Some aspects of emotion are universal to all cultures, while other aspects differ across cultures.

Similarities Among Cultures

Ekman and his colleagues have found that people in different cultures can identify the six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. The physiological indicators of emotion are similar in people from different cultures.

Differences Among Cultures

Although many emotions and expressions of emotions are universal, some differences exist among cultures:

  • Categories of emotions: People in different cultures categorize emotions differently. Some languages have labels for emotions that are not labeled in other languages.

Example: Tahitians do not have a word for sadness. Germans have a word, schadenfreude, indicating joy at someone else’s misfortune, that has no equivalent in English.

  • Prioritization of emotions: Different cultures consider different emotions to be primary.

Example: Shame is considered a key emotion in some non-Western cultures, but it is less likely to be considered a primary emotion in many Western cultures.

  • Different emotions evoked: The same situation may evoke different emotions in different cultures.

Example: A pork chop served for dinner might evoke disgust in the majority of people in Saudi Arabia, while it’s likely to provoke happiness in many people in the United States.

  • Differences in nonverbal expressions: Nonverbal expressions of emotion differ across cultures, due partly to the fact that different cultures have different display rules. Display rules are norms that tell people whether, which, how, and when emotions should be displayed.

Example: In the United States, male friends usually do not embrace and kiss each other as a form of greeting. Such behavior would make most American men uncomfortable or even angry. In many European countries, however, acquaintances normally embrace and kiss each other on both cheeks, and avoiding this greeting would seem unfriendly.

  • Power of cultural norms: Cultural norms determine how and when to show emotions that are not actually felt. Acting out an emotion that is not felt is called emotion work.

Example: In some cultures, it is appropriate for people who attend a funeral to show extreme grief. In others, it is appropriate to appear stoic.

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