Do all human beings have emotions, just like we all have noses or hands? Our noses have different shapes and sizes but when all is said and done they help us breathe, and let us sniff and smell the world around us. Our hands can be big or small, strong or weak, but regardless they help us touch, grasp, hold, and carry.
Does the same hold for emotions? Is it true that emotions can look different but, in the end, we all have the same emotions—that deep inside, everybody is like yourself? It would mean that once you take the time to get to know somebody, you will recognize and comprehend the feelings of people who have different backgrounds, speak different languages, come from other communities or cultures. But are other people angry, happy, and scared, just like you? And are your feelings just like theirs? I do not think so.
The first time I became aware that my emotions were not like those of people from another culture was when I moved to the United States. I was raised in the Netherlands, and, save some short ventures to other European countries, that was where I had lived until I was about 30 years old. In many ways, my transition was easy. My English was conversational when I first came to the States, because I had used it professionally. My American colleagues at the University of Michigan could not have been nicer. The day I arrived, they welcomed me with a faculty dinner. One of them invited me to their Christmas family dinner; others gave me small end-of-the year presents. Yet, I remember my first year in the United States as rocky. I often felt a little off.
In my own country, I was used to being a socially adept and emotionally intelligent person. But when I arrived at the University of Michigan in November 1993, I felt emotionally out of sync.
In my own country, I was used to being a socially adept and emotionally intelligent person. But when I arrived at the University of Michigan in November 1993, I felt emotionally out of sync. My new colleagues were gracious, happy, and outgoing. They exchanged niceties with each other and with me. I liked their company, and I liked how they treated me. Yet things were not easy, because I was unable to reciprocate in appropriate ways: I felt my own emotional shortcomings. In conversations, it did not come naturally to me to be outgoing and appreciative, to offer compliments, or to acknowledge effort and intention. I was not happy or grateful enough; not as happy as I clearly felt I ought to be, given the situation and given how everybody else was acting.
It bothered me that I was emotionally underperforming, and I was not merely imagining that I was. I simply was not smooth. One day, a colleague asked me if I would like to have lunch with her the next day. I replied in truth, “Tomorrow I can’t.” My new friend Michele Acker overheard the conversation, and coached me privately that I could have been more forthcoming and pleasant: “I would love to go out for lunch with you, can we do it some other time though? I already have plans for tomorrow …” Instead, she said I sounded rude. Rude? It certainly wasn’t what I meant to be; in my mind, it was simply informative.
I also had difficulty making sense of others’ emotions. When Michele and I entered a drugstore, and she greeted the store clerk with an enthusiastic “How are you?,” I asked her if she knew this woman (she did not). The interest she displayed in the clerk’s well-being did not seem to fit the situation. The clerk, without missing a beat, reciprocated with a smooth, “Wonderful, and what about yourself?” I was left wondering what I had missed in this enthusiastic exchange between strangers.
She said I sounded rude. Rude? It certainly wasn’t what I meant to be; in my mind, it was simply informative.
Likewise, it was hard to gauge the state of my relationships: Did people like me? Did we have a friendship? I was not sure what the daily reassurances meant exactly, and I could not tell if people really cared for me. Or was that even a question to ask? One time, I had new friends over for dinner. The meal was tasty, and the conversation was engaged, and at times intimate. We had fun. It seemed to me that this could be the beginning of a real friendship; that is, until my guests left and thanked me for dinner. I felt crushed, because it had now dawned on me that we had failed to make a true connection. The way I was raised, where there is gratitude (i.e., thanking someone for dinner), there is no room for friendship. “Thank you for dinner” felt to me as an act of distancing, rather than an expression of appreciation. I would have liked my guests to say that they were looking forward to spending more time with me, that they really liked the evening together, or that they felt happy or connected to me.
Were these instances merely differences in conventions? Or were my emotions really different from the ones experienced by the American people I encountered? In later years, when relatives or friends from the Netherlands came visiting, I observed how they similarly failed to conform to the social and emotional norms. My dad, accepting a very generous dinner invitation by a local American friend, confirmed it was “fine” to come over for dinner on a Friday night during his stay—not only failing to use a superlative, but also failing to give proper recognition to the extraordinary effort on the part of his host. At that point his behavior made me cringe. Friends, coming to visit from the Netherlands, were friendly and jovial with waiters and shopkeepers, but without praising or thanking them. Their jokes and joviality emphasized the connections between everyone involved, but failed to mark the efforts of the service person.
More interesting yet: Dutch friends and relatives privately commented to me that the American emotions they encountered seemed “fake” or “exaggerated.” My son’s schoolteacher, Jill, exclaimed excitedly to my mom, who was visiting, how wonderful it was that my mom came to spend time with her grandchildren. She next asked my mom if she were enjoying herself. My mom confided to me that the teacher’s excitement seemed “fake.” On another occasion, my American colleagues praised the presentation of a visiting European scholar, saying it was brilliant. The European scholar shrugged and later told me that their praise “meant nothing,” and that it was likely “fake,” or “exaggerated.” How else would a European explain the unfailing generosity, interest, praise, and enthusiasm that, in their eyes, many Americans display in circumstances that from a Dutch perspective do not “naturally” give rise to those emotions?
The way I was raised, where there is gratitude (i.e., thanking someone for dinner), there is no room for friendship. “Thank you for dinner” felt to me as an act of distancing, rather than an expression of appreciation.
As individuals from these two Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) countries, the United States and the Netherlands, we experienced emotions that were different enough that each party judged the other’s emotions negatively, as either “rude” or “fake.” People from the same national cultures arguably would not have condemned them. The emotional differences at first seemed random to me, but over time they gained meaning.
I came to understand these emotional differences as serving divergent relationship goals. Pleasant emotions that would be appropriate in the Dutch context prioritize the connection between equals. At the end of a dinner party (or throughout, actually), you would emphasize the connectedness between people, referring to the get-together as gezellig, a Dutch word that has become a collector’s item of culture-specific emotion words. Derived from the word for “friend” (gezel), gezellig describes both the physical circumstances—being snug in a warm and homely place surrounded by good friends (it is impossible to be gezellig alone)—and an emotional state of feeling “held” and “comfortable.” Stressing the connection is prioritized over acknowledging the host’s efforts.
In U.S. contexts, by contrast, appropriate positive emotions often prioritize the articulation of the unique efforts, talents, and contributions of another person. Friends and acquaintances contribute to each other’s sense of value or self-esteem. When my son’s teacher told my mom she was being appreciated as a grandmother, she emphasized that my mom was special to her grandchildren—a domain over which she could claim to have some authority, being the teacher of my son. This is not fake at all: it is just a feeling that comes from a focus on those features or accomplishments that would give the other person reason to feel good about themselves. You are a wonderful grandmother, or in the case of my colleague, your talk had some really novel ideas (“is brilliant”).
White lies are less acceptable in the Dutch context: they are not taken to mean that you protect your friend or relative, as they clearly are to some of my American friends. They rather have the meaning of keeping you out, and of breaking connection.
In America, you praise and acknowledge each other whenever you can. This too could not be more different from the Dutch context, where no one should feel or act any better than another person. No worse, but certainly no better either, than another person. My mom used to tell me “that acting normal would be crazy enough,” usually in response to me doing something that—in her eyes—caught too much attention. Nobody should stand out. When I asked my mom, growing up, if she considered me pretty (hoping she would say yes, I guess), she answered: “I think you are about average.” She was telling me the truth, both grounding me and providing “real connection” between her and me.
Differences also show in unpleasant emotions. In the Netherlands, one way of making connection is to speak your mind. It is no coincidence, then, that Dutch people are known to be direct. To be able to identify and express your true feelings (and opinions) is considered both a virtue and a sign of maturity. Rather than making you feel special, a true friend tells you what they feel (about you), whether positive or negative. They say, “You are wrong about that” or “This does not look good on you.” You confront each other with the truth, even if the truth might not always be easy to hear. Being told the truth is always better than not, because it underlines that you have a relationship, as opposed to not. White lies are less acceptable in the Dutch context: they are not taken to mean that you protect your friend or relative, as they clearly are to some of my American friends. They rather have the meaning of keeping you out, and of breaking connection.
True connection also means to share your innermost feelings, even if these do not paint you or the relationship in the most favorable light. Telling close others that you are jealous or angry, or even that you feel hurt by their behaviors, shows you as authentic, human, and willing to make connection. The Dutch virtue of “honest authenticity” is so ingrained in me that I have found myself on many occasions (politely) expressing my views or making revelations about my emotions to American colleagues, schoolteachers, and friends, only to realize how “Dutch” I had been. Who was asking for those opinions? Who wanted those revelations? (No one!)
Even to me, as a cultural psychologist who studied emotions for a living, it was impossible to see my own emotions as products of culture, until I had a real stake in being part of another culture.
I often realized that there was no need to share my feelings and thoughts in an American context only after having divulged my inner self. After decades of living in the United States I still catch myself doing it occasionally. My American friends punctuate my self-disclosure, as when my friend Ann Kring pointedly commented, “Thank you for sharing,” after I had explained in great detail some convoluted story about my emotions (how I had felt rejected when I thought I was not included in some breakfast arrangement, only to discover that people had tried to include me, and that I was mistaken). She did me a service, the Dutch way, by telling me that my self-disclosure was inappropriate, and in the process, socializing me.
Coming to America made me aware, for the first time, that my own emotions were not like those of people from this other culture. This would not have been remarkable, because it was the first time I had lived outside of the European continent—save for a small, but important detail: I had just spent the preceding six years studying cultural variations in emotions. Given that my research expertise was the role of culture in emotion, my failure to recognize my own emotions as cultured goes to show the difficulty of recognizing our own emotions as anything but natural. Even to me, as a cultural psychologist who studied emotions for a living, it was impossible to see my own emotions as products of culture, until I had a real stake in being part of another culture—until I became an immigrant to the United States.
Excerpted from Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions. Copyright © 2022 by Batja Mesquita. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.