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16. Diversity of emotions and emotional intelligence

Written by Rachel Green, Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute, accredited user of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso-Emotional-Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and international leader in emotional intelligence coaching.

Does emotional intelligence research apply equally across all cultures or are there emotional differences from one culture to another? This is an important question to ask in this time of diversity.

One way to consider this question is to look at one component of it. Are emotions universal? Do we all feel the same emotions? Are our emotions triggered in the same way irrespective of cultural context?

Why does it matter? Because we are interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds on a daily basis in our workplaces and travelling often to different countries for work and holidays. It isn't a simple issue but it is an important one. 

I was asked recently on our LinkedIn Group, "The Emotional Intelligence Institute", why I was insisting that the group was to have a mainly Australian flavour.

A number of enthusiastic colleagues from the USA were keen to join in. One suggested that there were "human norms" in emotions, and that the Australian and American emotional experience would not be significantly different.

It is an interesting, complex and challenging area to discuss. I am not an expert on cross-cultural emotional intelligence and have not been involved in any research in the area, but thought I would reflect on my own experiences.

So, here are my thoughts about diversity in emotions and some of my personal experiences in terms of cross-cultural features of emotions and emotional intelligence.

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Emotional intelligence Q1: Are there universal emotions?

Do certain emotional characteristics or emotions occur across nations irrespective of our cultural background or education? I'm sure they do, but which ones they are is still a subject of research.

Paul Ekman, a leading USA researcher, has directed his career to the facial recognition of emotions, and he initially identified six basic human emotions that apply throughout all cultures. These were anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise and happiness. However, it seems this list has now been extended to seven and includes contempt. He also lists other emotions associated with them, for example, under enjoyment (happiness) he says come relief and amusement.

I can't do Ekman's work credit here - he has written whole books on the topic, but suffice it to say that he certainly believes that yes, we do all share the same basic emotions. Not everyone agrees with him as to what they are, but there is common agreement on the concept.

Emotional intelligence Q2: Does emotional expression vary across cultures?

The fact that we may have the same basic emotions in common is not the full story on cross-cultural emotions and emotional intelligence. Consider Australians, Thais and Italians for a start. I have many friends who are Thai. From my observations they are far more, what I would call "emotionally contained" and "emotionally quieter" than I am! In contrast, I have colleagues who are of Italian descent and I would appear to be more "emotionally contained" in contrast to them. Each of us is living out the emotional norms of our culture, to a greater or lesser extent.

I have lived in Australia, the UK and for six months in the USA. They were not the same places emotionally. Reactions were different and the values and beliefs surrounding emotions and emotional expression were different. Having emotions in common does not mean they are triggered, expressed or judged in the same way from one culture to another.

However, what do we mean by culture? I think even to talk of "Australia" vs "USA" doesn't do sufficient justice to the differences from one family or organisation to another. I think of each family and organisation as an emotional culture in its own right. The unspoken emotional rules of my family for instance, are not the same as the unspoken rules of my husband's family, even though we were brought up in the same country.

And so it is from one country to another. How different cultures express emotions can vary. What  one culture considers emotionally appropriate, acceptable or normal may not be the same as another. What triggers specific emotions in one culture may not in another.

For example, my husband and I, both Australian of British heritage watched a USA movie the other day. It was billed as "a brilliant comedy, funny, amusing, and with a high level of wit". We were bored. We found it totally not funny. The emotion of amusement did not arise at all! Amusement varies between cultures.

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Emotional intelligence Q3: What happens emotionally with pranks?

I am sensitive to the emotional pain that the following example may produce in people, and I am deeply sorrowed by the situation that arose. Here in Australia two of our radio presenters decided to pretend to be the Queen of England and phone a hospital in another country, England. The phone was answered by someone from a third culture, India. Cross culturally, this was a very complex situation. It ended very sadly with the Indian receiver of the prank committing suicide. I have been a suicide counsellor for five years. I understand the heartache, guilt and sheer distress that suicide can produce and my love goes out to all concerned.

So what went wrong? Right or wrong Australians do play pranks on each other. There is a larrikin element to Australia that may not be as common in all other cultures. I have not met it in the same way in the UK or the USA. Australians can be very irreverent. Of course, it would have been much better if they had not done the prank at all.

However, they also made a mistake of, I think, not understanding the impact of an "Australian prank" in another culture, nor did they have sufficient understanding of what produces emotions of shame, humiliation and embarrassment in other cultures or individual people. They went from an Australian to an English to an Indian culture. The devastated response, the sense of humiliation and embarrassment may not have been the same had they stayed within Australia.

I am in no way supporting any of their actions; pranks can be very humiliating. I am just trying to explain the importance of emotional differences between cultures. They do exist at certain levels but they may not be easily detected. When we don't understand them (which can require very sophisticated emotional intelligence skills), the consequences can be significant.

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Emotional intelligence Q4: How to manage emotions on a multicultural committee

Some years ago I was the Chair of an executive management committee of twelve. Six were the executive and six were general managers. It was a multicultural committee comprising a diverse range of backgrounds in a multicultural organisation. The cultures included Australian of English, Burmese, German, Sri Lankan and Chinese descent, for example. I learnt many things in terms of emotions. Here are some of them:

  • Some emotions are common to all of us, e.g. anger, anxiety and contentment.
  • How we express these emotions differs.
  • What triggers these emotions differs.
  • How we respond to such emotions differs. For example, one culture may consider anger as an acceptable emotion to be expressed, another may consider it a failure and try to keep it hidden.
  • How we judge others' emotions differs.
  • What may cause feelings of offence in one person may not in another.
  • How people react emotionally to my behaviour varies enormously. One may feel excited or inspired by something I said, another may feel offended or disappointed. These emotional responses lead to assessments being made of my behaviour. While one may have thought I was bossy, another thought I showed visionary inspiring leadership! Yes, the same behaviour was judged completely differently by different members of the executive. Why? Because of different emotional responses. Why? Because of different cultural expectations, beliefs, values and conditioning. Did this matter? Yes. If I wanted the respect of my team I had to be very sensitive to emotional and cultural diversity in terms of their emotions. Needless to say I found it very difficult and would have liked much higher emotional intelligence skills in this area.

Emotional Intelligence Q5: Is our workplace context for emotions different?

Workplaces differ from one country to another, and this applies between Australia and the USA. We may have workplace legislation that is different: dismissal laws, occupational, health and safety laws, anti-bullying legislation and discrimination laws ... there are important workplace differences that can colour our emotional expectations and experiences at work. We have shops, products and people that are different too.

Let me give you just one example of a workplace difference I encountered which triggered an emotional response. When I was living in the USA the professor with whom I was working did two things. Firstly, he arrived at work each day with a gun tucked down his boot. The gun culture of the USA is not replicated in my Australian experience. This would not happen or be allowed to happen in Australia. Therefore, my emotional response to this event was significantly different from that of those who had grown up in the USA where carrying a gun is considered a right. The same situation, two emotional reactions. Whereas I felt shocked and disturbed, some of my USA colleagues felt acceptance and possibly even safe.

The second thing he did one day was to take my glasses off my face, deliberately smear all the glass and then put them back on my face. As a visitor to the USA from Australia, and as a visiting academic in a USA university I was stunned and laughed at his stupidity. I presumed that he hoped to induce feelings of intimidation or threat in me. I have had no similar experience in Australia with which to compare it. He failed. Why? Because I just thought it made him look stupid!

Summary on emotions and emotional intelligence in a cultural context

In summary, I want to quote Paul Ekman. He says, "There isn't anything about emotions that you can think of where you won't find individual differences. Even though we have the same emotions, we experience them differently; we have different attitudes about them; we have different awareness of them. Even within a culture or family we don't all feel the emotions in the same way, people feel them more or less intensely."

He also says, "We are all the same and we are all different. We need to understand both our similarities and our differences."

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