Culture can have an outsized effect on how people express, perceive, and even experience their emotions. In this context, the word ‘culture’ is used to refer to the beliefs, behavior, values, and material objects that govern the way a person lives. In that sense, culture is structure, expectations, rules, and guidelines for how one is meant to interpret and understand different emotions.

How does culture relate to the expression of emotions?

The most important term here is ‘cultural display rule’, which you can read more about here. There are a lot of free essay examples on Cultural Identity. You can find papers about culture and identity in Circular Breathing or, for example, about Ethnocentrism. So, this service will definitely help you to get inspired for writing.

A cultural display rule is a rule that governs the types of emotional displays that a certain culture deems acceptable, as well as the frequencies of those emotional displays that a culture deems acceptable. These rules can go beyond that and also guide people on how to regulate those emotions. Ultimately, cultural display rules influence the emotional experiences of individuals within a culture and across cultures, leading to differences in the display and experience of emotions across cultures.

A good example is the difference between Western and Eastern cultures. In Eastern cultures, such as those in Asia, priority is given to social harmony, rather than individual expression. In the West, including Europe and the USA, individualism is promoted more, with individual gain given priority over compliance with social norms.

Research has shown that people in the USA are more likely to express highly negative emotions, like fear, disgust, and anger, whether they are alone or in the presence of other people. In Japan, on the other hand, individuals are more likely to express these intensely negative emotions while alone than when in the presence of others.

It goes even further than that. Individuals from cultures that promote social cohesion at the cost of individual gain tend to suppress their own emotions, especially when reacting to events, in order to first ‘read the room’ and evaluate the more appropriate response, based on the situation.

These differences go further. Cultures assign different consequences to different emotions. In the USA, men are ostracized, whether directly or indirectly, for openly crying. Among the Eskimo population, the expression of anger can also lead to an individual being ostracized.

The rules also differ within a particular culture, such that different rules are assigned and internalized, based on the gender, family background, and class of an individual, among a host of other factors. There is evidence that men and women regulate their emotions differently, not only due to biology, but also due to cultural gender norms.

How does this relate to the interpretation of emotions?

In the context of everyday life, we often synthesize information from the environment when trying to interpret people’s facial expressions. By the same token, the cultural context can be a cue that helps us to interpret an individual’s facial expression. People can pay attention to only a small number of cues in the environment, which is complex and always changing. There is lots of evidence that suggests that people can allocate their attention differently, depending on their cultural background. This means that a given social context may be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the cultural background of the observer doing the interpreting.

Just how universal are emotions?

Conventions differ from one culture to another with regards to how emotions are displayed. That said, it has been found by researchers that most people are remarkably good at recognizing and expressing certain facial expressions. The research shows that, when you compare facial expressions from the different cultures around the world, you will find some that are universal.

There are 7 emotions which are considered to be universal. Each of these universal emotions is associated with a unique facial expression that seems to remain invariable across cultures. When we say that these emotions are universal, what we mean is that they are the same, no matter what culture the individual making the facial expression is from or what language they speak. These 7 emotions are anger, contempt, disgust, fright, sadness, surprise, and happiness.

One of the most interesting things about these emotions is that even individuals who were born blind (and have therefore never seen anyone produce these facial expressions and cannot have learned them via observation) will produce the exact same facial expressions when experiencing the associated emotions. This lends even more credence to the theory that patterns in the way facial muscles are arranged and flex are common to all humans and influence the way we express certain emotions with our faces.


Something worth noting, as we draw to a close, is that there are other more complex emotions, such as pride, love, and jealousy, and stress, which aren’t as basic as the 7 laid out here. These ones require an intimate awareness of the relationships between oneself and others. As a result, these complex emotions are more likely to depend on cultural differences.

It seems that emotions are not subject to either biological or cultural pressures, but rather some combination of both. Understanding the influence of culture on emotional displays and perception can help us better understand how to express and interpret emotions, based on the context.

Author Bio

Emma Rundle is a writer, editor, and researcher. She enjoys tackling interesting social issues and writing about them in an accessible way for her readers. When not writing, Jamie Erdahl wiki she enjoys hiking and doing yoga.

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