“It Is Not How You Feel”: Batja Mesquita on How Different Cultures Experience Emotions

In the latest installment of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Batja Mesquita sits down with Caitlin Zaloom to discuss her work on emotions.
"We define ourselves more by certain emotions. I've never heard anybody say, 'I'm trying to get over my embarrassment and I feel so inauthentic.'"

Can we ever understand the feelings of people who are different from ourselves? Psychologists have long sought answers by looking inside our bodies and minds. But what if those are the wrong places to examine? In Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions, Batja Mesquita explains that feelings come from the contexts we live in and the people we live with. Acknowledging the cultural origins and effects of emotions can help us see others’ priorities and actions in new ways.

Mesquita, a cultural psychologist and affective scientist, is a professor at the University of Leuven, Belgium. She spoke with Caitlin Zaloom, a cultural anthropologist and professor at NYU, and founding editor of Public Books.

Caitlin Zaloom (CZ): Your book presents a counterintuitive perspective: that emotions live between people, not only inside them. How did you come to see emotions as fundamentally social?


Batja Mesquita (BM): It is never clear how you get interested in a question, but the roots probably lie with my parents. They were Jewish. They survived the Second World War in hiding. At the end of the war, my mom was an orphan and my dad’s family was heavily reduced. There were so many losses and also fears that I knew about as a child. I don’t know how early I knew about them, but my parents were not particularly secretive about their experiences. Still, I couldn’t quite understand the emotions that my parents had from things that happened in the moment. I was always trying to understand where their emotions came from. As a four-year-old I didn’t know that I was going to become a professor who studies culture and emotion, of course. I do think, though, that the question where emotions come from has always been an interest of mine and may have been an interest of necessity all of my life.


CZ: Do you remember feeling different from your parents as a child? Like they existed in a different culture or a different way of being than you did?


BM: Yes, to some extent. My parents had experienced things that I was not part of. There were times when they were more upset than was warranted by the present circumstances, such as when they seemed to feel my brother and I were abandoning them or betraying them. That wasn’t warranted by our behavior always. It reflected the upset of having been left, having been betrayed, and having lost really important people. They both had experienced true escalation. Something happens, people treat you badly, and the next thing you know, many people die and your life is really unsafe. During my life, the world was never an unsafe place in the same way. I had parents who were educated, comfortably middle-class people, and always there for us.

Differences in the family also came up when I set aside religion. When there is a big difference between settings, differences in emotions become socially powerful. That is a crucial point of Between Us. My parents’ experiences were so markedly different than mine that it is easy for me to point it out. I think, though, that everybody has different experiences than their parents. Your background and the history of your country affect how you feel, how you look at the world. That process was accentuated in my case because my parents’ childhood was so different than mine.


CZ: Their experiences in the war, then, left a way of being in their lives that was very sensitive to threat and fear and rejection. You felt all that as a child, but not through events. It was rather an ambient emotional landscape in your home that marked your parents’ responses to you as a younger person trying to make your way in a very different, postwar world.

Is that ambient quality what you call culture?


BM: I don’t think culture is one thing. Sometimes it is a set of understandings and practices that we share with other people who have had the same kind of experiences, like a generation. I say in the book that a family can be seen as a culture to the extent that people have common understandings and practices that influence how they understand new events, make sense of the world, and decide to act.


CZ: As an anthropologist reading your book, I was particularly interested in that. From your psychological point of view, emotions demarcate the boundary between cultures. They work smoothly in some places and situations but not in others, and that makes all the difference.


BM: Yes, culture is not an independent variable that somehow predicts or causes emotions. One way to understand culture is as patterns of emotions and emotional practices. There are emotion cultures that actually come very close to each other too, which is probably the case for different families in the same area or in the same neighborhood. But even then, they are not quite the same. The reason I am interested in comparing cultures that are further apart is that it allows me to observe how different the psychological processes can actually be.

We need to move beyond the idea that empathy is going to do the job.

CZ: Many anthropologists believe that relations make up people, so that fragments of their being live inside others. People who may see themselves as individuals necessarily carry others within them. We are always reacting to each other, even when our feelings emanate from ourselves. This is similar to your idea that emotions are fundamentally outside the person, relational, situated. You call this the OURS model.

The OURS model reminded me of when I was watching Christine Blasey Ford give her testimony before the Supreme Court confirmation committee. It was excruciating to listen as she described Brett Kavanaugh’s assault on her as a young person. I was furious, but also alone. My fury recognized the others in me. It contained fear for my daughter, for other women, and a sense of abiding sadness that we are still under threat, which is also a historical reality. All of those things came out even though I was alone yelling at the television.


BM: Even 20 years before, similar testimony didn’t get the same kind of response, like when Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas. Fewer women were angry at that point because there wasn’t the same feeling of being justified as we have now. That feeling of righteous anger ties you to other people.

I think everybody has emotions that can be described as OURS and as MINE, mental, inside the person, essentialist. The second is the more conventional way to understand emotion, but the OURS model helps us to see what emotions do in relationships. For example, how does anger work in any given environment? How does it position the angry person in a relationship? Anger depends on possessing or asserting a little bit of power. The angry person wants changes in the relationship, for the other person to make accommodations. If you don’t think that you have a bit of power, then you are not angry. You might be more desperate or sad. In instances of emotions, there is always a part that is relational. Every year, my students ask, “Can’t you have an emotion all by yourself?” But the first reality of emotions is an interpersonal reality or an intergroup reality. If you are ashamed over yourself, it is because you have learned how it feels to be ashamed in the relationship with others.

Emotions are for doing something in the relationship, and they develop differently depending on others in the relationship. To illustrate that, when somebody says you have no right to be angry, or when you are in a relationship where you actually have very little power, the anger develops very differently from when it is clear that you do have a right to be angry and when other people yield to your anger. You will act very differently, depending on others’ responses. Of course, emotions are more than acting: you also feel something. Angry feelings have a chance to develop when they get air, when they are accommodated—even if the accommodation is slight, as when you don’t get punished for being angry. We know from research that people who get punished very soon stop being angry. The anger is not a feeling of one person; it is always something in the relationship to which other people can respond.


CZ: What are some differences that you’ve seen?


BM: In many cultures, like in Japan, anger is considered immature, even dangerous, an emotion that makes people out of control. When things are not going your way, you are supposed to adapt to others in the relationship rather than be angry. In Japan, people do not accommodate to the angry person. Instead, anger elicits disapproval.

Japanese data do register an idea of justified anger, but it occurs only when a breach threatens shared norms. Then powerful people are right to be angry on behalf of the group and the moral order. But that is a very different anger than the kind of frustration-based anger that you and I usually talk about in our everyday lives.

Within the US too, there are limits on anger. Anger can be justified for some reasons and not others. Middle-class white men have a lot of leeway to be angry. As your status decreases, there is less leeway. For instance, women still don’t have the same advantages as men when they are angry. Very recent research shows that women can’t expect accommodation—they are less likely to get what they want. Black people also don’t get what they want in that situation. Like in the Japanese data, there is a consideration of position that shows, again, how social the emotion really is.

CZ: The other part of your model is the MINE perspective. How might we think about anger from that angle?


BM: We all have MINE and OURS aspects of our emotions, but some cultures emphasize the shared aspects and others emphasize the individual’s feelings. In Western cultures, we think that an emotion like anger is inside us and once it is there, it is uncontrollable. The best action is to get it out. That is a hydraulic model. We have emotions that arise from within us; we should express them. They have to come out or they fester. If they do not come out, they are up to no good and will make you feel and act worse. However, even Western research shows that taking a deep breath and counting to 10 may be a better way to handle anger. Expressing calm is better than just blurting out raw emotion. Still, there is also some evidence that Western people holding in emotions or putting on a different face is detrimental to both mental and physical health. That is not so in Asian research. People in those cultures are very used to adjusting their emotions to what the situation requires and do not show negative effects from doing so. Thinking about your emotions in an OURS way prioritizes the connection with others and supports efforts to modulate feelings; emotions are seen as flexible, so changing them doesn’t threaten the sense of a coherent self. By contrast, data show that white Americans find it hard to suppress and change their feelings and suffer more from burnout when they do. Data also show that Japanese and Chinese people suppress emotions but don’t suffer from burnout.

Emotions are more malleable than we believe, and there is certainly significant difference across different cultural environments.


CZ: You’re describing the difference between one perspective that marries people with their initial feelings and another that encourages reflection on and control over them.


BM: Yes, in Western thought emotions are what we are. Emotions mark our authenticity; they bubble up from deep inside. When you have them, changing their course registers as interference with that authentic self. That doesn’t seem to be the case in many other cultures. It also may not be the case with all emotions, even for us. We define ourselves more by certain emotions than by others. I’ve never heard anybody say, “I’m trying to get over my embarrassment and I feel so inauthentic.”

The emotions we identify with make us the kind of person that we want to be in the first place, what we get angry about, what we are sad about. There are other emotions that are maybe more tied to authenticity in other cultures. We have found in one study that Japanese couples suppress their emotions more than European ones. If we look at emotions that have more suppression, however, it is mostly emotions like anger and happiness; it isn’t emotions like shame and embarrassment or feeling friendliness. But maybe embarrassment and friendly feelings are more self-defining in Japan than anger and happiness. The emotions that make us feel authentic may be different across cultures. Not every emotional state is tied to a sense of self in the same way.


CZ: Across cultures, there may not be a common notion of an authentic self. The idea of that essence is very individualistic; it is also ahistorical.


BM: The idea of an authentic self has become more important with higher mobility. My colleague Shige Oishi, in psychology, has found that mobility makes us have an essence or a self that can be defined independent from other selves. In many cultures how you feel—your emotional practices—is defined largely by your role and the situations you find yourself in. It is much less about who you “really” are, more about the response that the situation requires—for example, what others’ expectations are. In Western cultures, we think too often that the first impulse is authentic and therefore the most real response. There is no absolute or objective reason that should be any more real than another consideration, like relationship and situation.


CZ: If we start to think of our emotions as interacting with structures and relationships outside of us, then we can start to read them from the outside back into ourselves. That might change how we understand emotions in the first place.


BM: Yes. I think looking at the outside, looking at your position, looking at the things you want to achieve in your relationships actually provides an extremely helpful window onto your emotions. Even for Westerners who define themselves by their emotions, this is constructive. The political scientist Davin Phoenix argues, rightly so, I think, that America has very different standards for who gets the privilege of expressing anger. Anger is about entitlement, and when you are Black you are denied the right to be angry. Anger in the face of repression can be dangerous: you are seen as an extremist. Anger in an elevated position can be a right and a responsibility. Other emotions are similar. We should ask: Why do we love the way we have love? Look at what we want to achieve in our relationships and what love stands for. Then I think you will understand much better what love is about.


CZ: That part of Between Us made me think about an incredible contradiction in American society. Our emotional lives are organized around the idea of mobility and structured so that we have to detach from our loved ones and people around us. But detaching is impossible. Mobile people cannot separate emotionally from the family and community that raised them, and being accepted in the new position is uncertain. That is a contradiction. Even successfully mobile people have to live with that intimate frustration. Still, many people in the US encounter something different but related—the promise of mobility and the impossibility of mobility at the same time. That situation must lead to a distinctive emotional orientation.


BM: Americans are socialized differently by class. For instance, Peggy Miller followed working-class mothers and examined how they manage their children around anger. Despite the fact that US culture is famed for its commitment to independence, working-class child rearing is uneven. Children need to learn that they should independently decide what kind of person they are, and they need to be independent in relation to their peers so that they are not treated unjustly. They should certainly not rebel against their mothers, though. It’s a kind of emotional preparation for positions these children will have in the workforce and in society. Their relationship to parents stands in for their social position. Emotions are very different if you are socialized to be the boss or to be the academic.

CZ: You also emphasize what you can do with emotion, asking what kind of reaction you might be looking for. This makes me wonder about the idea of affect. What do you think about the relationship between affect and emotion?


BM: I think it is an interdisciplinary Babylon. In psychology when you talk about affect, you use it to say that people feel positive or negative about something. Humanists use it differently. I might well be using emotions in the way that some humanists use affect.


CZ: Your own work is based on experiments, and you also refer to many ethnographies of emotion from sites around the world. How can you build a bridge between the laboratory and the field?


BM: Ethnographies describe the emotions of people in a particular context. I have learned a lot from reading ethnographies, mostly how emotions fit with larger social contexts. My own work is comparative. I do survey research and experiments. I ask the same questions or give the same tasks to individuals from different cultures. I include much less context in my research, but I am able to compare emotional phenomena between cultures. I consider these two approaches complementary.


CZ: How can an individual live across those fissures, which we all must do in emotional terms?


BM: Most of my research is on the fissures of ethnicity and religion in Western Europe, where Muslim minorities are the most stigmatized. We have studied their emotional lives over generations. We’ve studied if people who grew up in largely segregated environments make meaning of situations differently than those in the Belgian and Dutch majority. Our findings are clear that the difference is significant and remains so across time. We also find some evidence that people in the ethnic and religious minority “code switch.” Minority people who live in a Belgian or Dutch context shift their emotions closer to the majority ones when they interact in a Belgian context. They bridge the gap. Currently, the burden is very much on minority people. But majority people need to understand that emotions are not universal and should learn to recognize and adjust to differences. There is quite a lot of malleability both between cultures and within any single person. We can change our own emotions if we want to, and we can also understand that other people do emotions differently. We all need to learn to communicate about emotions across cultures.

Another way of looking at emotional differences is to ask, Under what circumstances do they come to matter? Under what circumstances is it good to be similar in emotions? We have some data on this point. For instance, Turkish and Moroccan minority youth don’t fare well in all situations when they have similar emotions to Belgian majority kids. They may not be accepted whether or not they can do emotions in the Belgian way. Differences in how they look and are raised may interfere with their smoothness of interaction with the majority. The segregation between groups may play a role too. How we do emotions has consequences for how we bridge the gaps and if we are even able to cross at all.

We know that it is possible to communicate about those challenges. First, though, we need to move beyond the idea that empathy is going to do the job. Empathy assumes that deep inside we have the same emotions and that if you are attuned enough to another person, you will understand how they feel. The empathy assumption says that you would feel similarly in a similar situation. We can’t and shouldn’t project ourselves in this way. Instead, you can start to understand how another person feels by being aware that it is not how you feel.


CZ: How can a person move beyond empathy?


BM: Cultural humility is a first step. That means not assuming that you know what a person feels or that you understand what their face seems to say, even what the situation calls for. We need to abandon all of that. Of course, we are all human beings and we all have feelings about things that are important for us. But we need to learn not to assume that we know what is important for other people. Only when you try and even perhaps fail can anyone approach understanding what someone else feels.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured Image: Photograph by Tim Johnson. / (Unsplash)