How your culture may be affecting your emotional expressiveness score

Some people tend to use personality as a crutch for their shortcomings, claiming “It’s just who I am! I didn’t choose to be this way!” And while we hate it when someone at the office uses it to explain their increasingly annoying habits, they may have a point…

The social constructivist camp in psychology goes as far as to argue that the way we experience emotion is inherently tied to the environment we were raised in, or currently live in. What does that mean? That means your cultural upbringing, and your cofounder’s, might be affecting how you perceive the world in more ways than you realize.

Where are you from?

To understand how you and your business partner will be affected by this information, you must first ask yourself if you’re from a collectivistic or individualistic culture. Individualistic cultures tend to focus on personal goals and success, while collectivistic cultures focus on community above all else. If you’re from North America, the culture is generally individualistic, while if you’re from Asia, collectivistic is the norm. If you’re unsure where your culture falls, a quick google search might help you in this regard.

Once you determine the kind of culture you and your business partner are from, it’s time to dig in and find out how this can affect your personality. While we will focus on how the type of culture affects certain aspects of emotion, remember that with each specific culture comes different nuances.

Pro tip: read this with your business partner and try to figure out how it applies to both of you!

Display rules

Studies have been conducted all across the globe to measure the universality of emotional expression, and Paul Eckman, one of the pioneers of the study of emotional expression, came to the exciting conclusion that some of our basic emotions are universal. Some of these are happiness, sadness, anger and disgust.

However, other studies have shown that some cultures read these emotions with more accuracy than others. This can be because of differences in “display rules” or a culture’s informal norms about who, where and when it is appropriate to show emotion. For example, there are cultures which promote a more “open book” approach to emotions while others prefer to be more subtle and mask their feelings. Think about some stereotypes and how those relate to emotional expression: In Latin America, for example, the people are known for their friendly and laughing faces, while the Japanese are known for their stoic expressions. Some countries even have facial expressions that have different definitions outside of the culture, for example, in Tibet, sticking your tongue out can be a form of greeting. Can you think of an example from your home country?

The importance of knowing these nuances to emotional expressiveness and your business partner’s baseline normalcy will benefit communication. We all know about body language and unspoken communication rules, so having a frame of reference will help you and your cofounder communicate more effectively and have a smoother relationship. A great example comes from Gary, a tech entrepreneur from Atlanta, “I learned about my Portuguese partner’s communication style when I attended a birthday party in his honour at his parent’s home,” Gary recollected with a laugh. “The first thing I noticed was that everyone in his family yelled! Conversation was boisterous and exaggerated with many talking over each other and arguing in jest.” But they were not angry, Gary realized, just expressive. “Coming from a quiet, tempered family myself, yelling, or a raised voice, was often attributed to anger or disagreement.” By attending this party, Gary saw how he and his business partner’s cultural upbringing were being reflected in both how they spoke with one another and to their team in meetings and gatherings. “I was able to be less defensive and anxious when the tone in the conversation got loud and instead focus on the words and what was actually being said.” Additionally, knowing these complex rule differences between cultures can also assist you when pitching ideas, having seminars, and even creating company culture. Take a deep dive in your audience’s cultural habits, you’ll never know what you’ll find out!

But wait… there’s more!

Not only does cultural upbringing affect emotional expressiveness but it also affects how we experience emotion. For example, studies have shown that some cultures are more tolerant than others regarding feeling mixed emotions or contradicting states of mind. So, that means that someone born and raised in East Asia might be more likely to feel sadness alongside happiness, or guilt and joy, more so than an American. This acceptance of conflicting emotions leads to a core difference in how one experiences feelings, and so, their understanding of such situations.

It has also been seen that collectivist cultures aim to feel a less aroused version of happiness than their individualistic counterparts. This means that they’re more likely to have their goals set on feeling peaceful and content rather than euphoric and excited. This cultural influence can play a major part in our personality traits; sensation-seeking, attention-seeking, well-being, among others, will all be skewed because of these cultural differences. And to think we only attributed it to personality before!

What does this mean for my business partnership?

If you and your business partner come from different cultures, or are aiming to set up a business in a culture that is not your native one, it may be worth your while to consider the emotional communication intricacies of your environment. This may require some degree of introspection in order for you to access your unconscious feelings and those rulesets you’re not necessarily aware of. You could even search a culture’s “social etiquette” for some more insights.

Coming from a different cultural background than your business partner likely means that you both have different ways of communicating emotions, feeling emotions, setting goals and what “well-being” looks like. So how do you determine how this affects your partnership? Talk about it! At the end of this article you’ll find some ready-to-use questions that will help each of you explore your own cultural identity and your business partner’s, and how this affects your personality and business ideology. You can even make it a fun evening – pick a restaurant representative of your culture and ask questions over your favorite traditional dish!

Ask each other
  1. Are you from a collectivistic or individualistic cultural background?
  2. A good way to measure the cultural acceptance of showing emotion is through grieving. How does a widow grieve at a funeral in your culture? And a widower?
  3. Have you ever felt conflicting emotions regarding something positive?
  4. How were your parents/guardians emotional expressiveness? Did this affect you?
  5. Pick three words to describe your culture. Is it warm, strict, friendly, cold…?
  6. How did your cultural upbringing affect your business identity? Think deeply about this one!
  7. Think about what emotions are seen as acceptable to show in a certain social situation in your culture. Happiness, sadness, joy, anger, disappointment… The list likely goes on. Now think of the ones that are unacceptable. Compare your answers with your business partner… does anything on their list surprise you? How does your list affect your emotional expressiveness, and most importantly, your communication with your business partner?
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