the margins, 'This is boring.'" And for me, that was a way of taking them seriously, and for giving them straight feedback. I think in the context of a supportive relationship they could definitely interpret that. But it's not something ... apparently not something that American professors note in the margins of their students' papers, so ... Eva Hoffman actually, the author, also writes about her Polish relatives saying, "This dress makes you fat. I wouldn't wear it," and I could imagine that. Closeness is being outright with somebody. You say things because you like somebody, because that's a part of being close.Shankar Vedantam:Did you have friends and colleagues who let you know that you were sharing your true feelings a bit too freely?Batja Mesquita:Yes. They sure did. I had this really good friend when I just came to Michigan, Michelle Aker [ph] was her name, and she overheard another friend or colleague asking me if I was available for lunch one day, and I said, "No, I'm not," and I was looking for words, but that seemed to me the most important information, so I thought I was just informative, and she took me apart and she said, "You know, that didn't sound very nice. You could have said, 'I would love to, but tomorrow I have plans.'"You, I think, in America put priority on making each other feel well, so you would say, "No, I can't," and maybe you would return to it and say, "What about another time?" But Dutch people are not ... I don't think we're so preoccupied with not making each other feel bad, or not letting each other down.Shankar Vedantam:So, you found that you didn't have a problem only when it came to criticism; some of your compliments also landed the wrong way. You once offered a compliment to Hazel Markus, a fellow academic. Where were you both when this happened?Batja Mesquita:We were in the ladies' bathroom, and we were at a conference that she had organized, and I really liked her. She later became my mentor. But I wanted to express something she had ... I had seen her really busy, she was organizing this conference, and I said, "You look really tired." That was meant to make a connection, and she was startled. She said, "Oh, I should refresh my lipstick," and she turned to the mirror and refreshed her lipstick. Of course I tried to correct myself. I said, "Oh, I didn't mean to say you look bad," and I really didn't. I really wanted to say that I empathized with her, that I put myself in her shoes and that she had so many people to talk to, so many things to do. It was really meant as a way to connect, but she instead took it as a criticism, or as she wasn't looking great enough, she wasn't looking up for the part.Shankar Vedantam:So, after a few years of living in the United States, you found yourself having a heart-to-heart chat with another colleague who was also born overseas. Heejung Kim grew up in Korea. Tell me about that conversation, Batja.Batja Mesquita:Yeah, it was ... We were both married to white Americans at that point. We both taught at American universities. Our English was ... My English was better than it is now because I spoke English every day. We celebrated the 4th of July and Memorial Day, and we watched the Rose Bowl, all those. We had American kids, but we just didn't feel that our emotions were quite American, and so we talked about how emotions may be the last thing to change in an immigrant; that all of those other things that psychologists actually have studied when they studied immigration and acculturation, that we sort of met ... I mean, we have accents, but we sort of checked all the boxes of acculturation, but yet we felt emotionally different.Shankar Vedantam:As Batja spent more time in the United States, she found herself playing translator between two cultures. One time, her mom came to visit from the Netherlands. When they went to pick up Batja's son from school one day, the schoolteacher greeted Batja's mom effusively.Batja Mesquita:His teacher told her that it was so great that she was visiting, and how wonderful, and she kind of did the embarrassed response that I did in the beginning, so she looked at the floor and she smiled uneasily, and then she said to me, when we drove back she said to me, "That was really fake, wasn't it?" And at that point I didn't think it was fake. It's a different way of being in the world. I thought that the teacher of course wanted to make my mom feel good about herself, and I think she made the compliments and she talked to my mom about my son Oliver, and she said, "How wonderful for Oliver that his grandma is visiting," and I don't think that was necessarily fake, but it's kind of the energized way in which she talked to my mom that didn't feel ... To a culture where you should just act normal and not ... and that would be crazy enough, that, to my mom, that felt fake.Shankar Vedantam:So, one time, Batja, you and your family went to see the Pixar movie Inside Out, and this movie is all about how our emotions work, and how we're supposed to understand our emotions. To the extent you remember it, can you tell me the premise of Inside Out?Batja Mesquita:Yeah. The premise of Inside Out is there is this little girl, 11-year-old girl, Riley, and five emotions live in her head. They're all in the headquarters at the control panel.Speaker 10:Joy, you'll be in charge of the console, keeping Riley happy all day long. And may I add—Batja Mesquita:So, when Joy controls the control, the Riley is exuberant and happy and positive and optimistic, but she also has some other characters.Speaker 11:This is Anger. He will make sure the world knows Anger is in control.Batja Mesquita:Like Anger, that is red and fiery and often oppositional, and she has Sad and Sad is droopy and blue, of course, as in feeling blue, and slow. And the emotions take control, so that's one premise, I think.The second premise is that whenever an emotion has the control in the headquarters, that's how Riley behaves, so the emotion is activated and takes over and comes from the inside out and determines Riley's emotion, behavior, thoughts, all of those things. So that's another feature. And the other feature of the movie is that everybody in the movie has the same five emotions, so Riley's mom and dad also have a Joy and a Sadness and an Anger, and they behave very similar, so this is the emotion that's always the same in every person in every situation. And in the credits actually, at the end of the movie, it's even clear that also cats and dogs have those emotions, and they are cat and dog shaped, but supposed to be the same emotions.So, the idea very much is that within us, and maybe even within animals, we have these universal emotions that determine our behavior and that come inside out.Shankar Vedantam:So, these emotions are internal. They are mental in the sense that they live inside our minds and then they affect how we behave and how we feel, but also that they are, in some ways, unchanging; that the way sadness operates is the way sadness always operates, the way anger operates is the way anger always operates. Talk about that idea, that in some ways there was a fixedness, if you will, to these emotions.Batja Mesquita:It's almost regardless of what happens in the world. So, when she goes to school one morning and her mom and dad say, "Have a good day. We love you, Monkey," Riley can't respond to that because Fear and Anger are at the control center in headquarters, which is her head. So, the idea is very much that what determines your emotions or how you act is determined within your head, and is not very much a result of your immediate interaction or immediate environment.Shankar Vedantam:So, as you came out of the movie theater, you had a chat with your kids about the movie. What did you say, and how did they react, Batja?Batja Mesquita:My kids were in their late teens and they loved it, and I said to them, "Well, Riley, the protagonist, is an American white girl and her emotions are portrayed the way Western, especially American white people think about their emotions. And I don't think that a movie would have looked the same way had it been made in Japan, or even in some parts of the US." Of course my kids didn't like that very much. They said that I was a spoilsport, that you shouldn't go to the movies with a psychologist, that I was no fun. But it's a perfect model, that movie, of how, in Western cultures I think mostly, we think about our emotions, and how in fact the field thought about emotions when I started my PhD as these fixed entities that we're born with and are innate, that are universal, that are activated and come out in every single situation in the same way, and that drive our expression and our behavior.So, I think the movie is certainly good in telling you how important emotions are in our everyday lives, but I also think it's a very cultured view of how emotions are.Shankar Vedantam:When we come back, Batja realizes that the missteps, miscues, and miscommunication she was observing and experiencing were not anomalies to be discarded, they were data, and they were trying to show her that her model of the world of emotions was wrong.You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Batja Mesquita is the author of the book Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions. Her research distinguishes between the model of emotion prominent in Western countries and other conceptions of emotions that dominate cultures elsewhere in the world.Batja, you say that if the rest of the world was in that Pixar writers' room as the movie Inside Out was being created, they would come up with a very different movie?Batja Mesquita:Yeah, I think so. I think it might be called Outside In actually. Yeah, so I think the Inside Out model is a model where emotions are inside the person, primarily feelings inside the person, primarily in the mind, and stable, as the movie Inside Out shows you, always the same anger. I think the other model is a very different model, where the emotion is primarily between people, so I'm responding to somebody. I have emotions because I'm together with other people. Emotions are when people are together, and then emotions are more acts, so it's about what people do and what the social consequences are of emotions rather than what the feelings are, and why you feel that way.And the third one is that emotions are very much shaped by the situation, so it's not so much the essences in your head that take over everything, but in the first place it's the situation that determines or that requires how you need to feel and how you need to behave.Shankar Vedantam:I'm wondering, Batja, as you started to see all the ways in which you found yourself out of step with American emotions, whether you thought back to those early studies that you had conducted, when volunteers, especially from minority backgrounds, didn't come up with the same list of emotions as volunteers from the Dutch majority, or what the models predicted? You initially wrote off the Turkish and Surinamese volunteers in some ways as anomalies, but here you were in an adopted country, finding it hard to read the emotional landscape around you. Did you start to think, "Maybe what I was seeing in these studies, maybe these actually were not anomalies"?Batja Mesquita:Yes. I certainly did. Nothing is as good to challenge your own idea that your feelings are natural as moving to another culture, so I started to take those data very seriously, and I thought that maybe the Turkish listed relational acts like crying and yelling and laughing rather than feelings inside them, I thought that, "Okay, maybe this is a different model of emotions." I also thought about the Japanese findings that if you don't define an emotion primarily as something that is inside you and a thing, a stable thing, then how can you describe the features of that thing? So, intensity is really making the emotions a thing that can be qualified. But if you think about emotions as something that is constantly going on between people, then where is the intensity? So, the Japanese, I think, couldn't answer that question because they didn't see emotions as mental states inside them that were essences.So, yeah, I think I should have taken those findings very seriously from the beginning. So, where I first thought that the respondents didn't understand the task, or that the translator had messed up, I now think that something in the phenomenon really doesn't translate so well. That is why you couldn't ask particular questions, or why respondents didn't understand particular questions, and why the translation was not straightforward.Shankar Vedantam:It might be useful to take a look at an idea like authenticity, and look at how it's different in these two different models of emotion. Can you talk about how authenticity is really a hallmark of this Western model, its emphasis on authenticity, and how this is seen in the non-Western model of emotions?Batja Mesquita:There is a large tradition of thought in Western psychology that an emotion has to come inside out, so the emotions are there, and that when you can't express your emotion, which is there and natural, that that's bad for you. And Freud would have said that suppressed emotions come back to haunt you.But also, modern literature, modern research find that Westerners, when they suppress certain emotions, they feel inauthentic, they get stronger feelings, they have more difficulty establishing relationships with others, and eventually in a lot of sociological work on labor, people who have to modify their emotions for the job, suffer from burnout. It's a very real finding, and I think we should appreciate it. But it doesn't seem to hold in the same way for a lot of different cultures, so when Asian Americans, for example ... And I'm ... Let me take this as a point to say that when I'm talking about groups, I'm talking about group tendencies, but I'm certainly not wanting to stereotype or suggest that these groups are homogenous, it's just that we find, if we look at a whole group, that the tendencies of the group are different, and that this comparison allows us to show that they're differences in the phenomena.So, having said that, when we look at Asian Americans and we have them suppress emotions, or Asians, we do not find the same effects. Asian Americans do not have ... They actually, if they suppress anger, for example, they also feel less anger mostly, and they actually don't have the cardiac output that suggests that it's stressful for them at all. They think it's a good thing to suppress their anger. And what we also find is that suppressing original emotions, or expressing the desired emotions, is not at all related to burnout. It seems to be fine if you don't think of your emotions as things inside you that have to pop out, and that are essences that you can't help. It seems to be fine to regulate or adjust your emotions to the situation.Shankar Vedantam:So, when we talk about people suppressing their emotions, when we say, "You're bottling up your emotions," for example, that model is very much the idea that there is stuff inside of you, and you're putting a cap on it and screwing the cap shut and keeping it inside of you, and then you run the risk that the bottle is going to explode at some point; whereas this other model is suggesting that what you do in the world, and how you behave in the world, in fact changes what's happening inside you. What's happening inside you is in fact malleable, and if you choose in your behavior not to act on those emotions, or in fact to act calm when you might want to be angry, in fact after some time you will start to feel calm. Is that the idea?Batja Mesquita:Mm-hm. Yeah. Although even in Western cultures, of course, we can try to see the emotion differently. There are reasons to think that negative emotions do not always have to come out, and that that would be fine, and that you can reevaluate the situation. But it's certainly true that we find more of the negative consequences of suppression in Western environments than we find in other environments.Shankar Vedantam:I mean, I'm thinking about some of the ... There are entertainment options here where people can go to a small room and people can unleash their anger. I think these are called 'rage rooms'.Batja Mesquita:Mm-hm.Shankar Vedantam:Where the idea is that if you have a lot of anger inside you, you can let the anger out, and in some ways this is the healthy thing to do.Batja Mesquita:Mm-hm.Speaker 12:It is the absolute most amazing feeling of release.Shankar Vedantam:But that also follows again from the same model, which is that you have this thing inside you, and once you let it out, then you're going to be free of it because it's now outside of you as opposed to inside of you.Batja Mesquita:Right.Shankar Vedantam:But again, that's very much counter to this other model that suggests that what you actually do in the outside, actually breaking things in a rage room, smashing windows and breaking television sets, in fact that could have an effect on the emotions that are inside you.Batja Mesquita:Right. And I just want you to think that you have just encountered a sexist remark or a racist remark, and you go in the rage room and unleash your anger, but the cause of your anger is not gone, and your anger probably requires negotiating your anger in the world. So, I think it's denying a very important part of emotions, which is that it's an evaluation or a reflection of what you think is happening in the world and what you want to do in the world.Shankar Vedantam:Right. So, in some ways, these are mechanisms that help us work well with friends, families, acquaintances ... perhaps even with enemies ... that in some ways it's all connected to the outcomes we want to see in the world, is that right? That in some ways emotions are basically the channel through which we interact with the world?Batja Mesquita:I think so. I call them often the glue of relationships. Now, I should say that even when people thought that there were a few universal basic emotions, that they also thought emotions were there to help us connect in the world, so that's not unique, I think, to my way of thinking. But what I've come to think is that their functions have not so much evolved however many million years ago, but that they evolve in the specific cultural context in which you grow up.Love, for example, wasn't the same thing 100 years ago, or 200 years ago. It doesn't have the same place in multiple cultures. It's not necessarily the emotion to base your marriage or your associations on. In some cultures, your association, your connections are so much a given that you don't want to feel too much love. You actually want to be reserved. So, I think it's very dangerous to think that love as we know it, which is tailored to the kinds of relationships that we have, exists exactly in the same way in other cultures.Shankar Vedantam:Now, it's fair to say many scientists see things differently. They argue that emotions really are the same across cultures, rooted in our biology and in our evolutionary history. Batja counters that evolution has prepared us to experience and express emotion in any number of different ways depending on the culture into which we are born.Batja Mesquita:The brain wires itself with experience, and throughout our lives we collect these experiences, and the brain is really made to live in a large variety of experiences. Some people would say it's our nature to be nurtured, so the brain is there so that we connect with people in the way that is appreciated in our culture, and in the way that gives us the highest survival chances in our particular environment.Shankar Vedantam:One of the interesting examples that you explore is how parents might interact differently with children depending on how their different conceptions of emotions might work. You say that American parents might socialize their children to feel pride and self esteem whereas parents elsewhere might be more inclined to teach their children about, for example, shame?Batja Mesquita:Yeah, that's right. And I would say American parents, including myself, we really want our children to feel good about themselves. We think that if we give them enough love and praise, they come to realize that they're special and unique, and they go on to master the world, but that is not a universal goal, so there are cultures in which shame is the right emotion, and parents want their children to feel shame because they want to teach them propriety. They want them to take their right position in the social network, and they want them to be humble and deferent. So, in those cultures, it's much more important to get your child to recognize that they violated the norms than to get yourself to recognize that they did something good.I should say there that shame is also maybe not exactly the same as what we in Western cultures call shame, because shame is a good, a proper emotion. It's an emotion that parents like in their children, so children get accepted when they show shame, not rejected. And it often gives other people the idea that you had good parents who knew how to raise you.Shankar Vedantam:Because in other words, when you tell someone, "Don't you have any shame," what you're really saying is, "Haven't you learned how to behave properly? Don't you have the right upbringing?"Batja Mesquita:Exactly. How to behave properly, how to behave properly for your role and your position in the social network.Shankar Vedantam:A great place to see these different cultures in action: stand-up comedy, especially Western comedians whose parents are immigrants. The Canadian comic Russell Peters, whose parents immigrated from India, has a longstanding set about the different styles of parenting in Western and immigrant households.Russell Peters:Somebody going to get a hurt real bad. Because Indian parents will beat their kids. You know what my theory is? Any immigrant parent will beat their kids. If your parents weren't born in the country you live in, they beat your ass when you were growing up, man. God forbid you look stupid in front of Canadians. I'd be doing something dumb, my dad would go, "Hey, don't do that! You look like an idiot! That's for the Canadians to do."Batja Mesquita:But I also think it's a very different relationship. I mean, I think that American parents raise their children to be independent and to go out in the world alone. I think many, in many Asian cultures and beyond, parents raise their child as part of their family networks, so they're not supposed to go out in the world alone, they're supposed to keep the family name high. And in that way, I think the Dutch culture is closer to a lot of Asian cultures in that the emotion just plays a completely different role ... the emotion of shame, or self confidence ... in those types of relationships.So, I think we all raise our children to have the right emotions, but what is right really depends on what we want our children to be and to do in the world, and that can be very different across cultures.Shankar Vedantam:Batja, in some of your early studies, you felt like volunteers were unable to understand the questions you were posing, and I'm wondering now with the model that you have, this new model of how emotions are operating, does it shed some light on how, in some ways, there might be words or language that we use to express emotions that genuinely might be difficult to translate across different cultures?Batja Mesquita:Well, first of all what people find is that there are very few words that translate in a one-to-one fashion with all the languages in the world. And there's actually this recent study in Science where they looked at more than 2500 languages, and they looked at whether they had one-to-one translations for 24 emotion words that exist in English ... so 'anger', 'love', 'happy', 'proud', 'grief' were examples ... and what they found is that the only word that had an equivalent, a one-to-one corresponding equivalent in all languages, was feeling good, or good. All the other languages had less correspondence. So, for example, anger and pride occur in that form only in 15% of the languages.Now, how is that possible? It's possible because some cultures think that there is not much difference between anger and sadness. Some cultures think there's not much difference between anger and envy. Cultures also have a different use of words, because our words are used in the situations that we have experienced throughout our lives. Well, to the extent that those lives differ, and they do really differ drastically across different cultures, we have different memories attached to those emotion words. And of course then we have words that occur in some languages but not in other languages.Shankar Vedantam:I understand there's a Dutch word, gezellig? I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that correctly. What does it mean, Batja?Batja Mesquita:Okay, it's the word gezellig, and it's a word that refers to the feeling of being connected with other people, being relaxed, being secure, I would say, but it also refers to some of the features of the environment, so sitting around the fireplace inside is gezellig, or having candles is gezellig, or having food is gezellig. So, it's that whole combination of things. And when I've told American friends that this was a situation of gezellig, they of course understand that it was gezellig and they find it a nice word. It's a word that captures the situation.I don't think, by the way, that understanding that this one situation can be captured by gezellig is the same as having the emotion category, because I don't think it's so easy to apply it to other instances that we would call also gezellig.Shankar Vedantam:But at that dinner party that you organized a long time ago, what you wanted your friends to acknowledge was that this evening was an evening of gezellig, but instead they just said, "Thank you for cooking us a lovely dinner."Batja Mesquita:Exactly right. I didn't expect them to know the word, but I did expect them to express the sentiment.Shankar Vedantam:How long do you think it takes to learn the emotional language of another culture, Batja?Batja Mesquita:Well, that depends on what you mean by learning it. There is research about second language learning and emotions, and you can learn a word, but what people do initially is they learn a word and then attach it to all the experiences they have in their original first culture. It takes much longer, and it actually takes living in a culture to be able to connect experiences in a new culture to that emotion word. So, we also know from linguistic research that you can tell a person a word like gezellig, but then when they see a description of a situation, new description of a situation, they don't know whether the word applies or not. So, it takes people to live in a ... Just learning languages in school, as I originally learned English in high school, doesn't teach you emotions in the sense that you know what they feel like and you know when to apply them.There's also research showing that people, second language learners, continue to prefer their first language if they talk about an emotional topic, so they prefer to curse in their original language, they prefer to love in their original language. Many people find that the second language has less emotion than the first language.Shankar Vedantam:You know, it's interesting, you mentioned some time ago a useful caveat, which is that it is not the case, of course, that all Nigerians think alike, and all Americans think alike, and all Chinese people think alike, or that all Dutch people are alike. In fact, within these countries, especially large countries, there are probably entirely distinct cultures. The culture of the Bay Area is probably quite different than the culture of the American South. So, within countries, you can have cultures, but also even within cities and geographic areas, you can have huge divides between people who live in one neighborhood or another neighborhood, and perhaps even at a more granular level you could have differences between communities of people, between families.And in some ways I think if we want to extrapolate this idea that culture is not just geographically bounded or bounded by national boundaries, should we actually be expanding our notion of how to think about emotions in this way as well? In some ways, do we all carry our own version of emotions within us, and each of us in some ways is calibrating our internal sense of emotions to the context in which we find ourselves?Batja Mesquita:I really think about it that way, yeah. I think the differences become more obvious when you cross certain national or geographical boundaries, but I think, yes, I think families have their own cultures too. Religions have their cultures. You could argue that genders have their cultures. I think cross-national comparisons or cross-regional comparisons sometimes allow you to see contrasts that you might miss when you compare individuals. But I think the difference, that there's no principled ways in which those levels of difference really vary.Shankar Vedantam:So much of your work I think challenges the idea that we can reach harmony and understanding by asserting that deep down we're all alike. In some ways you're making the case that understanding differences is actually crucial.Batja Mesquita:Yes. I think what we're all alike in is that we're human beings who have social lives and things that are important in our social lives and our social relationships. What those things are, and which emotions figure in those relationships, are very different, and I think that understanding how people's emotions tie to their social context, and to what they find important, and to how their social context would respond or do respond makes them human. And just assuming that, as I originally did myself, that your own emotions are universal and default misses out on the specific humanity of people from other backgrounds.Shankar Vedantam:So, Batja, right now you go back and forth between Europe and the United States, and I'm wondering what that's like for you as you switch between these two models, if you will, of emotions. Do you have a little SIM card that you can swap in and out so that you can actually adapt to the local culture?Batja Mesquita:Yeah, it's a little less sudden and effective than the SIM card, because my SIM cards compete, and certainly when I first switch they compete a little. It takes me a few days, or maybe a week, to be on the other SIM card, and even then I sometimes have ... I have some moments where I thought, "Oops, that was the wrong one." So, there are moments where I clearly am still Dutch, where I'm trying to explain something about my negative emotions that really nobody here wants to hear. Or also the other way around, where I'm too full of myself in a European context.Shankar Vedantam:Batja Mesquita is a professor of psychology at the University of Leuven in Belgium. She's the author of the book Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions. Batja, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.Batja Mesquita:Thank you so much for having me. This was a pleasure.Shankar Vedantam:Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brains's executive editor.For today's unsung hero, we turn the mic over to you, our listeners. It's a story from our show My Unsung Hero. Today's My Unsung Hero is brought to you by OnStar. OnStar advisors are now with you everywhere; on the app, in your car, and at home.Our story comes from Ayanna Thomas. Some years ago, Ayanna went to Japan for a conference. She was excited to be there by herself exploring Tokyo for the first time. Early one morning on her way to the train station, it started to rain.Ayanna Thomas:I didn't have an umbrella, and the rain just started dumping on me as I'm walking to the train station. And all of a sudden this man walks up next to me and he just opens his umbrella. And he proceeds to escort me to the train station. This is a Japanese man who doesn't speak any English, and I don't speak any Japanese, and we walk in silence to the train station. It's maybe a five-minute walk.So, he didn't know, or had no information from me as to where I was going, but he must have assumed that I was heading back to the train station. He escorted me in, and then I looked at him and I just nodded my head, and he nodded back, and he just went back up the stairs and went on his way.What I think is great about that man, and why it's stuck with me for so many years, is that we didn't exchange any words, but he was so kind to see a stranger that just was in need of some help, and that was it.Shankar Vedantam:Ayanna Thomas. She's a psychologist at Tufts University, and a former guest of the show. You can hear our conversation with her on our episode about memory. It's called, Did That Really Happen?This segment was brought to you by OnStar. OnStar believes everyone has the right to feel safe everywhere. That's why their emergency advisors are now available to help, not only in the car, but wherever you are; on your phone, in your car, and at home. OnStar; be safe out there.If you like this episode and would like us to produce more shows like this, please consider supporting our work. Go to support.hiddenbrain.org. Again, if you would like to help support the show you love, go to support.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.
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