While some emotions are universal and are experienced in similar ways as a reaction to similar events across all cultures, other emotions show considerable cultural differences in their antecedent events, the way they are experienced, the reactions they provoke and the way they are perceived by the surrounding society.
Social norms exist for various aspects of emotions.
While individualistic cultures are loose regarding the display rules (it is acceptable to express one’s feelings openly), norms for positive feeling rules in individualistic cultures are very tight. According to those norms, one should be happy and strive for happiness, and if one is not happy, that means one has failed to achieve life’s goals (Eid & Diener. 2001)
In collective cultures such as China, the feeling rules are rather loose: there are no strict expectations about how one should generally feel. However, the display rules are much tighter: there are certain expectations about the way one should show one's feelings in a given context. For example, Confucian cultures consider expression of emotions (both positive and negative) as a possible threat to the social order. Hence, the norms are of not making a display of personal emotions. One may feel as one pleases, as long as one does not express it.
It is helpful to realize that cultural differences can create an emotional reaction in you – especially if either similarities or differences touch your inner- core values. This reaction can be either positive or negative. Positive emotional reactions can include happiness, excitement, joy and high energy. Negative emotions can include anger, anxiety, confusion and helplessness. For example: if you are from a low power distance country and you work with a boss from a high power distance country you may feel anger and resistance when this boss “orders you about”. Although he or she may not in-tend this, you may feel humiliated and not taken seriously.
Don’t worry, nobody expects you to be in complete control and as cool as a cucumber when dealing with a different culture. It is quite normal to experience frustration or communication problems. What you can do is simply prepare yourself and be aware that greater uncertainty is a normal part of intercultural situations. Also keep working on your ability to adjust your communication style to the communicative needs of people from other cultures. It is important to be open to learn from your mistakes. On the next page you will find impressions from a blog describing how this works in practice.
Tip from Carl the Carrot: Try the following exercise: Close your eyes and recall the first time you experienced a geographical or cultural difference. What did you feel? What did you think? How did you cope?
Delicia (US) visiting Tanzania: “Man, there's nothing like learning from your own silly cultural mistakes. There's so many...I'm wondering which one I'm willing to share. Hmmm.... Well, you know the word pants...it means something else here. I found out that pants are underwear not trousers. So, when you call trousers pants your whole life, it's a little hard to break that habit. Anyway, on the way home from church, some Kenyan friends and I were having a conversation. One thing you see a lot of here is women wearing skirts. You hardly see women wearing pants...I mean trousers. So I asked some of my friends (which included a MALE)...what do you think about women wearing pants?!!! They both looked at me and said, "What"?! After realizing my silly and somewhat embarrassing mistake, I yelled, "I mean trousers!" We all laughed and I was teased for a while. However, I think the habit is broken. Pants will forever be called trousers! “ - Delicia Roberson
What can you do if uncertainty is very high and it is more difficult to remain cool and adapt your behavior efficiently to the intercultural situation? Sometimes high uncertainty or overwhelming feelings of frustration may take over, and influence your behavior in a non-effective way. If you are someone from a low power distance country with a boss from a high power distance country who “orders you about”, may mean you be-come angry, react defiantly and finally stop listening to his orders and ad-vice. What to do?
The Rational Effectiveness Training (RET) is a method that can help you to improve your way of dealing with intercultural situations that cause stress, frustration, and non-productive behavior. The basic principle of RET is the following: Not the situation as such, but your ideas about the situation determine how you feel and whether you experience stress. The RET distinguishes between effective and ineffective emotions. Effective emotions are emotions that give you energy, and help you to get into action. Ineffective emotions cost you a lot of energy, and may lead you to behavior that does not bring you closer to your aim. Effective emotions and behaviors fit the situation and help us to reach our goals. You are less likely to reach your goals with ineffective behavior.
About the author: Jim Morris is a senior facilitator and project manager for Schouten Global. He lives and breathes culture: English by nationality, he lives in the Netherlands and works all over the world facilitating professional learning and development. His latest book The Eight Great Beacons of Cultural Awareness (is a practical guide and will strengthen your cultural awareness) is available as e-book here.
Does this mean that emotions prevent effective behavior? No, in fact you need them to function. It all depends on how strongly you have a certain feeling and if that is appropriate for and fits the situation. Reconsidering the accuracy of these ideas can lead to less unnecessary stress. The method may help you to analyse the situation from a distance, and develop more rational, helpful and effective thoughts. The following irrational or hampering thoughts are frequently found:
Your thoughts, namely the way you interpret a situation are responsible for your emotions. Your emotions in turn influence your behavior strongly. It is not the situation in which there is a cultural difference that makes you feel frustrated, but rather the way you think about it and interpret it.
To unmask irrational thoughts, you need to become aware of them and then challenge your thoughts. The following questions may help you to do so:
This process will enable you to formulate more rational and helpful thoughts, that will influence your emotion, and make you feel less stressed and/or frustrated.
Here are some examples of helpful thoughts:
To conclude on the RET method and how it can help you dealing with intercultural situations: Effective emotions and behaviors fit the situation and help you reach your goals. You are more likely to reach your goals if your behavior is effective or appropriate to the situation. The RET method can help you to achieving this goal by helping you to take a more ‘rational’ or effective perspective on your own thoughts.