Photo: Mohamed Elkhamisy/Shutterstock

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

by Brittany Vargas Dec 22, 2009

“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.

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.

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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