How universal are our emotions?

By | August 2, 2022

Nikhil Krishnan writes:

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. [Continue reading…]

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