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Study explores how cultural differences can shape the way we respond to suffering

8909380232_a647e15c23_zOur emotions may be a deeply personal experience, but the way we perceive and express our feelings may not be as unique - or random - as we think. According to recent research, culture influences the way some Americans and Germans convey their mood. If this is universally true, it could mean that people of the same culture tend to express their feelings in similar ways.

As this Stanford Report story explains, researchers Jeanne Tsai, PhD, an associate professor of psychology, and Birgit Koopmann-Holm, PhD, a German citizen who earned her doctorate in Tsai’s lab, noticed that Americans of European decent and Germans seemed to differ in the way they express feelings of sympathy:

Americans tend to emphasize the positive when faced with tragedy or life-threatening situations. American culture arguably considers negativity, complaining and pessimism as somewhat "sinful," [Tsai] added.

Unlike when Americans talk about illness, Germans primarily focus on the negative, Tsai and Koopmann-Holm wrote. For example, the "Sturm und Drang" ("Storm and Drive") literary and musical movement in 18th-century Germany went beyond merely accepting negative emotions to actually glorifying them.

This seemingly simple observation could have important societal implications, the researchers explain: Studies show that empathy affects our willingness to help someone who is suffering. But, as noted in the article, "until now, Tsai said, no studies have specifically examined how culture shapes 'different ways in which sympathy, compassion or other feelings of concern for another's suffering might be expressed.'"

In their study (subscription required, pdf here), published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers conducted four separate experiments on 525 undergraduate students in the U.S. and Germany to see if Americans accentuate the positive more than Germans do when expressing their condolences. The students were asked how they would feel in a variety of hypothetical situations (such as a scenario where a friend lost a loved one), what feelings they would want to avoid and how they would select and rate sympathy cards.

The researchers found that American sympathy cards are more positive than German sympathy cards and that Americans avoid negative states of mind more than Germans do. Moreover, they found that culture played an important role in how much people want to avoid negative emotions and this desire was linked to how much, or how little, negative emotion they conveyed when expressing sympathy.

Since we live in a multicultural and highly connected world, it's important to understand cultural differences in the way we express and value emotions, the researchers said. These findings could have important implications for mental-health professionals who have patients of different cultures:

Patients who want to avoid negative emotion may prefer and respond better to a counselor who focuses more on the positive, whereas patients who are more accepting of negative emotion may prefer and respond better to a counselor who focuses more on the negative.

The findings suggest that "counselors should consider the emotions that their patients – especially those who come from cultures different from their own – value," Tsai said.

Previously: An emergency medicine physician's take on honoring your emotions and A closer look at the role of coping mechanisms in regulating emotions
Photo by Geoff LMV

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