Between us…

How emotions are “stories in the world.”

I ordered a couple of items from Amazon. It’s an option of last resort when I cannot find something going direct to companies. Sometimes Amazon is the only way to order a product.

Free shipping is another reason why I might order from Amazon. Since I’m not a Prime member—given the company’s low value practices—I usually wait for my total to pass the minimum threshold. Which this particular order did.

However, I realized I wasn’t going to receive one of the items within a reasonable time frame. So I deleted it. Now the amount still passed the threshold, but the algorithm wanted to charge me a shipping cost for one of the other items.

Instead of getting upset—no point being upset at a machine, it does what it’s programmed to do—I just adjusted my order until I figured the reason for the charge and eliminated it. Ordering online taught me (us) a few tricks.

We also learned how to game the social media algorithm. But there are people at the end of our posts, on the other side of the screen. Wherever you have persons (and bots that pose as humans), emotions are part of it.

Some readings tell us emotions are physiological modes that prime us for certain actions—cooperation, cohesion, antagonism, etc. These actions include a conspicuous signaling component—you feel something in your body.

Image by Mandy Fontana from Pixabay

It’s not wrong, only incomplete.

“When people become angry or sad, it’s actually a social act in our relationship.”

As I learned in my conversation with Batja Mesquita, everything psychological comes with boundary changes. People have positions in a system. Family is a system, as culture is a system. We constantly make meaning within the context of a larger system. We are how we engage with the world as groups.

Value in emotion changes based on how people behave as a consequence.

For example, in Western cultures, when people (especially men) get angry, people associate status with the emotion. Under those circumstances, anger is a marker of power. Children who make a fit also get what they want—they learn by watching what works.

Shame works similarly. In some cultures, it signals that you’re willing to obey the norms, that you’re aware you didn’t conform and want to be accepted. Children who feel shame in Taiwan or China are growing up well, because they know boundaries. America abhors shame—you’re not seen as strong, it’s bad for your self-esteem.

Emotions are markers for important and personally meaningful events that are out of the ordinary. They consist of meaning making and reorientation, a preparation for action, or a realignment to those extraordinary events. They evolve as we position within a context and respond to others.

We do emotions with other people.

You could learn a new language and speak it well. But unless you interact in that culture, you will merely apply new labels to constructs that remain from your own context. To communicate effectively, you will need the experience of what the emotion means in the new environment.

“A lot of times, our interpretation of how we should feel fits the interpretation of the environment.”

We all want to have a good life. But what ‘a good life’ means can be very different in different cultures. The story we have in our heads about how things ‘should be’ has a conversation with the reality of what ‘could be’ or is possible in the environment in which we find ourselves.

You don’t have to be happy to have a meaningful life.

The obsession with ‘being happy’ may be a modern invention. It’s an idea not shared across time, nor cultures. Chinese research found that things like doing your work and sleeping enough were the significant markets of well-being.

I look forward to Mesquita’s next book, Against Happiness (intended as a single measure for ‘a good life’).

Relationships weren’t based on ‘love’.

Parental as spousal, relationships were based more on obedience and fitting in the system. If you work on a farm, ‘do you work enough’ may take precedence. The nuclear family came about historically with property ownership and the system of inheritance. It changed things.

10,000 years ago, when humans led a nomadic life, it was normal for everyone—men and women—to be independent. Then came land ownership, and bang, females had to become monogamous.

‘Love’ could have entered the equation when relationships became more voluntary. When the reason for sticking around changed from mutual interdependence to choice, in that scenario it’s more important to express how you value each other.

Batja Mesquita is a pioneer in cultural psychology. Her main thesis in her recent book, Between Us, is that emotions are not innate, they happen between people. Emotions signal a taking of a stance in relationships, both one-on-one and within larger social networks.

Some highlights from the book

Mesquita lays out two frameworks for experiencing emotions. MINE, which are “Mental, INside the person, Essentialist (they always have the same properties)”. And OURS, which are “OUtside the person, Relational, and Situated (meaning that emotions take different shapes depending on the situation in which they take place)”.

When your culture’s model of emotions is MINE, this means that what counts as an emotion, what is important about the emotion, what will be noticed or remembered, and what is acted upon are internal feelings and bodily sensations.

But when your culture’s model of emotions is OURS, then relational acts and situational norms and requirements may count as emotions, they are noticed, remembered, and acted upon.

A MINE cultural model translates into a very different way of doing emotions than an OURS cultural model.

MINE predominates in individualist cultures while OURS is the norm in more collectivist cultures—the norm for the majority of the world, according to Mesquita, despite the centrality of the MINE model to the Western world.

Since emotion is about staking or negotiating social roles and hierarchies, emotions are not universal. A given emotion will be “right” in some cultures, “wrong” in others:

Emotions like anger and shame do something in the relationship with others. Anger is a claim for dominance, which is “right” in cultures that emphasize entitlement and individual autonomy, right in cultures where people compete for the scarce good of honor, but “wrong” in cultures that emphasize kindness for all living creatures or harmonious relationships. Shame is a bid for inclusion, typically (though not always) by submission. This is right in cultures valuing the interdependence of people, but wrong in cultures that value independence and assertion. Right shame can take the form of propriety or it can come with assertive claims for respect and precedence; wrong shame can be marked by hiding from sight and hoping others won’t notice you too much. Emotions are prevalent when they are right and rare when they are wrong.

Rearing as the shaping of emotion is a big part of the book. In Taiwan, they raise and encourage children to be calm, for example. In a more communal society you’ll much more often be entrusting your child’s care to others—a calm baby is easier to watch.

This cultural practice carries into adulthood, translating into ideas of happiness (or contentedness or feeling good, as happiness isn’t the most prized emotion in all cultures and varies in how it manifests). The calm child turns into a calm adult who works well with others and avoids conflict that would disrupt group cohesion.

Happiness in such OURS society takes the form of a calming activity such as taking a bath. Referencing a study titled “Feeling Excited or Taking a Bath,” Mesquita contrasts this type of happiness with that more familiar to the West:

Psychologists and health researchers now find health and well-being associated with culturally valued feelings. …Calm activities are healthy in Japan; energetic happiness is not only less desired, but also considered not particularly healthy in Japan. Conversely, depression among Hong Kong Chinese meant not being calm enough, whereas among white Americans it meant a lack of excitement. Ill-being was related to lacking the happiness that is culturally valued.

Translation is a real skill—much more than knowing two languages well and accessing dictionaries (or Google translate). Most people who have done translation work know that there’s no perfect. But you can achieve faithful to the original meaning.

There’s a cultural component. Yet, most still see translation as a practical or mechanical problem.

Once you enter another culture, you know you’ll need to learn the language and customs. Maybe you’ll get some things wrong, you reason, but emotions will come to the rescue. But often that’s not the case.

The example of a young Turkish immigrant living in Holland who is mistakenly blamed for some mishap at school drives the point home. Shame within the Turkish framework should have had the effect of ingratiating the student and showing respect to his teacher. However, the Dutch teacher registers shame as confirmation of guilt.

Even what we think is a universal sign of friendliness—the smile—is not so universal a sign. A survey of head shots of politicians and business leaders found that the subject displayed an excited smile or a calm smile depending on the type of culture they came from.

In the most up-to-date science and Mesquita’s framework, nature is no longer contrasted with nurture—but is equipped for it. Emotions feel like nature in the comforts of our homes, but are more akin to nurture when we’re immersed in other cultures.

The variation between cultures (a different kind of ‘between us’) is such that there are emotions that don’t have direct equivalent outside one specific culture. Traveling to another culture and having to adapt to a new local etiquette might be a fun little adventure, but having no idea how to apologize (or whether you should) when innocently breaching foreign norms seems less so. 

Our conversation ranges from the contours of ‘shame’ and ‘anger’ in different cultures, to the invention and uses of ‘love’ and ‘happiness’ in culture, how moving away and toward another human being or group works emotionally, and how emotions could tie into stories in the world, rather than being actual mental states. 

Prof Batja Mesquita, “Value in Emotion”

Signals at the intersection of expectations, plans, and goals, emotions are why:

  • Customer support bot scripts may achieve the opposite effect.
  • Talking back to the television turned into outrage towards people we don’t know.
  • Mere empathy fails when it doesn’t bridge the cultural gap.

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