Emotion Words: How Different Languages Express Feelings

Does the emotion word for happiness mean the same thing in all languages?

How about grief? Angst?

A scientific study looked at the semantic patterns in some 2,500 languages and discovered that emotion words may mean different things according to the language family from which they originate.

We’ve talked about emotion and culture over the past few weeks: how emotions are perceived differently and expressed differently.

Now, we learn that even the language of emotion is diverse.

Let’s take a look.

Universal Emotions

Some emotions, which English speakers might consider primary emotions – think happiness, sadness, anger, love, hate, etc. – are quite universal across world languages.

Most languages have words to describe the primary feelings shared by all humans.

However, just as cultures see color differently, even these primary emotions may be nuanced.

The primary emotion of anger blends into other feelings in different cultures.

Indo-European languages link anger to anxiety, while Austroasiatic languages link it to regret or grief.

Austronesian languages connect anger to pride and hate, while Nakh-Daghestanian languages connect it to envy.

This seems to indicate that cultures see even primary emotions in different shades.

But where culture and emotion become even more interesting is in the specificity of the language surrounding it.

German Specificity 

Some languages, like German, have words expressing very specific feelings for which other languages have no equivalent vocabulary.

“Sehnsucht,” for instance, means to yearn deeply for another life, while “schadenfreude” means to feel pleasure from another’s misfortune.

There are no direct translations in English, and the nuance would be lost in describing these feelings in pretty much any other language but German.

You might consider that these feelings, therefore, are deeply rooted in German culture.

Papua Guinea’s Hospitality

The word, “awumbuk,” is another example of a feeling expressed with language that is deeply rooted in culture.

This word comes from the Baining people of Papua Guinea.

It expresses the feeling felt after guests leave following an overnight stay.

According to cognitive scientist, Asifa Majid, it describes a feeling of listlessness, like a “social hangover.”

The different experiences of emotion across cultures are emphasized in language.

As the study’s senior author, psychologist and neuroscientist, Kristen Lindquist, put it,

“We walk around assuming that everyone else’s experience is the same as ours because we name it with the same word, and this suggests that that might not be the case.”

“Are You Angry?” How One Can Identify Norm Violations Through Emotional Expression

A group is completing a task.

Each participant takes a turn doing the task. Most do it the same way, but then one does it completely differently.

When this individual steps out of place, the others look at him angrily.

If you observed this, what would you deduce?

What would you think if the others didn’t look angry but appeared sad instead?

This is the scenario put forth by the study we’ll be discussing in this post.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about societal emotional environments and cultural emotional arousal levels.

As a foreigner in a new country, how do you adapt your behavior so that you don’t have a monkey moment in another culture?

Often, you can read into others’ emotional expressions which may indicate to you whether you’ve upset a social norm.

The Study

This study takes a look at observations of norm violations using four countries – Germany, Greece, Israel, and the US – each of which has different rules and norms for negative emotions.

Each group observed the two interactions described above.

In general, the anger shown suggested to the observers that if you want to be part of a group, you should complete the task the same way as the others (see, norms).

However, when the observers saw sad reactions instead, they weren’t universally sure how the participant should have behaved in this social context.

Anger vs. Sadness

Anger is generally a strong signal about societal norms and behaviors.

Anger suggests a behavior that’s both undesirable and incongruent to the emoter’s norms.

Sadness, however, though it may indicate unpleasantness or goal obstruction, does not necessarily emphasize a norm violation.

Performance of All Groups

For all four groups, anger was more indicative of a norm violation than expressions of sadness or neutrality.

Greek participants were better at perceiving sadness as a sign of a norm violation, while German participants were most prone to perceive anger.

American participants were most likely to consider the expressers indifferent.

Israeli participants differentiated best amongst the three expressions…although that may be because the study was Israeli-created (and so, the expressions were too).

The study also found that participants were more likely to recognize the norm and see the violation if anger was the expression shown.

This suggests that different cultures are more perceptively sensitive to different emotions and that anger is more pointed in making one note a norm violation.

Expressing Emotions in Culture: Do More Emotive Cultures Experience Greater Life Satisfaction?

Does expressing positive emotions make a person happier?

Does a society that embraces expression breed a population that’s more content?

Before you answer, let’s look at this forty-nine-country study on societal emotional environments and cultural differences in life satisfaction and well-being.

Societal Emotional Environments

First off, what is a societal emotional environment?

The paper defines it as

“the emotional climate of a society (operationalized as the degree to which positive and negative emotions are expressed in a society).”

In other words, our individual “emotional environment” is influenced by the emotions those around us express

This, in turn, influences our well-being.

The study looks at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal effects of emotion expression.

  • Intrapersonal – the well-being of those who express the emotions
  • Interpersonal – the quality of interactions with others for those who express emotions
  • Extrapersonal – the well-being of those around the expresser as a result of their expression

Emotion Valuation

Not only do different cultures express emotions differently, but they value them differently too.

Particularly when it comes to intensity of emotion.

Latin American cultures, for example, tend toward high arousal positive emotions, like joy and excitement, and these are shared often, intensely, and openly.

Confucian Asian cultures, on the other hand, value low arousal positive emotions, like calm and serenity, and therefore will more often suppress expressive emotions.

The Study’s Results

While identifying the average PSEE (positive societal emotional environment) and the NSEE (negative societal emotional environment) of each society surveyed, the study evaluates the participants’ life satisfaction and well-being.

Participants self-reported the frequency of positive and negative emotional expressions.

The study found that all countries expressed positive emotions more frequently than negative emotions, some more so than others.

Italy, El Salvador, and Ghana were countries with the highest PSEE scores, expressing positive emotions “a couple of times a day,” while Japan, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom had the lowest PSEE scores, expressing positive emotions “a couple of times a week.”

High PSEE country scores were in the regions of Latin America, Germanic Europe, Nordic Europe, Latin Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, while low PSEE scores occurred in the Anglo region, as well as Southern Asia and Confucian Asia.

Negative emotions were expressed frequently in countries like Guatemala, Bhutan, and Pakistan, averaging “a couple of times a week,” while those countries with the lowest scores – Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland – expressed them “a couple of times a month.”

The study found that societies with high NSEE scores reported lower life satisfaction on the whole (although individuals were often independently more satisfied), while societies with high PSEE scores reported higher life satisfaction but not significantly.

This seems to indicate that having negativity vocalized around you affects your life satisfaction to a greater extent than having positivity vocalized around you.

Next week, we’ll take a further look at emotions in culture.

Culture and Self: How Self-Esteem is Based on the Fulfillment of Dominant Cultural Values 

Does one’s culture influence self-regard?

This article by CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange) suggests that it actually informs it.

How?

Everyone bases their success or level of achievement on the dominant values of their culture.

Even if a person’s personal values differ from the norm, their self-esteem is often based on fulfilling cultural values.

Let’s see why.

The Survey

Fulfilling one’s personal values has long been viewed in psychology as the greatest influence on self-esteem.

But that may not be the case.

A global study, conducted by social psychologist, Maja Becker, at the CLLE (Laboratoire Cognition, Langue, Langages, Ergonomie) department of the Université de Toulouse II-Le Mirail, surveyed 5,000 teenagers and young adults from 19 different countries.

200 young people from countries in Eastern and Western Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East took part.

Questions in the survey covered personal and cultural values and to what degree they impacted the students’ self-esteem.

Key Factors of Cultural Influence

What the survey found was that four key factors drove self-esteem in all cultures:

  • Earning social status
  • Fulfilling one’s duty
  • Controlling one’s life
  • Benefitting others

The study also found that the students’ own personal values had little to do with their level of self-esteem.

Rather, self-esteem is measured against our ability to fulfill dominant cultural values.

Fulfillment of Values = Self-Esteem

Each culture places different degrees of importance on these four factors.

For instance, those from Middle Eastern, African, or Asian cultures that value tradition and conformity might place more importance on doing one’s duty and benefitting others.

Thus, individuals in such cultures derive their self-esteem from demonstrating this fulfillment of duties.

And those from Western cultures whose values lie in individualism and freedom might place more importance on controlling one’s life.

Thus, individuals in such cultures derive their self-esteem from demonstrating such control.

Even if one doesn’t personally subscribe to their own culture’s values, they are still influenced by them on a deeply personal level.

Subtly, societal expectations can make or break an individual’s psyche and self-worth.

Next week, we’ll discuss how a culture’s time perspective might also influence self-esteem.

Workplace Organizational Structures: The Pros & Cons of Hierarchical, Flat, and Functional Workplaces

Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed how to build the best global virtual team, the challenges of working virtually and cross-culturally, and how to best manage such a team.

One of the cross-cultural challenges discussed was differences in norms regarding organizational structures in the workplace.

Some cultures prefer a hierarchical structure with a clear chain of command. Others prefer a flat structure, which is often more collaborative.

Over the next couple of posts, we’ll discuss various organizational structures.

Knowing about these structures as a manager will help you understand how others might be accustomed to working.

Hierarchical Structure

The hierarchical structure is probably the most common organizational structure in a workplace.

It has a clear and direct chain of command, with a senior manager at the top, followed by various departmental executives, followed by supervisors/team leads, all the way down to general employees.

Those at the highest level – the CEO, for instance – have the final say in decisions.

The CEO’s decisions may, however, require approval by a board of directors.

Each structure has its pros and cons.

Hierarchical pros:

  • Provides clear career paths
  • Offers a clear chain of command, thus reducing conflict
  • Helps businesses streamline processes
  • Leaves little room for dissent from those low on the chain (which can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it)

Hierarchical cons:

  • May negatively impact employee morale
  • Can slow decision-making processes, as approval is needed
  • May stunt innovation and creativity, as fewer are allowed the power to make decisions

Flat Organization Structure

Small businesses and startups typically use a flat organizational structure.

They must often adjust to a stabler structure once they move past the startup stage.

As you may have guessed, this structure is much less hierarchical with fewer middle managers between the lower-level employees and top dogs.

Flat pros:

  • Less supervision required
  • More responsibility given to employees
  • Trust and open communication
  • Greater employee involvement and ease of coordination

Flat cons:

  • Potential for more conflict and confusion
  • Sometimes slows decision-making processes, as people cannot agree
  • May stunt specified skills or knowledge

Functional Structure

A functional structure involves departments made up of specialized work functions, each with a designated and experienced leader.

The decision-making process is generally centralized in this type of organization, with department heads reporting to upper management.

The team leads communicate with each other to coordinate, and the team members below them typically have little involvement with that process.

Functional pros:

  • Employees focus on specialized tasks
  • Each department fosters teamwork toward a joint goal
  • Is scalable no matter the size of the business

Functional cons:

  • Coordination can be lacking
  • Big picture context is lost on lower-level employees
  • Company processes and strategies can become confused

As you can see, each organizational structure strong and weak points.

The type of structure you choose should be best suited to the business you’re running.

Without a strong structure that supports your business and the type of work culture you wish to promote, you will face difficulties in productivity, coordination, communication, and overall morale.

Next week, we’ll talk about four additional workplace organizational structures.

The Team Itself: Management Challenges Faced By Global Virtual Team Leads

Have you ever dealt with a colleague who has a very different work style than you?

Or one who is driven by different motivations?

How did you resolve these conflicts in approach and perspective?

Whatever skills you’ve used to confront any collaborative issues you’ve had with your colleagues are likely to pay off in a global virtual team environment.

As we’ve discussed over the past two weeks, cross-cultural remote teams come with their own unique challenges.

Some of them are familiar; some are completely foreign.

I’ve outlined a few below.

Motivating Factors

While we are all motivated by different things – be it money, accolades, achievement, etc. – culture often factors into our motivations.

That’s because different cultures have different values

And values are what often drive motivation.

Some cultures emphasize tangible things; thus, bonuses or other such benefits would be motivators for these team members.

Other cultures value work/life balance, so job satisfaction and time off might be a motivating factor in this case.

Knowing where your team members come from and what they value will help you motivate each member in an individualized way.

Work Style

Often, different work styles are common amongst different cultures.

This often has to do with how the culture views workplace hierarchies.

Are your team members from a culture that demands a strict hierarchy and a top-down approach to management?

Or are they from a culture with a flatter more egalitarian team approach?

On a cross-cultural team, members will have different managerial needs due to their backgrounds, so understanding their work style – whether they need more hands-on or hands-off guidance – will help you better lead them.

Information Gaps

Information gaps on a global virtual team can impact everything from data flows to communication to processing.

Giving all team members access to the right resources for your project goals will ensure that no one falls through the gap.

Doing so will also improve collaboration, as everyone will be working with the same information.

These are just a few challenges that managers face while working with global virtual teams, specifically in a cross-cultural context.

Next week, we’ll talk about challenges that have to do with the virtual environment itself.

Tranquilo, Maktoob, and Hakuna Matata: Words to Live by in Different Cultures

Each culture perceives the meaning of life differently.

This can come across in its turns of phrase.

Last week, we discussed a cross-cultural study about well-being and how the term isn’t universal.

Like many complex terms, well-being means different things to different cultures, based on each culture’s values.

Today, I’d like to take a look at how our language – or our turns of phrase – often exemplify our cultural values.

Tranquilo in Colombia

“Tranquilo” – or “relax” – is a bit of a mantra in Colombia.

In a Washington Post article, James Bargent describes it as:

“a refrain which can drive you into an impotent rage, or it can remind you that life’s troubles are rarely terminal.”

Often ranking as one of the happiest nations in the world, Colombians generally live by this maxim, which may partially be based upon the uncertainty of life in the country.

If you don’t build up great expectations, you don’t become upset when your plans are upset.

Instead, the culture wraps itself up in family and friends and appreciates life slowly at its own pace.

Maktoob in Arabic Cultures

Meaning “that which is written,” maktoob translates to destiny or fate.

In Arabic culture, when something goes right or wrong, you might be told with a shrug that it is “maktoob.”

With our destiny already pre-determined by God, things happen to us and are out of our hands.

This external locus of control allows Arabic cultures to attribute both their successes and struggles in life to God’s will.

Such a perspective can give one comfort that everything that happens was meant to happen.

Hakuna Matata

What a wonderful phrase.

You may know it from Disney’s The Lion King, but the phrase, “hakuna matata,” was taken from Swahili culture.

It roughly translates to “there are no troubles.”

The phrase is often used as a response to a greeting or as a condolence.

“Hakuna matata” highlights the laidback attitude of Swahili culture but also its emphasis on personal and societal well-being.

These three turns of phrase show us a deeper aspect of each culture and where their values lie.

Can you think of a phrase in your own language that exemplifies your culture?

The Meaning of Well-Being: A Qualitative Cross-Cultural Study

What does “well-being” mean to you?

Back in 1984, the World Health Organization defined health and well-being as follows:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.”

This universal definition of well-being differs from subjective well-being, which is how one evaluates one’s own quality of life, how one feels in it, and how one feels they function in it.

Research and literature surrounding subjective well-being focus on happiness, positive affect, and life satisfaction.

Social well-being is more in tune with social behaviors: how one interacts with social institutions and mores, how he/she interacts with others, and how others react to him/her.

Considering these differences, this study comparing well-being constructs between German and Chinese students looked at social support as an indicator of social well-being, and happiness and satisfaction with life as indicators of subjective well-being.

Well-Being Study

It can be assumed that the definitions of the above terms might differ between these two groups, based on their differing cultures, as might the objectives to accomplish each.

Via focus groups and questionnaires, the study assessed perceived social support through rated statements like:

  • “I experience a lot of understanding and security from others.”
  • “If necessary, I can easily borrow something I might need from neighbors or friends.”
  • “I have friends and family who will simply just hug me.”

Similarly, satisfaction was measured through statements like:

  • “The conditions of my life are excellent.”
  • “In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.” 
  • “I am satisfied with my life.”

And, lastly, happiness was measured via statements like:

  • “Some people are generally happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything.”
  • “Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be.”

The Results

Happiness

Both groups defined happiness criteria as including social contacts, positive emotions, and quality of life. Where the two countries differed was in social contact.

Social contact was the most frequently mentioned aspect in China and the least in Germany.

Another interesting aspect of the way each group viewed happiness was in the angle they took. 

The Chinese groups saw happiness as pursuing a dream/goal and/or seeing it fulfilled, while the German groups saw two types of happiness: uncontrollable (which is designed by luck or fate, for instance) and controllable (as in achieving something). They also specified that happiness is subjective and brief.

Life Satisfaction

Both groups noted different kinds of satisfaction.

First, an individual realistic standard; second, an ideal standard that’s changeable. 

Lastly, they mentioned one’s perception of current satisfaction.

Quality of life was seen by both groups as a significant factor of life satisfaction, but the Chinese students focused on good living conditions (like high salary and economic conditions), while the German students focused on basic needs fulfillment (a home and food, etc.).

The researchers concluded that these differences may be based on the economic focuses of the two countries.

The Chinese groups saw contentment with one’s situation and a positive attitude about life as major contributing factors to life satisfaction, while the German students noted that satisfaction can come with comparing one’s current situation with the social norm or an individual standard.

Perceived Social Support

Chinese students focused on societal support, like charities, companies, and government policies, when discussing sources of perceived social support, while German students focused more on direct social networks.

German students mentioned financial and material support more frequently than their Chinese counterparts.

Both groups mentioned emotional support, while only the Chinese groups talked about “asking for help” indirectly, such as by posting on social media to gain empathy.

This study shows that though the themes of well-being may be universal, the contributing factors to well-being differ across cultures, often depending on cultural values, perspectives, and expectations.

Holistic vs. Analytic Thinking in Culture

How would you describe your living room?

Would you say it’s a space to commune with your family and entertain your friends? Would you describe it as a welcoming area to offer your guests food and drink?

Or would you list its working parts? Would you explain that it has two sofas, a coffee table, an entertainment center, and a 65″ flat-screen TV?

If you’d describe your living room the former way, you’re thinking holistically; if you’d describe it the latter way, you’re thinking analytically. 

Last week, we discussed how cross-cultural research might take a more positive approach to cultural differences.

In seeking out the positive, researchers took a look at Hyun-Jung Lee’s interview with renowned cognitive social psychologist, Richard Nisbett, who authored The Geography of Thought.

In the paper, Nisbett analyzes these two dominant cultural thinking styles – holistic and analytic thinking – and outlines some pros and cons of each.

Before we get to his analysis, let’s take a closer look at these two thinking styles.

Holistic Thinking

The holistic thinking style is characteristic of East Asian cultures.

This thinking style perceives everything as interconnected.

It sees the whole, and specifically the relationships between objects.

The style of thinking relates to the broader philosophy of East Asian cultures with their focus on balance, harmony, and cyclical change.

Holistic thinking also blends with the values of these cultures, which are collectivist in nature.

The understanding of the world as an interconnected whole has its benefits, as we will discuss shortly.

Analytic Thinking

As you may have guessed, the analytic thinking style is characteristic of Western cultures.

Analytic thinking identifies separate objects and categorizes them according to their attributes.

This style of thinking relates to the broader philosophy of Western cultures with their focus on individualism and personal motivations

Analytic thinking corresponds to the values of Western cultures, which are individualist in nature.

The understanding of the world’s moving pieces in isolation is valuable as well, as Nisbett will explain.

Nisbett’s Analysis

In Hyun-Jung Lee’s interview, Nisbett examines each thinking style.

He notes that holistic thinking allows one to notice a great depth of the physical world and context, enabling one to accept contradictions.

Whereas analytic thinking is more black-and-white, holistic thinking allows shades of grey.

Due to the lack of universalistic rules in this style of thinking, however, Nisbett concludes that one is more vulnerable to potential abuse.

As for analytic thinking, it is scientific.

This logical type of thinking has given the world all of the advantages of modern science and technology, taking us leaps and bounds.

However, its “hyper”-logicizing can give way to disconnecting from the phenomenon itself. 

Rather than suggesting that one thinking style is better than the other, Nisbett concludes that the best thinking lies in between these two ways of thought.

It’s the attempt to understand the different cognitive and intellectual styles that can help us improve our own method of reasoning.

Cross-Cultural Research: How to Leverage the Benefits and Positive Dynamics of Cultural Differences

Are we Debbie Downers when analyzing cultural differences in cross-cultural management research?

That is, do we look at the negative side of these differences over the positive to our own detriment?

That’s what researchers for this paper determined.

Authoring, “The upside of cultural differences: Towards a more balanced treatment of culture in cross-cultural management research,” the team of researchers encouraged scholars to “explore how cultural diversity, distance, and foreignness create value for global organizations.”

And this is what they discovered.

The State of Cross-Cultural Management Literature Today

More often than not, CCM literature looks at the negative when discussing differences in culture and management.

The paper highlights regularly used terms in such research, like “foreignness,” “cultural distance,” and “cultural misfit,” saying they reflect this emphasis on the negative.

These terms suggest incompatibility, conflict, and friction.

To counter this, the authors suggest an emphasis on the upside of cultural differences, instead seeking the “positive role of distance and diversity across national, cultural, institutional, and organizational dimensions.”

Endeavoring to seek out the positive, they argue, will balance the treatment of culture in CCM research, the goal being to leverage the benefits and positive dynamics of cultural differences in various contexts.

So, how does one do this exactly?

International and global businesses reap the benefits of cross-cultural labor and management, so the authors suggest the focus in CCM research and literature can be placed on those benefits.

A Double-Edged Sword

One example outlined in the paper is the following research submission:

Pesch and Bouncken’s paper, “The double-edged sword of cultural distance in international alliances,” shows how examining positive outcomes of cross-border interactions can benefit international businesses. 

Their findings suggest that the positive effects of cultural differences involving knowledge combination and task discourse outweigh any issues with trust-building that can occur by perceived distance. 

Moreover, cross-border alliances lead to improved innovation and joint product development. 

The research submission clarifies that these positive effects occur mainly in non-equity alliances, whereas M&As or joint ventures might run into more cross-cultural conflict, due to communication issues and social categorization processes.

Still, the above benefits are often overlooked in CCM research.

The authors conclude:

“Explicitly considering positive phenomena can help better understand when and how cultural diversity, distance, and foreignness can enhance organizational effectiveness and performance at multiple levels.”

The paper also took a look at Hyun-Jung Lee’s interview with renowned cognitive social psychologist, Richard Nisbett, who authored The Geography of Thought.

We’ll dive into that next week.