How To Express Your Emotions (Or Not) In Other Cultures

“You can’t bring that to the table here,” he said. My boyfriend wasn’t talking about forbidden fruit. He was pointing out my tendency to visibly (and sometimes audibly) wallow in negative emotions publicly. My habits are taboo in a country where negativity is frowned upon and open emotional expression of the depressing variety is kept to a minimum. I am in Thailand, after all- the Land of Smiles.

Negativity- particularly anger- is not openly expressed or even discussed in many Asian cultures. In Thailand, complaints about cold weather, discomfort or weariness, can be considered rude. You are to keep such complaints to yourself- if you are tired, go to sleep. Otherwise, it is polite to mention it in a joking, laughing manner.

Most offensive to Thais is the expression of anger. Arguing with your lover loudly and publicly, waving your hands, and generally losing your cool (and losing face) is considered barbaric and rude. This may be the single most important fact to learn about Thai culture, and yet it has taken me almost a year to really get it.

Photo: dolspics

I tend to lose myself in emotion and forget to refrain from a whole gamut of negative expressions- complaints, criticism, sarcasm, argumentative words, and sullen disassociation. This openness is not the result of a desire for attention or melodrama. Rather, I find it very difficult to put on a happy face in the company of others when I am feeling down.

Despite my persistent efforts to remind myself of what is culturally appropriate, unreserved expression of negative emotions is not an easy habit to break. Like all humans, I have been conditioned by many things. I come from a background where volatility and conflict was the norm. I still find it difficult to control the volume of my voice, even in the midst of a crowded restaurant.

So these challenges are a result of my personal history- genetics, family, and personal experiences. Yet I am by no means unique in my tendency to display emotions in forthright and even dramatic ways. Having lived with Americans (and Europeans) of varying backgrounds, I have observed a wide range of explicit emotional expressions. Slamming doors, shouting matches, and flying objects are frequent expressions of anger within my culture. Furthermore, it is not at all unusual for these behaviors to be acted out publicly.

Photo: Fran Ulloa

Many Americans are desensitized to aggression in its many forms- passive and active; mental, emotional, and physical; subtle and stated. Likewise, feelings of depression and despair are hardly censored. Of course these feelings are present in the life of any human being. Yet for many Americans it is incredibly normal and natural to express them in hyperbolic, dramatized ways.

In contrast, the Thais avoid conflict at all costs. Whether annoyed, embarrassed, or angry, they smile and chuckle. I’ve heard travelers describe the Thais as “happy stoners” or insinuate that they have no cares or worries. Nothing could be further from the truth. The seemingly carefree, cheerful, and accepting Thai attitude that so many tourists comment on is highly enforced through social, familial, and cultural conditioning.

This popular conception of the famous Thai smile neglects to specify that the Thais have many smiles. Far from uniform, each smile belies a different emotion or attitude.

I had heard this before, but it became truly clear when my boss was upset with me due to what seemed to be a miscommunication. I had not followed one of her “suggestions” for teaching my Creative Writing class, and had not dressed according to her taste (first I was too formal, then too casual). I believe her dislike of me also stemmed from the way my emotions were sometimes written all over my face when I came to work.

As we sat and talked in her office, I noticed how hard she was straining to smile. Her skin seemed so taught, the corners of her mouth ready to wilt at any moment. Her voice took on a scarily unnatural tone of politeness. As it became clear to me just how pervasive the smile was within Thai culture, I began to think of the different smiles I could remember.

There’s the “I am ripping you off” smile, the “thanks for stepping on my shoes” smile, the smile concealing smoldering and utterly repressed anger. There’s the smug smile, the smile of the superior, the sexy smile, the embarrassed smile (followed by a coy giggle) and of course, the smile of genuine kindness and goodwill.

In Thailand, will you be smiled at by a Nurse while standing in the hospital waiting room in agony. A smile is the standard expression for every emotion, yet it is not difficult to detect the real, underlying emotion driving it.

According to many scientists, all humans share the same basic emotions . The concept of the universality of human emotion was first explored by Darwin in his work “The Expression of Emotions in Humans and Animals”. He theorized that emotions were biologically based and had an adaptive value.

Currently, evolutionary biologists and psychologists tend to agree that human emotion and facial expression of emotions lean towards universality. It is what anthropologists term “cultural display rules” that determine what is expressed behind closed doors and what is a socially appropriate expression.

Cultural display rules are enforced by pressure from all levels of society. As part of a collective culture, Thais are generally under pressure to suppress feelings of negativity and anger. Unlike individualistic cultures like that of the U.S., in which emotions are perceived as highly individual, in Thai culture feelings are seen to be entirely linked and interconnected with those of others. This accounts for the disgust and feelings of offense aroused when Thais are subjected to someone else’s negativity.

Knowing this makes it just a little easier to smile when I feel like screaming. I have slowly begun to step outside my cultural bubble to begin to understand- and respect- these cultural differences in emotional expression.

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  • Julie


    Really appreciated this piece, as I too “find it very difficult to put on a happy face in the company of others when I am feeling down.” Interestingly, though, I’ve found that people in the US have a much harder time with my inability to put on the happy face than anyone abroad. ;)

  • Tim Patterson


    It’s so important to recognize that although Thais (and Lao and Khmers and other nationalities who put a high priority on social harmony) might feel angry, just as we do, they don’t show that anger publicly. It’s a huge mistake, though, to think that the anger or frustration isn’t there!

  • Abbie

    Really interesting article, Brittany! I actually found it easier to be calm in Southeast Asian because I tried to embrace the culture and the “laid-back” lifestyle that I was submersed in :)

    • Tim Patterson

      There’s an interesting connection to the article Sarah published yesterday about language personalities here…it’s easier to be loose speaking Spanish, aggressive speaking Mandarin, deferential speaking Japanese…and your comment, Abbie, indicates that the same sort of emotional adjustment happens with non-linguistic cultural immersion.

  • Turner

    Eloquent, very eloquent.

  • kbok

    soo interesting to read this piece. being khmer american, i have 2 additional thoughts, to add another dimension to it.

    you’re very right- that there is an emphasis on harmony and that its rude to show anger and negativity in public. i didn’t realize how true this was until i married into a family that was more verbal /open about their anger and whenever they did this, i felt upset. almost always, they weren’t angry at me, they were merely venting their thoughts, but i had grown up in a different culture where you don’t do that so it made me really uncomfortable.

    at the same time… being khmer.. i have also felt that the emphasis on “harmony” and not public displaying your true feelings of negativity often results in dishonesty. for e.g., my mom may say to someone, “wow you have such good food here at your party” but then she may leave afterwards and say, “they had nothing to eat there!!” so then the “harmony” actually has become “saving face” because she doesn’t want to “appear rude” as a guest, but to me, its straight up dishonest.

    thus i have learned to appreciate the honesty and bluntness found in american culture. alas, its a balance. =)

  • Eve

    I like this article so much – I’ve actually felt similarly living in Argentina, though I’d say it’s less extreme. Emphasis is on the group and keeping the public peace, over how you actually feel. But I also agree with the first comment, that there’s a lot of emotion masking expected in main stream American culture. I didn’t grow up on main street USA and like the author, am accustomed to volatility and conflict common in a big city with diverse communities and expressed in a myriad of ways. And I totally agree with the kbok’s comment about the dishonesty that results when the focus is on saving face. On a political level as well, that cultural tendency can do real dammage. Thanks for a great article!

  • oredinhitte

    What’s up

    It is my first time here. I just wanted to say hi!

  • Andreas

    Pretty interesting, how beauty and good maners can change in differen cultures

  • Wynne Lewis

    I understand — even if I have a hard time agreeing with–promoting social harmony. Yet I can’t help but wonder about the emotional cost of the Thai people smiling all the time. I think that kind of thing would drive me nuts.

  • Wynne Lewis

    What I meant to say is, I am not against social harmony. Just the immense pressure of keeping it, at the possible expense of personal emotional health.

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    Read More:

  • Peter


    Thanks so much for the article Brittany, it’s funny it’s exactly what I’m experienceing here right now. I’v ebeen teaching in Thailand for 6 months and have tried to have a relationship with one Thai girl and the thing that bothers me so much is that I don’t ‘feel’ like I can express my emtional life to this girl, and i have seen that she will not really speak about her emtions either. This really bothers me becasue I guess I come from a perspective where partners should share every aspect of themsleves with each other the good and the bad, and that a realtionship based on just keeping the other person happy would be somewhat empty and dishonest. I honestly didn’t come to Thailand fo rthe women, it was actually the last thing on my mind. I came here to teach and I guess I should just keep my eyes on the ball, but I love so much about Thailand and it concerns me that I might not be able to have deeper realtionship with a Thai girl. Does anyone have more experience or comments about expressing emotions and the full gamut of feelings privately with a Thai partner.
    Thanks again for the article.

  • banimal

    Hi’ there, they call me Harry, Dirty Harry!