Emotions & Your Environment: Are You From a High or Low Arousal Culture?

When you’re excited, how do you express it?

Do you squeal aloud with glee? Do your eyebrows reach your hairline?

Or do you suppress your zeal, maintaining a cool exterior?

Last week, we talked about societal emotional environments.

This is the “emotional climate of a society” or the degree to which positive and negative emotions are expressed.

Today, we’ll look at an academic paper discussing the emotional arousal level of different cultures – specifically, Western or individualist culture versus Eastern or collectivist culture.

The paper looks at actual and ideal emotions in a society – ideal being which emotions are most valued.

Are Emotions Biological?

Some researchers view emotion as universal and biologically based.

But culture certainly determines the degree to which one feels comfortable expressing emotion.

The study explains,

“Culture constrains how emotions are felt and expressed in a given cultural context. It shapes the ways people should feel in certain situations and the ways people should express their emotions.”

Valence and Arousal

Studies on this topic often define emotional expression in two dimensions: valence and arousal.

These bipolar dimensions – pleasure-displeasure (valence) and activation-deactivation (degree of arousal) – make up the affective state.

Both of these dimensions affect brain activity and cognitive behaviors.

High Arousal and Low Arousal

There are high and low arousal emotions.

High arousal emotions induce action, energy, and mobilization. 

Here are some examples of high arousal emotions:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Excitement
  • Happiness
  • Hostility
  • Irritation
  • Alarm

Low arousal emotions induce rest and inaction.

Here are some examples of low arousal emotions:

  • Boredom
  • Calm/Serenity
  • Sadness
  • Tiredness
  • Depression
  • Relaxation
  • Helplessness
  • Peacefulness

As you can see, the difference in the intensity of feeling of each of these categories is vast.

Cultural Differences Determine Outcome

As we talked a little about last week, Eastern or collectivist cultures value low arousal emotions, while Western or individualist cultures value high arousal emotions.

This relates to cultural values.

In an individualist culture, a desire to influence others is a part of the social fabric.

High arousal emotions – which prompt action – are more effective in achieving influence.

In a collectivist culture, conforming to the group is ideal.

You can see why low arousal emotions would be preferred in this case.

Defining Emotion

The definition of emotions also differs across cultures.

For instance, happiness in China would be reflected in reservation and solemnity, while in America it would be reflected in exuberance. 

Thus, the arousal state of happiness is high in America and low in China.

These differences in valued emotions inspire preferred activities.

Because Westerners value high arousal emotions, they will participate in activities that elicit these emotions – like enthusiasm or excitement.

Think thrill-seeking activities, like mountain climbing or skydiving.

This goes to show that values and societal ideals drive everything from behavior to emotional expression even to our favorite hobbies.

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.

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.

How to Design the Most Effective Global Virtual Team

In our increasingly international and virtual environment, working and collaborating with global teams has become commonplace.

Harvard Business Review quotes a 2018 survey of white-collar employees from 90 countries in which 89 percent said that they complete projects via a global virtual team (GVT) “at least occasionally.”

And that was pre-pandemic; I can only imagine the frequency and prevalence of working on GVTs have only increased in the last four years.

There are obvious benefits to working globally and virtually.

For instance, you have a broader scope of creative insight and perspective on a global team, and you can maximize productivity and have a flexible support structure due to teammates working in multiple time zones.

But there are also many challenges.

A study by Harvard Business Review identified some of the ways cultural differences can shape how GVTs function.

Personal Diversity & Contextual Diversity

The study evaluated the interactions and behaviors of 804 remote international 6- to 8-member teams over multiple months of business consulting projects. 

The teams relied completely on digital communication and featured members from different countries.

Two categories were tracked: personal diversity and contextual diversity.

  • Think of personal diversity as involving such characteristics as gender, age, skills, values, and language.
  • Think of contextual diversity as the environments of team members, including the countries’ political systems, their institutions, and their levels of economic development.

Task Performance & Team Climate

Task performance and team climate were also monitored and evaluated.

  • Think of task performance as the quality and timeliness of the team’s efforts, as judged by industry experts.
  • Think of team climate as team member satisfaction, team cohesion, their enjoyment of the process together, as indicated in weekly surveys.

The Results

The study found that a deep contrast in contextual diversity can be incredibly advantageous to task performance, particularly when it comes to tasks requiring creativity and problem-solving.

The varying points of view due to different backgrounds and experiences can lead to unconventional approaches and innovative solutions.

On the other hand, personal diversity was found to be disadvantageous to team climate.

Different ages, values, language levels, etc., leads to less trust, less understanding of others’ motivations, less enjoyment in working together, and less general communication.

Conflicts arise, while cohesion sinks.

How Managers Can Benefit

These takeaways can help managers design an effective global team.

Creative projects benefit from teams that are contextually diverse, so seeking out team members from diverse backgrounds and cultures can produce the unconventional approaches desired for such projects.

Projects that are routine but that need a quick turnaround would do well with a team that is low on personal diversity, but other cultural differences don’t impact the results of these types of projects as much.

In the end, building a GVT is not a science but using this data can only improve your odds of designing an effective global virtual team.

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?

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.

Culture in Crisis, Part II: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

We’ve discussed how cultural values can predict how a community will respond to crisis.

In a continuation of last week’s post, we’ll look at the conclusion of the 2007 study by Melinda Rene Miller, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions.”

Hurricane Katrina

With the crisis of Hurricane Katrina as the backdrop, the study looked at two communities within the disaster area and their responses to it.

The values of the New Orleans Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast communities differ, and the study sought to draw strong correlations between these preexisting cultural values and corresponding reactions to determine if community crisis reactions can be predicted based on culture.

The study examined each communities’ demographics, communication styles, association with authorities, relationship to the environment, group unity and community roles, amongst other aspects, to infer their values regarding each category.

Key Differences in Response

The study found key differences in response to Hurricane Katrina between Louisiana’s Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Let’s look at Louisiana’s Ninth Ward:

  • Community Roles Analysis: A community roles analysis showed preexisting beliefs in the inefficiency of leaders, which led to internal disputes and an inability to make unified decisions. This resulted in mixed messages, distrust, confusion, and an inability to execute a crisis plan. Additionally, many police and emergency services officers reportedly abandoned their posts.
  • Demographic Analysis: Evacuation plans failed to include segments of the population, including the ill, those with pets, and those without vehicles or places to go. The demographic analysis showed 30 percent of the Ninth Ward was disabled and over 30 percent didn’t own a car. Many lived below the poverty line and so had no emergency savings to evacuate. Further, personal relationships (even with pets) and fear of change were ingrained in Ninth Ward culture. The paper deems that the culture in the community was “every man for himself”; the onus was on the government to fix things and building back the community together was not considered a personal responsibility.
  • Communication Style Analysis: Many in the ward ignored the evacuation order. The communication style analysis showed that though the community values orders to some degree, having been repeatedly given this evacuation order before unnecessarily, they did not believe authorities and thought the storm would blow over. They also feared looters more than the storm.

Those in the Mississippi Gulf Coast:

  • Community Roles Analysis: Although the government response to the Mississippi Gulf Coast community was equally slow, the people began cleanup on their own. Their values include a can-do attitude, resulting in community rebuilding that was 21 percent more expedited than in the Ninth Ward.  The police force and firefighters were on duty around-the-clock, as dictated by the local government.
  • Demographic Analysis: In the study, there is little mention of the impact of demographics on the response. It would be interesting to see these differences fleshed out, as the wealth and health of the community significantly impacts its ability to respond.
  • Communication Style Analysis: To prevent looting, the local government controlled supplies and resources, in order to distribute them equally to citizens. In rebuilding of the area, the government asked the community to be mindful of elevation maps and received support and excitement about the restructuring rather than the resistance experienced in the Ninth Ward.

The study explains why knowledge about cultural values is valuable in this context:

“Being able to make the claim that a community’s culture has a greater effect on the public’s reaction to a crisis trigger event than the event itself, will aid future research in focusing more on creating a list of cultural aspects that match with crisis response strategies.”

The Way Forward

The conclusion drawn from this study is that knowing a culture and its values provides a wealth of information that can be applied to a crisis response strategy customized to that culture’s values. 

Consider the most recent global pandemic.

Culture influenced the various outcomes of different countries and communities around the world during the COVID crisis.

The reactions to supply rationing, the degree of adherence to face mask rules and social distancing, the acceptance of or reluctance to vaccination – and the resulting outcomes of such actions/inactions – all of this has roots in each nation’s culture and its values.

Cross-cultural research into the varying cultural responses and their outcomes to the COVID crisis, and other similar large-scale crises, could greatly aid organizations and governments in creating more effective response strategies customized to different cultural pockets in a nation – and to the nation as a whole.

Culture in Crisis, Part I: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

Fight, flight, or freeze: these are three common human responses when one is under threat.

Each individual will respond to crises in a different way.

But does our culture influence how we, as a community, respond?

Think NYC’s response to 9/11 or Japan’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

From terrorism to natural disasters to global pandemics, communities and nations often respond in different ways to trigger events, based on their own cultural values.

Let’s take a look at one example.

The Amish

A school shooting occurred in an Amish community on October 2, 2006. Five young girls were killed.

Amish values include forgiveness, living righteously, and hating the sin and not the sinner, and this was reflected in their response to the trigger event. 

As Melinda Rene Miller’s paper, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions,” notes, revenge is not a part of Amish culture.

In mourning the victims of the tragedy, the community also mourned the shooter and embraced his family

They donated money to the killer’s widow and children and attended his funeral.

Sociologist Donald Kraybill who co-authored a book on the tragedy spoke on the power of Amish forgiveness, saying, 

“Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance [at the killer’s burial service], and they hugged the widow and hugged other members of the killer’s family.”

Other cultures might respond to this type of crisis with a need for action, through new laws or regulations; a need for revenge or justice, through an investigation and public trial; and/or a plea for monetary donations for the community to recover.

None of these approaches would have lent themselves to the values of Amish culture.

The response of unity and emphasis on religion and humanity’s purpose on earth correlated with their values.

Behavioral and Attitudinal Reactions

As mentioned in the intro, everyone reacts to crises differently. 

Miller’s 2007 study set out to determine if, and to what degree, cultural values impact group response to trigger events.

The paper’s abstract proposes:

“While each individual person within a given community will react to a potential crisis situation in their individual ways, as a whole, their reactions will never vary too greatly, as their behaviors and attitudes are largely based upon their learned cultural values.”

Next week, we’ll delve into the results of this study, surrounding varied outcomes in communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

How Does Culture Influence the Way We Use Our Brains? Find Out Here.

We’ve all heard of “right-brain” and “left-brain” thinkers.

Left-brain thinkers are thought to be more logical and mathematical, while right-brain thinkers tend to lean emotional and artistic.

But are there any links between the way our brains function and our cultures?

We’ve talked a lot about gene-culture coevolution over these past few weeks.

In short, the theory suggests that genetics and culture are interconnected.

This brain imaging study about visual perceptual tasks seems to substantiate that theory.

Individualist vs. Collective 

Psychological research has shown that individualist and collective values are demonstrated in an individual’s view of objects in relation to their context.

Americans, valuing individuality, tend to view the two as independent from each other.

East Asian cultures, which value the collective, view objects as contextually interdependent.

These differences have been shown to impact perception and memory by behavioral scientists.

The Study: How Our Brains Work

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a look at whether these cultural tendencies can be measured in brain activity patterns.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from a group of 20 participants – 10 from East Asia, 10 from the U.S. – McGovern Institute for Brain Research Professor John Gabrieli and his team examined participants’ mental operations.

Participants were asked to compare a sequence of images, and their mental operations were mapped via blood flow changes in the brain.

The images were lines within squares.

Participants were asked to compare each image with the previous image, making judgments based on relative judgments of interdependent objects or absolute judgments of individual objects without context.

For instance, some questions asked whether the lines were proportional to the squares, regardless of size (interdependent); others asked whether the lines were the same length as each other, regardless of the squares (independent of context).

The Results: Confirmed

While the simplicity of the task resulted in no differences in accuracy between the groups, brain activation patterns did differ.

Relative judgments, which have been shown to be harder for Americans, stimulated the brain regions dedicated to mental tasks that demand attention. 

These regions were less active for absolute judgments.

As you might guess, the results for the East Asian group were the opposite, with brain activity becoming more active for absolute judgments and less for relative.

The paper’s lead author, Trey Hedden, said of the study:

“We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain’s attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone.”

Even more interesting, questionnaires had been distributed prior to the exam to see how closely each individual identified with their culture, using questions regarding values and norms.

Those individuals who identified more intimately with their culture’s values showed a stronger reactive pattern of brain activity relative to their culture.

This study suggests that our culture – and how closely we individually identify with our culture – can influence the way our minds work.

Pretty heady.

Population Thinking: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Contributes to Cultural Theory

Charles Darwin is best known for his theories of evolution and natural selection.

But biologist Ernst Mayr asserts that Darwin’s concept of “population thinking” is his most important contribution to biology.

In the book, How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd delve into why this is the case.

This is what they’ve found.

The Theory of Evolution Evolves Our Thinking

Prior to Darwin’s theories on evolution, species were thought to be static and unchanging.

But what Darwin found was that a fluctuating pool of inherited information was passed on across generations over time, and this information was affected by the daily events of the species’ lives, which were also changing.

The persistence of the daily events and the spread of their prevalence would produce inherent properties and traits within a species.

In line with natural selection, those traits that allowed the “survival of the fittest” were passed on to their offspring.

Not only traits, but behaviors that benefited survival – a process Darwin called “the inherited effects of use and disuse.”

In this way, the core of the evolutionary theory is grounded in population thinking, which is the crux of cultural theory.

Cultural Evolution

Culture is an acquired state of behavior, produced via social learning.

Skills, values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, customs, moral systems – these are all acquired and comprise group culture.

And they all evolve via population thinking.

Like the theory of evolution, this theory of cultural evolution delves into why some attitudes and behaviors carry on in a group and others don’t.

As with evolution, the daily lives of people in a society contribute to the process of cultural change.

For instance, a moral value might, at one point in time, appear more appealing in relation to that era’s daily life or current events, thereby spreading and persisting from person to person in a society and generation to generation in a culture.

Similarly, beliefs and behaviors that are more easily imitable and allow survival will spread, while those that might result in group criticism or early death will vanish.

Over time, the persistence of certain beliefs, skills, attitudes, etc., create observable patterns that serve as the genes of culture.

But culture can adapt in a way that genes cannot.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about how population thinking is enmeshed in culture.